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Meet Lucas Meachem, the 'rock star of opera' with the Minneapolis address

Lucas Meachem
Photo by Simon Pauly
Lucas Meachem will sing his 50th operatic role, the pious monk Athanaël in Minnesota Opera’s new production of Massenet’s “Thaïs.”

An in-demand, Grammy-winning operatic baritone, North Carolina-born Lucas Meachem performs on the world’s great stages. Later this month he’ll be in Bucharest, then Dresden for “Don Giovanni,” then Prague, Quebec, Krakow and Salzburg. In February he sang “La Bohème” at the Met; in January he was at the Houston Grand Opera in “The Barber of Seville.”

His many performances have won raves, including “rock star of opera” from Opera Pulse.

Before leaving for Romania, Meachem will sing his 50th operatic role, the pious monk Athanaël in Minnesota Opera’s new production of Massenet’s “Thaïs,” which opens Saturday at the Ordway. But this time he won’t have to get on a plane. Since 2016, Meachem has called Minneapolis home.

In conversation earlier this week, he talked about that, his relationship with his wife, Irina (they met here in 2013, when he was in Mill City Summer Opera’s “Barber of Seville” and she was their rehearsal pianist), their rescue dog, Teemo, his co-star, Kelly Kaduce, and why everyone should see “Thaïs.”

MinnPost: You could live anywhere. Why Minneapolis?

Lucas Meachem: My wife is from Plymouth. Her sister lives in Farmington. Her mom lives in St. Paul. When I asked her to marry me, I said, “I want to take you everywhere with me. I want you to come around the world with me. If I’m going to have you with me for 10 months of the year, you get to pick where we live.” She picked Minnesota. We bought our condo in November 2016.

MP: How do you like the city so far?

LM: After getting here, I realized how amazingly convenient everything is and how nice the people are. I grew up in the South and lived in New York City for six years and the Northeast for almost a decade. Minneapolis is a great blend of North and South – the incredible work ethic of the North, and the incredible kindness and hospitality of the South. The best of all worlds.

MP: Tell us about preparing for your role as Athanaël in “Thaïs.”

LM: This is the biggest role I’ve ever sung. Even though it’s called “Thaïs,” not “Athanaël,” I have the biggest role in the entire show. I’m on stage 90 percent of the evening, and it’s all about stamina. I started learning the role almost a year ago, which is a lot of time for me because I’m a pretty quick study. I gave myself a lot of lead time because of its vastness and because I want to do a really good job.

This is the first of four new roles I’ll be singing between now and August. Before we even started rehearsing, I had to begin the role I’m going to sing after this. It’s all about pacing and figuring out what you need to have learned by what date.

I’m fortunate to have a vocal/piano coach in my wife, who travels with me, and without whom I’d have to work a lot harder than I already do. When I’m learning a role, she prepares it first so she can teach it to me. She teaches me the repertoire, plays it for me and sings the other parts. It’s like having a cheat code to a video game.

MP: Are there any issues with separating your work life from your personal life?

LM: There was a learning curve on how to work together. When I’m in work mode, I’m not in loving husband mode. I’m like, “We need to go to [bar] 138 … No, that wasn’t good … I need to start from here … No, you need to start there!” And I don’t say, “Sweetheart, would you mind?” I had to learn not to be so gruff, and she had to learn that my gruffness is just eagerness, or frustration with myself.

The great thing, obviously, is that she can be with me. In 2017, we spent maybe five nights apart, which is a dream come true for me. Where I’m at in my career allows for us to be able to do that. But I also didn’t get married until I was almost 40 years old, and there’s a lot of stuff I’ve intentionally given up for this career. Also, I had to meet the right person, of course. Timing is everything when it comes to almost every decision in an opera singer’s career.

MP: You’ve had some luck along the way. Growing up in rural North Carolina, you had teachers who encouraged you. You got your big break in the States after soprano Susan Graham heard you sing karaoke in a bar in Paris.

LM: There’s a quote that says, “I’m a believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the better luck I have.” A lot of opportunities have come my way, but a lot of opportunities come lots of people’s ways. When those opportunities come, you have to be ready. You can’t be surprised by them. You have to be willing to switch paths and jump on any train that comes your way. My career is littered with moments like that. I chose the path that gave me upward mobility, rather than the easier path. It always worked out better.

I was asked once to sing “Eugene Onegin” at the San Francisco Opera on two hours’ notice. I was sitting at dinner and they called me and I said, “This is awesome, guys. I can’t wait to do it!”

A costume rendering for Lucas Meachem's character Athanaël.
Lorenzo Cutùli
A costume rendering for Lucas Meachem's character Athanaël.

MP: Your co-star in “Thaïs,” soprano Kelly Kaduce, did that a couple years back with Minnesota Opera’s “Tosca.” The original soprano dropped out at the last minute and she stepped in.

LM: Kelly jumped into “Tosca” here? She’s a juxtaposition of sweet Minnesota mom who sits in the corner and knits when she’s not singing, and then fearsome diva up on the stage crushing it, knocking it out of the park with her amazing voice. She’s the best of all worlds as a colleague and a person. It’s great to work with somebody like that. Also, she’s a great actress. To be able to bounce our energies off of each other is really wonderful.

MP: Do you have any advice for someone who’s seeing “Thaïs” for the first time? It’s a long one. Can you give us a way in?

LM: It’s got one of the most beautiful pieces of classical music in existence, the “Meditation.” You can hear it three times throughout the course of the evening. The drama is very high, and it’s high-stakes. It’s a battle of love over a stingy belief system. It’s a battle between two titans of the operatic world, and waiting to see which will win in the end. One gets salvation, and the other gets ruined by the experience. To see that path and that journey is a great night of music.

MP: Talk about playing your character, the monk Athanaël.

LM: He’s a religious extremist, but that doesn’t mean he has no likable qualities. Like any nutcase, he feels like he’s doing the best he can, and he’s doing what’s right. Unfortunately, he ends up being hypocritical in his stances, because he drops everything for the love of a woman. He can’t contain himself. I get that on a human level – this struggle everyone has, because everyone’s believed in something and had their heart broken.

The biggest part for me, other than singing the beast of the role, is the arc of the entire evening. I can’t be at my most dramatic until act three, but I also have to bring people along my journey. So I’m finding that balance between a subtle, confident religious man and a wild creature who’s lost everything he believed in and is basically sort of drowning in this new belief system he’s adopted. To see that juxtaposition throughout the opera is the height of drama. It’s a difficult thing to portray, and finding my arc is probably the most difficult thing besides singing it.

MP: You’re all over the internet and social media. You’re on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, you have a blog, you have a YouTube channel and a really fun and interesting vlog.

LM: I have to give credit to my wife. She’s my social media guru. I used to think that the best singers get the best jobs because they’re the best. I thought, “If I sing well and just keep doing it, then I’ll win opera.” But that’s not the way the world works. She showed me a new way and a new path, and now we’ve become these social-media-savvy people. She’s the one who makes the videos. We come up with the ideas together, and she shoots and edits them.

MP: Your dog, Teemo, is an internet star.

LM: I know! We just put up some photos on Instagram. He’s a rescue dog in the most rescue-y sense of the word. We literally found him on the streets of San Francisco at 2 a.m., coming back from a party in Berkeley. There he was, in the middle of the street, and he weighed 13 pounds at the time. We picked him up and ended up adopting him, and now he weighs 21 pounds. He’s an awesome guy and spoiled rotten.

Minnesota Opera’s production of “Thaïs” opens Saturday at the Ordway for five performances. Andrea Cigni is director; Lorenzo Cutuli designed the sets and costumes. (This is the same team that brought us 2016’s splendid “Tosca,” where soprano Kelly Kaduce stepped in for Csilla Boross.) Run time is 3 hours 11 minutes, including two intermissions. FMI and tickets ($22.50-220). Best seats and prices are Tuesday, May 15. Closes May 20.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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