Guest Blog — Jonathan Burton

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The journey in becoming an artists is very complex. One major component of this journey is the influence of a mentor, some one who inspires, informs and instills confidence. Jonathan Burton, who portrays Dick Johnson in our production of THE GIRL OF THE GOLDEN WEST, shares with us his thoughts about his mentor, Maestro Lorin Maazel.

Joe Mechavich
Calgary, Alberta, Canada

Jonathan Burton

Jonathan Burton

Maestro Maazel was taken from us last summer.  The loss to the music world, and the artistic community on the whole will be deeply felt. Especially to the younger generations of artists, on whom he had begun to focus much of his energy, and influence, in order to send fourth a more perfected generation of artists. He founded the Castleton Festival for just that purpose. To leave his artistic mark the best way he could: through mentoring. He said “I’ve done what I’ve wanted. I’ve been fortunate. These kids need me. I want to take them with me, wherever I go, to the worlds stages, and introduce them. Give them their start.”  

The loss to me is profound. Personally, and artistically. I was a very, very small part of his artistic world, but he was an enormous part of mine.  He had become my “opera dad.”

One of the most important things I learned throughout my time with Maestro Maazel was the value of feeling at ease when performing. In fact, it’s one of the first things he said to me. He said, “I’m always being praised for ‘getting a sound out of an orchestra,’ not at all, I simply try to put them at ease about where we are, and what we’re doing, then they’ll make their own sound. Not mine.”  He was careful in that way. Rarely would he criticize you, or give a specific directive. More often, he’d make a statement about a specific point of view to you, trusting that you would internalize it, and make it your own, and he’d see that effect soon enough.

We are about to perform THE GIRL OF THE GOLDEN WEST this Friday and Sunday. Dick Johnson is a role I’ve done twice before, both with Maestro Maazel, once in Coruña, Spain and once at the Castleton Festival. There’s a moment in my aria in act 3 that is a great example of working with him. Which is to say, remaining present and at ease, and seeing what comes out of our ‘conversation’ between the stage and podium.

The little phrase before the final climactic line is “Minnie, of my whole life, the only flower.” That phrase is written simply, and ends on two short notes. Then, a chord, and then the big final line. One day, I was particularly emotive on that line, and was worried I’d gone too far outside the score to suit him. I saw his hands come up and widen to pull out those last two notes like long strings of taffy, and hush me and the orchestra into a whisper at their end. Then, in the lingering silence, he rolled that chord in from the orchestra in a way that, I swear to you, sounded like a sunrise across a wheat field, and we wound up slowly together into the final blasts. Its very hard for me to do it any other way now. With him there were endless possibilities because we were at ease. He was there, present with us, and if we remained present with him, well…that’s when the magic happened.