John Bellemer was more than 15 years into a fulfilling operatic career and reaping the rewards. Opportunities for roles and concerts were abundant. He was living in New York, happily married to a mezzo-soprano he had met during his first residency.
Over an eight-week period in the fall of 2011, the tenor had fielded seven job opportunities for the following season and turned down six of them. The seventh, a role in Der Vampyr with Opera Boston, then Boston’s second largest company, was the one Bellemer chose. While the frustration of having to turn down what would have amounted to a great season had the contracts been spread out over the year, the role in Der Vampyr, an infrequently produced opera from the 1820s, promised something different and new.
Then he got the news that Opera Boston was closing its doors. Bellemer couldn’t stop thinking about the jobs he had passed up.
“It was the worst-case scenario,” Bellemer said. “I went from having the potential of seven jobs to having none.”
He called British director, Stephen Medcalf, with whom he had worked many times and who had wanted him for one of the roles Bellemer had turned down: Sali in Delius’ A Village Romeo and Juliet, a production in which he had performed with Teatro Lirico di Cagliari and which was to be remounted at the Wexford Festival Opera. The role was still available.
When the show opened, a reviewer praised his color and precision, adding, “His is a technique that leaves nothing to chance, finishing and finessing each phrase with great attention.”
The close call gave Bellemer one more reason to stay alert, even in the best of times.
The son of a Navy meteorologist, he learned to adapt early. “I think the traveling that I do in my career – going somewhere for a short amount of time, making friends, but being able to leave them, and then going somewhere else – being in a military family helped set me up to be able to do that,” he said.
Whether he intended to or not, Bellemer’s father introduced him to opera. Whenever Luciano Pavarotti was singing, he would bring his son over to the television and say, “Listen to this guy.” “He wasn’t an opera fan” John said, “but he knew he was hearing something special. It was the only time I could stay up past my bedtime.”
Bellemer won state and regional vocal contests but didn’t see those wins as the beginning of a career path. If anything, the fact that he enjoyed singing meant he should not pursue it professionally.
“In high school, while considering my future, I didn’t realize yet that you could have a career doing something so fulfilling.”
He entered James Madison University on a pre-med track, intending to study dentistry. A semester later he had changed his major to music, thanks in part to the influence of Dr. John Little, a voice teacher who instilled a love for opera and inspired him to pursue it as a career.
A three-year stint as a resident artist at Opera San Jose brought him in contact with guest artist Sarah Blaze, a mezzo soprano. Cast opposite each other in Eugene Onegin they began dating.
“We’ve been together ever since,” Bellemer said.
The couple married in 1999. Blaze would move toward musical theater and cabaret while Bellemer stayed with opera, concert appearances, and recitals. Over time, they decided to use their similar backgrounds in teaching and training to further each other’s careers.
“We decided early on not to let egos prevent us from learning from each other and that we could push each other to be the absolute best we could be,” Bellemer said. “We made it so that we became both biggest fan and harshest critic for one another.”
He went on to sing in dozens of major opera houses across North America and Europe, showing dramatic range in the title role of Faust; the Duke in Rigoletto or Peter Quint in The Turn of the Screw and as the tenor soloist in the Verdi Requiem or Janáček’s Mša Glagolskaja.
He even played an opera singer in the 2012 film, Lincoln, performing a scene from Faust. Upon meeting Bellemer, director Steven Spielberg expressed his enthusiasm to be working with him.
“I don’t know that I said that much,” Bellemer said. “I was just standing there in awe as teams from costume and make-up surrounded me, making final touches before the scene was shot.”
Bellemer also tells a story about a role he didn’t take. About 15 years ago he was playing Tamino in the Teatro Lirico di Cagliari’s Die Zauberflöte when he was asked if he was available for their upcoming production of Aïda. He would play Radames, the warrior-lover whose “Celeste Aida” aria sets the tone for the show, in this case with Zubin Mehta conducting an all-star cast.
Bellemer knew it would have been the opportunity of a lifetime, with more money and exposure than he had ever had. He turned it down.
“The role was too big for me at that time,” he said. “I was a lyric tenor very happy with the roles I was singing but not yet ready to delve into the meatier roles of the repertoire.”
The company doubled its proposed payment, then doubled it again before Bellemer walked away.
“It was a really hard thing to do,” he said, “but I know my limits. That’s one thing that was instilled in me from early on: know your own limitations as a young singer.”
Like a grandmaster analyzing a chessboard, he has never stopped analyzing his best moves. The answers change over time, as has the maturation of his voice, opening up a new realm of possibilities. “Besides,” he said, “there is such a thing as being too careful.”
“You have to go out there and try things every now and again. And I think that’s the stage where I am right now. It’s looking and saying, ‘Okay, there are some roles out there that I’d really like to sink my teeth into that I’ve been avoiding because of my age and my type. But maybe it’s time to take a look at those now.'”
His bucket list includes Cavaradossi, the ill-fated artist who loved Tosca, and the title role in Werther, considered one of the most evocative roles in French opera.
“I was offered a Werther recently and I couldn’t take it because I was already booked,” he said. “Those are both roles that I think would suit me really well at this point in time in my development.”
“I’d also like to try a few more of the Verdi roles,” he added, “I’ve always admired that repertoire and I think his writing for the tenor falls into my strengths as a singer.”
In a world packed with preparation and travel, rehearsals, and performance, it is important to have down time that really is relaxing. Bellemer spends his in active ways. He’s taught himself craft brewing, more than 15 types so far, and keeps a couple of kegs on tap to share with friends.
He and Sarah also enjoy bicycling, finding hidden rural pockets on their way out of Brooklyn or taking in the Atlantic coast on the Rockaway Peninsula. After 50 miles or more they head home, where Ballerina and Bandit, their Parson Russell terriers, are waiting.
On the heels of his 20th wedding anniversary, Bellemer has been asked his and Sarah’s “secret” for staying happily married. Sometimes, he believes, a little distance actually helps.
“We’re on the road at different times,” he said, “and we’ve had the opportunity to really miss one another. We try to take advantage of the more exotic cities we’ve performed in and sometimes have been able to make a vacation out of it. One comes and visits the other and stays for a week after the show is over. It’s become a really great way to see the world and be together, yet really appreciate the distance, and the relationship through the distance. And I think that’s been our secret, if we have one.”
— Andrew Meacham