Longtime Annapolis sailor Jason Stearns sailed into his debut role as that most famous sailor - Richard Wagner's The Flying Dutchman - at the prestigious summer opera festival in Savonlinna, Finland, last month.
Back home, the veteran opera singer recounted the rigors of performing in the Olavinlinna Castle, a 15th-century fortress.
"You can imagine my surprise when I was shown how I was to make my first entrance to the stage. I had to climb up a very high ladder in the back of the castle - maybe 15 feet high - and then crawl through one of those cannon holes, usually in pouring rain, barely big enough to fit through. And then once in this small rough room, I had to climb another very steep and high ladder to another room, and then make my way down a cave-like passageway to the stage," Stearns said.
"My exit after the first act was all this in reverse," he said, recalling one performance in the rain when a sea gull flew onstage to greet him at his entrance. Stearns said he accomplished this backstage feat grateful that he "was in pretty good shape to be able to deal with this obstacle course while wearing a big, heavy leather costume, high boots and cape."
Now Stearns is working with his wife Suzanne to update their recently purchased home in Annapolis' Wild Rose Shores community, before he sings parts in Chicago and New York.
Washington-born Stearns said his solo singing career began at age 14 when, after learning to play the accordion, his chorus teacher asked him to listen to a recording of the Broadway musical Annie Get Your Gun to see if he'd like to try out for a part. He landed the leading role of Frank in a school production.
After singing in the U.S. Army Chorus more than three decades ago, Stearns worked in Las Vegas as a principal singer at the Stardust Hotel before performing with the Metropolitan Opera chorus.
He said he viewed singing in different choruses and his Las Vegas gigs as good preparation for opera.
"Early in my career, I was, for three years, the leading singer-dancer in the famous Lido de Paris revue at the Stardust Hotel," he said. "Stage work is stage work and stamina is part of it. Over the course of those three years I sang and danced 15 shows a week - each 1 hour and 45 minutes in Sin City only to earn in Finland credit as 'The Las Vegas Dutchman' - how many Flying Dutchmen can claim such a dubious credit?"
Following his highly praised July 2005 Rigoletto at Summer Opera Theater in Washington, Stearns' career surged nationally at the Los Angeles Opera. There he sang as Starek in Janacek's Jenufa and covered Kurwenal in Tristan and Isolde. He also sang in two one-act operas written by Holocaust victims, The Broken Jug and The Dwarf.
In July 2007 Summer Opera presented Tosca with Stearns singing the part of the villainous Baron Scarpia. Sun critic Tim Smith wrote at the time that Stearns had "a strapping baritone you are likely to be hearing a lot more of in the future," and that he "possesses a vocal instrument of uncommon presence - a discernible tinge of star quality."
A year later, Stearns has sung an acclaimed performance of a major role abroad.
Stearns describes the stage in Finland as "huge - 35 meters across, almost 120 feet, and constructed in the courtyard of the castle surrounded by extremely high stone walls that make up the building. The atmosphere this creates couldn't be more wonderful. The audience at capacity of 2,225 people is treated to this broad, sweeping and towering stage vista."
After his opening-night performance, Stearns was invited to join a group from the Baltimore Opera headed by General Director Michael Harrison. Stearns says his agent was on hand for the series of performances and was subsequently approached by several companies whose contracts are now in the works.
Prior to Savonlinna, Stearns had completed contract arrangements for singing Tonio in Pagliacci at the Lyric Opera in Chicago and at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, where he will sing the pivotal role of Monterone in five performances of Rigoletto starting in April 2009.
Plans are now under way for his fans and friends from Annapolis Opera and Anne Arundel Community College to travel to New York for his Met debut. They include Douglas Byerly, AACC's recently appointed chairman of performing arts.
"Jason is one of my principal voice teachers and a great example of the teaching artist," Byerly said. "He works with some of the greatest opera companies and when he comes home to Annapolis, he is always willing to make time to work with his students - myself included."
Stearns' other future engagements will include the title role of Rigoletto at Toledo Opera in Ohio and Jack Rance in La Fanciulla del West at the Oslo Opera House in Norway.
Felix Rosario, an Annapolis Opera volunteer and board member, said, "It's wonderful that Jason never forgets us home folks at Annapolis Opera."