Portsmouth Singer Making a Name for Himself on Opera Stage
Hailed by Opera News Magazine as “an engaging all-around singer with a powerful, full bodied sound,” young opera tenor Jonathan Burton is a rising talent whose career is taking off in leaps and bounds. The Portsmouth, Ohio, native, who has performed widely for regional American opera companies and others, is capturing enthusiastic applause and reviews wherever he appears.
One of Burton’s early influences in music was his cousin Tim Shepherd, who lived with his family for a while, worked at the Record Shop downtown and later established his own business, Shepherd’s Soundworks. Tim was always playing and writing music, Burton said. At age eight, Burton began playing guitar and by the time he was 13, he was giving lessons at Childers’ Music Store.
During high school, he played guitar for the Portsmouth High School show choir, sang with rock bands and grew serious about playing classical guitar. In 1993, he auditioned for the school musical, a decision that was to have major impact on his future. His mother, Ruth Ann, suggested he might want to take singing lessons from Dr. Stanley Workman, an accomplished vocal music instructor who had just returned to Portsmouth.
“I recognized immediately that he had an exceptional voice,” said Workman. “His background was in singing with rock bands, but I could tell definitely that his sound was above average.”
In Jonathan’s first lesson, Dr. Workman advised his new student that he should sing opera, initiating the first step in a new musical direction. As he continued singing lessons with Workman throughout high school, Burton’s interest in classical guitar waned.
“It was about style,” said Burton. “It didn’t speak to me the same as singing.”
After graduating from high school in 1994, Burton took a year off from further schooling, but studied with Workman every day.
“I was very lucky that we had similar voice types,” Burton explained. “I had someone to model after. Stan took me under his wing and was a very strong influence. I owe my opera career to him.”
Meanwhile Burton sang in Workman’s choir at Second Presbyterian Church and performed more than 20 leading roles with the Southern Ohio Light Opera. The Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music accepted him immediately after his audition, but the Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey, lured him with a full scholarship. However, Burton found that the Westminster choir program was “too much about choral music” and returned to Ohio for a half-year of study at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. He had gone from studying opera four days a week to two hours a week.
Aware that in the world of professional performing no one checks college degrees, Burton decided to go back to private study with Workman. Few opera jobs exist for the young singers until they are in their 30s, he explained, so in the early 2000s, Burton entered competitions for young artists and took small jobs. In 2007, he was accepted into the Florida Grand Opera Young Artists Program in Miami, and networking opened up opportunities. He traveled to Phoenix where he performed his first role in “Tosca” and began to attract attention. Later, as he auditioned all over New York, Robert Mirshak agreed to be his manager.
A significant point in Burton’s career came when he developed a relationship with Lorin Maazel, one of the top three conductors in the world and resident conductor for the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra. While performing at the Utah Opera Festival in 2012, Burton received a call from Maazel’s staff asking him to fly east to perform in “La Boheme” for the Castleton Festival on the conductor’s farm in rural Virginia. Following that appearance, Maazel took Burton with him to Spain, to Venice to celebrate the reopening of La Fenice Opera House, even to Oman in the Mideast and back to Castleton for more performances. Sadly, Maazel died this past summer at his Virginia farm at age 86.
The past two years have found Burton performing with regional opera companies all over the United States from DeMoines, Iowa, to Tulsa, Oklahoma; Omaha, Nebraska; Shreveport, Louisiana; Princeton and Newark, New Jersey; Sarasota, Florida; Lexington, Kentucky; Dayton, Ohio; Knoxville, Tennessee, and many others.
Portsmouth family and friends often follow Burton in his appearances across the country. Local resident Phyllis Fried, who winters in Florida, first heard Burton several years ago in Sarasota where he was performing the leading tenor role in “Turandot.”
“After hearing him many times in Portsmouth, I was still unprepared for the emotions of seeing this mature performer singing his heart out and acting every inch his role. When he sang ‘Nessum Dorma,’ an aria familiar to many, I wept,” said Fried.
“The couple next to me were veteran opera buffs who attend the season at Lincoln Center as well as the Sarasota season,” she continued. “They said they had never heard it sung as well.”
Last November, Burton performed one of his most important roles as Florestan in Beethoven’s “Fidelio.” It was his first role in German which he hopes will open doors to future Wagner operas. Upcoming performances include roles with the Nashville, Tennesee, Opera; the Sarasota Opera and the Central City Opera in Colorado. A 2017 engagement in Wales will be his first staged opera in Europe, and from there, he hopes to audition for other European opera companies.
“My goal is to be able to perform like the great names in the past,” said Burton. “I want to be able to deliver the music and to get it out to as many people as possible.”
“I have great hopes for Burton to go as far as he can go,” Workman says of his protégé. “He is having a fine career now, singing all around the United States, and he is a world-class tenor.”
Photos Compliments Jonathan Burton