John A. Boulanger


I saw my first opera in 2nd or 3rd grade; it was Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, performed in English translation at the University of Texas at El Paso, in 1966 or 1967. It would be nice to say I was bowled over by it, but I remember only spending a pleasant Sunday afternoon in the theater listening to pretty music, and that I really liked the lighting effects–no doubt the portrayal of dawn on Cio-Cio-San’s last morning at the start of Act III.

Several years after that, my sister received the two-LP set of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar as a birthday gift, and the whole family sat down in the living room to listen to it. I was completely captivated by hearing a story with which I was very familiar told entirely through music. Around the same time, our family regularly watched the Sonny and Cher Variety Show, on which they often produced extended musical skits, with sets and costumes, and usually humorous or melodramatic stories. This added visual elements to my budding interest in storytelling through music. My fate was sealed during my freshman year of high school, when I checked out Maria Callas’s recording of Bizet’s Carmen from the library. It literally changed my life. Since I was already trying out for the plays in high school, adding music to the equation was natural, and the result was: opera obsession!

I was lucky to be stationed in Washington, DC from 1983 to 1988, and pretty quickly decided this was the place for me. During those first years here, in addition to my “day job” in the Air Force, I directed the Catholic choir at the Base Chapel, sang a few roles with small opera companies in the area, starting taking voice lessons again, and in the last year before being transferred, sang in the chorus of The Washington Opera–it wasn’t National until years later. The picture at right is from a 1992 production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tsar’s Bride. My good friend, the late Paul Edson, and I are pictured in our sumptuous costumes. Mine weighed 25 pounds.

To make a long story short, after a couple of years away, I separated from the Air Force and moved back to the DC area in hopes of doing more singing than I had the opportunity to do while on active duty. (I did audition for the Air Force Singing Sergeants, but at a time when they didn’t have a baritone position open; that’s a story for a blogpost.)

In the eighth grade, I received a cassette recorder for Christmas and became obsessed with recording plays, including a greatly shortened version of Hamlet that appeared in the weekly Scholastic magazine.

Scholastic also published a short dramatized version of “The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone,” a Sherlock Holmes story, which my sister and I recorded, playing the different parts and trying not to laugh at what must have been our horrible British accents. We included music cues, since the plot hinged on a phonograph recording of Holmes’ violin playing fooling the criminal at a crucial point in the plot. [Un]Fortunately the cassette tape is lost to posterity. My interest in voice over work would have to wait–a few decades.

As a vocal performance major at the University of Texas at Austin, I prepared for what I thought would soon be my career as a professional opera singer, not only taking voice lessons and studying music theory and history, but also learning at least some basic Italian, French, and German. Pragmatism intervened and I found myself toward the end of my college years looking for a way to feed myself. This was way back in 1982, when there weren’t nearly as many young artist programs at all the regional opera companies. To be honest, there weren’t nearly as many opera companies in the United States as there are now. This was a time when American singers still went to Germany to start careers; several friends of mine took that route and had great success in Europe.

Taking a different route, I enlisted in the United States Air Force.

Back in the DC area I accepted a position in the choir of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the large Catholic church in NE Washington, and was soon singing in the Washington Opera chorus again. Shortly after I accepted a full time IT position at the Supreme Court of the United States; the black & white photo above is from my second year there, circa 1993. The Shrine, WNO, and the Court would become major parts of my life for years to come. I sang with Dr. Leo Nestor at the Basilica for six years, and also with The American Repertory Singers. My career at The Washington [National] Opera would go on to include 400 performances in about 45 operas, and I worked at the Supreme Court for almost twenty-five years.