British Tenor Adam Smith Deconstructs Pinkerton for San Diego Opera’s ‘Madama Butterfly’

British tenor Adam Smith will be featured in the principal role of Lieutenant Pinkerton in San Diego Opera’s upcoming production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. In an interview earlier this month, Smith explained how he ended up onstage singing opera, rather than playing in the pit, since he started his musical studies on the violin at age 4.

Adam Smith [photo (c.) Nikos Kokkas]

“I was always singing, from when I was very young, but it really only took over fully when I left school. I sang a lot of musical theater up to that point, so I was already very interested in the acting side of performance as well,” he said. “It was my mother who suggested I train classically, then decide how I wanted to proceed after that.”

Smith took his mother’s advice and enrolled at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, U.K., where he quickly fell in love with opera. “I understood early on that I had a romantic style voice, which suited the music similar to that which I had been playing on the violin, and since I have played in many orchestras in my life as a violinist, I also appreciate continuing to be a part of making music with an orchestra — albeit in a different way!” Dissatisfied with the approach most contemporary voice teachers espoused, Smith decided he wanted to sound like the great Italian tenors of the early twentieth century, so he essentially charted his own course of vocal study.

“The old Italian style is extremely accessible nowadays from both recordings and books,” he explained. “It’s much more difficult, however, to find teachers that teach this style. That is why I have not had a vocal teacher for close to 10 years. I have learned the most from the singers such as Franco Corelli, simply by listening to the way they sing and trying to figure out what they do.

“Everyone has their own nature, things they do naturally without thinking about it. For me, the most important aspect was learning about my physiology and how it affects the way I sing. I learned more about the relationship between how I am built, and what I need to focus on for the voice to work efficiently.”

The role of Pinkerton is relatively new for Smith: “I sang my first Pinkerton in Cincinnati in 2023–a marvelous new production by Matthew Ozawa. Actually, that production was revolutionary in some ways because it is the first time that Pinkerton was on stage for the whole opera, including act two. It was a specific idea that worked extremely well, and it helped me understand all the emotions of the opera, many of which are actually caused by Pinkerton himself in the story.”

Smith takes issue with the common perception of Pinkerton as nothing more than a callous American who takes advantage of an innocent young woman.

“If we want to judge Pinkerton, we have to accept the context in which the opera was written. He is an early 1900’s naval officer on temporary assignment in Japan, when America was essentially occupying parts of Japan. He’s told the custom is to marry a Geisha, but he’s very young and naive. He doesn’t seem to fully understand what he is getting himself into until later in the duet with Cio-Cio-San when, I believe, he genuinely falls in love with her. He has to leave Nagasaki because that is what happens when you’re on temporary assignment. Furthermore, at that time he couldn’t exactly grab an American Airlines flight back to Nagasaki the next week. He had a duty to the Navy.

“I have thought a lot about this character, and these are just some of the thoughts I have about it. Ultimately, I believe it is more interesting for the audience to portray a more complex human–including his flaws–rather than a one dimensional ‘bad guy.’ He doesn’t always make the best or right choices, but I don’t think that makes him inherently bad. Making this choice as an actor allows me to not only portray a more interesting character on stage, but also makes more sense musically. I would venture to guess that Puccini didn’t see him as just a ‘bad guy,’ or he would not have written such beautiful music for him!”

The Italian school of opera called verismo, of which Puccini was the greatest representative, is the type of opera Smith favors at this stage in his career. While in the mid-20th century, verismo pretty much defined public’s view of opera in general, in more recent decades the perception of the operatic canon now revolves around Verdi, Wagner and even contemporary opera. I asked Smith if he had an explanation of this change of perception.

“I can only offer my opinion on this as I don’t fully know why this happened. I don’t believe that we have as many true verismo voices nowadays. Furthermore, an opera singer’s schedule is very different: there are more performances, more travel, and less recovery time in between productions. Also, verismo is a more declamatory form of singing, which tends to be more static in order for the singer to be able to support the sound properly. In the director’s world that we are in, I think it could be less interesting for them to create something in a verismo opera compared to the operas of Wagner and Verdi.”

The San Diego Opera production of ‘Madama Butterfly” will be presented April 26 & 28, 2024, in the San Diego Civic Theatre in downtown San Diego.


  1. Malou Rogers on April 24, 2024 at 9:36 am

    Wonderful, insightful interview – Thanks.

  2. Jef Olson on April 29, 2024 at 4:18 pm

    Saw him in Butterfly yesterday. A notable afternoon because u have rarely heard that kind of ovation. Every audience member on their feet at the final chord! Like a rock concert. Mr Smith has it all: he is tall , good looking with a bright, exciting voice. He has everything but large opera house presence. I suspect he is a very good naturalistic actor, which looks like he is doing nothing in the opera house. But that can change and he is at the age when his voice is going to grow in size exponentially. At present, though the timbre is bright and decidedly Italian, it’s not yet terribly individual or distinctive. That too may develop. The next 5-10 years will tell whether he becomes a leading tenor star ( I hope) or goes the way of so many tenors, going too heavy too soon. He is smart so fingers are crossed. Definitely one to watch.

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