Divas & Scholars Interview
Jesus Leon: the Mexican tenor in Vienna. Great interview with Jesus.
Talked to him about lockdown in Austria, the effect of the pandemic on his career and how he is going ahead with his Vienna Opera Festival this month with all tickets booked within hours of its launch. Let me know if you’d like to join the Divas & Scholars mailing list and receive the interview.
My trip to Mexico at the end of last year happened to coincide with Jesus Leon’s debut as Hoffmann in Les Contes d’Hoffman at the Palacio Bellas Artes theatre in Mexico City. Jesus showed me around the beautiful opera house and invited me to watch a rehearsal. At the end of my holiday I returned to Mexico City to see the show. He was excellent, and I had a fun evening with the cast after the performance. Jesus is an ebullient personality, full of warmth and humour. But alongside the joie de vivre is a serious and ambitious musician, a talented tenor with spectacular top notes, a pianist and guitarist, a mentor to young singers and the busy founder of the new Vienna Opera Festival showcasing emerging singers. When we last spoke in Mexico he told me he felt he was at the peak of his vocal technique, so I wondered how he had reacted to this enforced break in his career.
Jesus spoke with me from his home in Vienna where he has been since everything closed down. I enjoyed reminiscing with him about one of my favourite cities. Vienna was where I also lived with my family in the late 90s. He lives alone in a traditional Viennese apartment with high ceilings and parquet floors in the 3rd District close to the Belvedere Palace. He has a Yamaha C5 Grand Piano and a recording studio. “The walls are thick so I’ve never had any complaints from neighbours!” He used to live in London but says that “ in Vienna rent is much less expensive, although taxes are a bit higher in Austria”. He was singing in Moscow and Belgorod in the last days of February but luckily made it back before Austria closed its borders. He told me it took him a few days to really take on board the full implications of the shutdown, as one by one he learnt of the cancellations of all his contracts. He told me “This is the first time in my adult life that I have not been on the move, travelling between engagements, preparing for the next job”.
Many of his colleagues have been singing online during the lockdown but he preferred not to. “Life stopped in a way and I found initially I just wanted to use some of the time to be quiet, to meditate and reflect on my life. I enjoyed the silence”. He thought about how he had made many sacrifices to follow this career. He doesn’t see much of his family in Mexico and is alone much of the time in foreign places. He has looked at the period as a time for introspection and self-assessment: “I have viewed it as an opportunity and not a tragedy for me” he says. However, his family have suffered two horrible losses to the virus – two of his cousins, men in their early 40s who had appeared to be healthy before. “Living abroad, their passing seems like a dream, unreal. But I know if I go back to Mexico it will hit me that I won’t see them again…”.
So how does he spend his days? He exercises at home and likes to walk around the parks of Vienna and along the Danube. He has had time to enjoy playing his guitar. He plays the piano everyday and later in lockdown has been singing through several of his roles to retain his stamina and keep his voice in good shape: all of Romeo and all of Hoffmann. He’s been learning some more music too. He tells me “the voice is always there but it has to be activated, like removing dust.” He’s made some videos of himself performing songs at the piano and has enjoyed taking photos of the city. He’s been busy creating websites for colleagues. He is cooking and eating more healthily than usual and has lost eight kilos. He thinks that opera singers gain weight when they travel away from home. They eat junk food late after performances because the better restaurants are all closed when they finish work. In Vienna he appreciates the high quality organic local produce.
He was due to rehearse with the Liverpool Philharmonic in April for a recording they were making together; he is still hoping to make his second Bel Canto CD, this time with some French repertoire. And he was coming to London for two concert series (14 concerts in all) with the Royal Philharmonic booked a year and a half ago at the Royal Albert Hall which have now been postponed till November or March 2021. It was a recital of the most popular tenor arias. He only had one day’s notice in March before the first of these concerts in London was cancelled. Later that day it was announced that ALL the concerts were cancelled. He was supposed to sing La Traviata in LA. A concert at the Vienna Concert House was cancelled. His agent called to say his performance of Don Pasquale in Italy was cancelled in October. He had flights booked for much of the year. There isn’t much hope for next season at the moment… He was invited to sing Hoffmann at the Komische Opera Berlin but the contract was unsigned and it is now uncertain whether this will ever happen.
How has Austria dealt with the pandemic? He tells me that Austria has been very organised and closed the borders very quickly. It has been strict, encouraging people to stay at home, enforcing the wearing of masks and even providing them for shoppers outside supermarkets. Cases have been relatively low. It relaxed restrictions for a while but within two weeks infection rates were going up so it closed borders again. He compares it with Mexico where people are maybe being less careful and are having a very bad time.
I asked him about the Vienna Opera Festival he organises. Jesus says he cannot live without music, especially opera so although nothing else has been happening in Vienna’s usually very active music scene, Jesus and his team have decided to go ahead with this Wiener Festspiele. They are now working on a concert production of Don Giovanni with 16 emerging singers from around the world. It has been easier for the Central Europeans to come, so many of the singers now involved are from these neighbouring countries. The festival will take place this month, socially distanced of course and with much reduced audience capacity in three beautiful locations. At The Mozarthaus it will be with piano accompaniment, at Palais Eschenbach with the Vienna Sinfonia under the baton of conductor Toby Purser, and finally an open air concert at the Belvedere Palace. Jesus says it will be odd for singers to be one metre from each other on stage especially in the ensembles, but they will make it work. During rehearsals singers wear visors. Tickets are free and were sold out within a few hours of the first announcement. Will Jesus sing during this celebration of young artists? Yes, he tells me, but only one piece in the final concert. He is grateful to Jose Iturbi foundation for their support.
One wonders how singers are surviving financially at this time and I asked Jesus if he was managing. He has an impressive number of strings to his bow it turns out. When he was at the Boston Opera Institute in 2005/6 he became interested in coding. So during long days of rehearsals at times when he wasn’t required to sing he taught himself some of the computer languages and started building websites for friends and foundations. This now provides him with a regular income stream. He also has a recording studio and he offers a service to performers who send him their recordings which he edits and cleans up to make a professional finished product. He also gives voice lessons and groups of students have come to him from all over the world. At the moment “none of them have much money” so he has been teaching at a discounted rate. It’s a passion, he enjoys working with young singers. “Sadly the Koreans aren’t coming this year, and they’re amazing singers.” The pandemic is affecting the entire industry. One of the agents he knows confided that she would have to find another job if she was to be able to look after her family.
I asked him how he felt the pandemic would affect his career: “I fear that fees are going to be lower and productions may have to be cheaper”. Sponsors might be more difficult to find. Many singers have been performing free of charge online over the past few months. But aside from the financial implications, he thinks there could be an upside to this in that there might be more honesty and fairness in the business from now on. He also said that nowadays singers are treated as workers not artists. He contrasts this with the era of Pavarotti, when the singer called the shots.
Jesus returns to his previous theme of how the lockdown has given him pause for reflection. He studied for so long and his career has been his priority, he’s been driven by his ambition and passion for performing and traveling. But now in his forties he finds he misses family and he wants to devote more time to the other important elements in his life. He tells me he hopes to be a better human being, less self-centred, more humble and to rectify any mistakes he might have made along the way.
Jesus Leon made this video of a charming Wienerlied at home in Vienna.
Wien, Wien nur du allein.