John Tibbetts hadn’t been to Hawaii before. But it felt as if he’d crisscrossed the country a few dozen times and maybe he had since grad school. The scenery was fantastic, rugged cliffs spilling into the Pacific in Kamuela, Hawaii, site of the Hawaii Performing Arts Festival where he opens tonight as Escamillo in The Tragedy of Carmen, Peter Brook’s 90-minute adaptation of Bizet’s opera. Tibbetts, a baritone, had just crossed the Pacific from Los Angeles, still heady from a fellowship in SongFest, at the Colburn School.
A highlight, singing for legendary conductor James Conlon in a master class, also made him laugh, if only because in his eagerness he had forgotten the conductor’s famous preference: sing and don’t move too much during master classes.
“He said, ‘I would prefer you not act too much,’” Tibbetts said. “What impressed me was his ear. He could hear when tones needed to ring more, how the vowel could be shaped differently. His class, how he held himself. He has a huge presence.”
Following The Tragedy of Carmen, Tibbetts stays in Hawaii where he will appear mid-month as Harry in Sondheim’s Companywhile also covering Bobby, the lead role.
As it happens, Tibbetts and mezzo-soprano Victoria Isernia, who plays Harry’s wife Sarah, are already in a real-life relationship. In 2017, both had earned callbacks for
Portland Opera auditions in New York.
“And then I saw her, drop-dead gorgeous and in a purple dress,” Tibbetts said. “I thought, ‘I’ll never talk to her.’”
Another singer made the introduction. “It was love at first sight,” Tibbetts said.
The day we spoke was his first day off after 59 straight. If he’s not rehearsing or performing, he’s packing or unpacking a suitcase.
It has been that way since Sept. 11, 2001.
Tibbetts grew up in the South Georgia town of Tifton, the older of two sons of John Tibbetts and Jeannie Scheininger, both Army lieutenant colonels and West Point graduates. The family moved to Washington, D.C., where Tibbetts’ parents took jobs in the Pentagon. Both were in the building when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into it.
“My mom said it was like a bomb went off,” Tibbetts said. “It was intense.”
A fifth-grader at the time, he wasn’t sure what to think.
“I remember the horrified expression on my teacher’s face,” he said. “Like someone had just died. Everyone went home. And then I started getting these calls.”
The military transferred Tibbetts’ father to Heidelberg, Germany, as a plans officer with NATO; his mother to command a battalion in the U.S. Army Signal Corps in Kuwait. He learned that having more than one parent at a time was a luxury; the Army rotated his parents in six-month assignments.
The family returned to Georgia in 2005, in time to win the vocal portion of a state thespian contest. But the unconventional lessons of being able to travel light stayed with him and continued to remain valuable.
“It was a difficult situation,” he said. “But it really prepared me for this kind of career lifestyle of moving constantly because I wasgrowing up.”
When he gets a chance, he enjoys hiking and lifting weights. But you could say Tibbetts likes to challenge himself even at staying still. A recent Facebook photo shows him in street clothes, ankles crossed six inches off the stage way down there. The only thing holding him up are his hands, one of which passes between his knees. Yoga is “a centering thing,” he said.
“You connect to your breath, you connect to your song.”
Languages, he discovered, are a way of connecting with the world. Even after the thespian contest win, a conventionally useful degree seemed like a good idea. He applied to Georgia Tech, intent on studying international affairs and modern languages. He was accepted, but soon changed his mind about the direction of his studies.
At the time, he was in a black box production of The Producers. Tibbetts played Leopold Bloom, the role played by Matthew Broderick in the Broadway musical. He had also been attending the All Saints Episcopal Church a block away, and singing in the choir. He had not really learned to read music until then, but now he was reading and performing the Duruflé and Fauré Requiem, among other pieces that were starting to speak to him.
“And I was sitting in a Chinese class, and I thought to myself, ‘Man, I really think I want to be a musician.’”
“It wasn’t the language,” Tibbetts said. Matter of fact, he got an A-plus on the course. Today, he’s working on his Korean.