This tenor who performs everything from Mozart to Britten didn’t always seem destined for the stage. For starters, he couldn’t match pitch.
Seeing how comfortable classical singer Brian Thorsett '00 is onstage, hearing how his rich tenor inhabits solos in Mozart’s Mass in C Minor or Britten’s War Requiem or, one afternoon in May, Beethoven’s great Ninth Symphony, with the Marin Symphony orchestra and chorus, it’s hard to believe that just a dozen years ago, he was planning to become a math teacher or an insurance actuary.
Thorsett was always intellectually curious, he says, about how music is put together, and he studied piano from a young age. Born in New Jersey and raised in Half Moon Bay, he chose Santa Clara for its good mathematics program and fine piano teachers; he earned degrees in math and piano. He thought he might play for a church choir on weekends. He only took voice lessons to pass a sight-singing exam. “I was good at the theory and history part,” he says, “but putting me onstage was not a good idea.”
Then again, in college, exploring—and making mistakes—is part of the learning process. Teresa McCollough, Thorsett’s piano teacher, and Kathy Ludowise, his voice teacher, were excellent at creating a give-it-a-go atmosphere, so that, in Thorsett’s case, “it always felt fine to make ugly sounds.” They told their students, “Look, no one dies. Maybe the composers will be offended if you sound terrible, but they’re mostly dead.”
“I always use him as an example to my students,” says McCollough. “He didn’t have a voice when he first arrived on campus. He couldn’t match pitch. When someone told me he’d won a big vocal competition, I said, ‘Brian?’”
If he didn’t know how to do something, however, he would learn it. He continued taking voice lessons after graduating. A “mind-numbing” stint in computer-component distribution helped him decide what he really wanted to do; James Schwabacher, the renowned Bay Area music patron, helped him get into the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. He earned a master’s and an artist diploma in voice, then went to Opera Work in Los Angeles.
What spoke to Thorsett more than what used to be called grand opera, however, was concert singing. He got a lot of work, too, in part because “I was always prepared, always on time, always a good colleague.” Recommendations led to gigs that led to slightly bigger roles each year. By 2005, he was singing in 10 to 12 productions a year. Today, Thorsett has more than 100 highly diverse works in his repertoire.
He’s sung everything from Tamino in Mozart’s Magic Flute to Captain Vere in Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd. He’s performed in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, Orff’s Carmina Burana, Berlioz’s L’enfance du Christ, and the requiems of Schumann and Verdi. “He’s quite an amazing tenor, with a big, beautiful voice,” says McCollough. “He has total control over the vocal and technical commands of almost any score he comes in contact with.”
This summer, Thorsett is performing the title role in Rameau’s Pygmalion, with the American Bach Soloists, in San Francisco; in Britten’s Serenade, at the Bear Valley Music Festival, near Fresno; and in the premiere of On the Wings of Love, a song cycle for tenor, clarinet, and piano by British composer Ian Venables, in San Francisco.
Santa Clara students see him more frequently than that; in 2011 he returned to campus as an adjunct lecturer, teaching classes in beginning voice and opera workshop. And he brings to the classroom a sympathy for those to whom things don’t necessarily come easy.
“I think the best teachers in the world are people who struggled at something,” Thorsett says. “I know what it feels like to be naked in front of people: If you screw up, you can’t blame it on your computer crashing. I struggled with singing for a long time before it clicked.”