When we reached baritone Reginald Smith, Jr. over Zoom one recent morning, his voice was a little gravelly—what he called his “morning-after Scarpia voice.”
The evening prior, he’d taken the stage at The Santa Fe Opera to perform as the villain in Tosca, and he was still waking up. “Scarpia is a wonderful role,” he shared, “but it’s dramatically exhausting as well as vocally.”
It was Smith’s first outing as the character, which made for an incredible full-circle moment. The first opera Smith ever saw, as a high school student in Atlanta, was Tosca, in a production starring Donnie Ray Albert as Scarpia. That moment changed his life.
“I didn’t know Black people sang opera, not ones that were alive,” Smith remembers. “I’d heard of Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson, and I knew of Leontyne Price from school. But when I went to see the Atlanta Opera, and I saw this regal, elegant Black man with this enormous, gorgeous voice, it really ignited a fire within me. I said, Wow, maybe I could do this.”
Do this, he absolutely could. Smith would go on to become a Grammy and Emmy award-winning star; he would represent the United States at the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition; and Albert would become his friend and mentor.
Along the way, he would establish a deep and abiding relationship with HGO, training with the company’s Sarah and Ernest Butler Houston Grand Opera Studio, performing with the company more than a dozen times, even falling in love with Houston and settling here.
While in Santa Fe, Smith was preparing to join HGO again this fall, looking forward to performing a comic role, as our Falstaff. Fully awake now and sparkling with charm, he told us more…
Opera Cues: You did Falstaff early in your career, but it’s been a while. Are you using your time in Santa Fe to prepare?
Reginald Smith, Jr.: As I sit here, it’s literally right here next to me. Falstaff is never far away. We have time between performances, which will allow me to go back to my score, do some score study, coach it. It’s great having people like [HGO Principal Coach] Peter Pasztor here in Santa Fe. Being able to work on music together is fantastic.
Blake Denson is here, too; he’s also in this production of Tosca. We have so many Ford and Falstaff scenes that we can work on before we even get to Houston. I’ve seen Blake come up through the ranks, from helping him through undergrad, to times at Rice, to being in the Butler Studio, and now being on the same stage. Sharing the stage with Blake at HGO this fall will be really fun.
OC: Tell us about Falstaff. How do you view this character?
RS: Oh, Falstaff. What a great character. Of course, this adaptation by Boito and Verdi is a conglomeration of other versions of Falstaff from the Shakespeare… so it’s interesting to see how they have adapted this character. He is a nobleman, but by the time we see him in this opera, he’s just sloppy, and he still thinks that he has it and he’s all that, and no one can tell him otherwise.
And that’s what makes it so funny and charming, because I do believe that a bit of Falstaff is still charming. You still fall in love with him, even though you shake your head and say, Oh my God, this guy is a mess. But he still has some rank and some clout.
The thing that I love about Falstaff is that he's so complex. He has moments where he bursts into anger. He has moments where he’s wooing and charming. He has moments where he’s sort of ribbing and trying to get at the other guys, Pistol and Bardolph. He’s just a very complete character. That’s what makes it exciting, and also challenging.
OC: Are you excited to perform the role?
RS: Yes! Most of the time, I play villains and fathers. If I’m not somebody’s dad, I’m somebody’s villain. With Falstaff, I get to be fun and funny!
OC: Tell us about the famous fugue at the end of the opera.
RS: Oh, lordy. (laughs) One of the things that’s really amazing about Giuseppe Verdi is that he was already known as Verdi the composer, the giant, the Italian opera composer… And much like our dearly departed Carlisle Floyd who did Prince of Players, he said, Well, since I’m still around, I guess I’ll write another opera. (laughs) Which is exactly what Mr. Floyd told me, by the way, when I asked him about his inspiration for writing Prince of Players.
The thing that’s so amazing about Falstaff is that it’s a conglomeration of all of Verdi’s geniuses, from dramatic moments to hysterical moments to a 13-voice fugue known as (singing) “Tutto nel mondo é burla. L’uom é nato burlone, burlone, burlone.” And it’s amazing, because every single character has a different line, all the people in the chorus have a different line, and trying to rehearse it individually—sometimes you’re pulling your hair out because it doesn’t make sense. But when you put it all together, it lines up perfectly. And it’s like, how did you even think to come up with such an amazing fugue?
It’s a fantastic moment of musical genius, in addition to bringing the story to a fun and dramatic close. But when you analyze it musically, you think, how did this man come up with this? It’s beautiful. The big finale—the big finale of his writing, even—is this lovely and amazing fugue.
OC: Who encouraged you early on?
RS: I grew up with all types of music, not just traditional Black gospel music, which I did, but jazz and choral music. My mother went to Morris Brown College, which is in the Atlanta University Center of historically Black colleges. I grew up with that sort of Black excellence and musical excellence. I have always been a choral music fan and fanatic. I started choir when I was in second grade, and I had my first solo in the spiritual, “Do, Lord, Remember Me” in front of the whole school.
I was fortunate that when I went to the performing arts high school in Atlanta, DeKalb School of the Arts, I studied with fantastic teachers, and I had people that saw something in me that I didn’t realize was there, that I didn’t see in myself. My goal was always to be a choral music educator. I always sang because I love singing. It never dawned on me, really, that I could have a career performing, not as a way of making a living full-time.
I’m blessed and fortunate that other people convinced me to pursue a career in singing. I went to the University of Kentucky to study vocal performance and choral music education. And I did complete my studies. I did my student teaching in Cologne, Germany. If I hadn’t gotten into opera, I would have been a stellar high school choir teacher.
OC: When you saw that production of Tosca back in high school, would you have ever imagined that one day, you would be playing Scarpia?
RS: No. And I take it as a personal honor and responsibility whenever I get on the stage to show people—all people, but especially young African American students—that it is possible. This is something that you can do. And hopefully one day, I inspire somebody else to join the ranks of crazy opera singers of the world.
Of course, Donnie Ray Albert is no stranger to audiences in Houston, most notably for his portrayal of Porgy that won Houston a Tony Award and a Grammy. But Donnie Ray Albert has done, what, 12 different roles at HGO? Including, most recently, he was the father in Romeo and Juliet.
And I’ve had the opportunity to work with him, to coach different things with him, and to thank him profusely for being a representation because I didn’t know Black people sang opera. I consider it an honor to do this role after being so inspired by Mr. Albert—I don’t know! I can’t call him Donnie Ray to his face! I know he tells me to, but I still can’t do it.
OC: You can see the continuity. Donnie Ray Albert mentored you, and earlier you mentioned supporting Blake Denson.
RS: When you’ve been blessed, I feel that it is your responsibility to be a blessing to others, because that’s the point. When you’ve been given a God-given gift and talent, it’s not for you to sit on. It’s for you to share and to hopefully extend a hand to help others.
OC: Tell us about your time with the Butler Studio.
RS: The majority of what I have gained in terms of career experience and my career sort of skyrocketing is because of my time in the Studio. The opportunities that were afforded to me to work with so many extraordinary artists on stage—conductors, coaches, diction teachers, language specialists—is something that you really don’t get at even the major conservatories and universities. You get a lot of hands-on instruction, and you get a lot of stage time, which is paramount… It really opened my eyes to things that I needed to do and be better at, but also, the vast possibilities of this career. I’m very grateful.
OC: How did you pick Houston as your home base?
RS: I moved to Houston in 2013 when I joined the Studio, and I liked it so much that I decided to stick around. The thing I love about Houston is that it’s a beautiful city. The people are very warm and inviting and friendly. It has a fantastic art scene between the symphony, the ballet, the theaters including the Ensemble Theater, all the musicals that come through, Mercury Baroque—it’s just outrageous. The Houston Master Chorale. All the art museums. And, of course, I am a huge, huge baseball fan. I will be an Atlanta Brave forever and ever, but I do love my Houston Astros. ∎