When in 2016, Ballet in the City Executive Director Jessica Wallis caught a performance by the Boston POPS on PBS at her family’s Christmas Eve celebration, she found herself blown away by the talent of one performer in particular – Justin Hopkins. Impressed, she sent a tweet from the Ballet in the City account to connect with this larger than life force she had heard from the screen, which led to a conversation between the two, which paved the way for a full-blown collaboration across artistic genres. Ballet in the City had the opportunity to chat with Justin recently about his work with the organization, his path through the art world, and the importance of cross-genre collaboration in the arts.
Ballet in the City: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us. To start, tell us about how you got connected with Jessica and Ballet in the City.
Justin Hopkins: Jessica [Wallis] saw my performance with the Boston POPS and reached out, and we found out that we were both going to be in Saratoga Springs at the same time. I was going to be there to do a performance with Opera Saratoga last summer [and Ballet in the City was going to be in Saratoga for their three-day trip]. Prior to Saratoga, she mailed me a pair of pointe shoes to take around with me on my various engagements around the world; she asked me to take pictures with them, mainly in the performance spaces. I found that very interesting, and she and I touched on the idea that you can get hyper-focused on what you’re doing as an individual in your artistic field. Taking the pointe shoes around with me reminded me that there is so much more going on; other people are out there, working and practicing and performing and giving their lives to their art form, often in the same spaces in which I was performing. I would be doing a concert one day at a venue, the next day, there might have been a ballet or a dance performance.
We linked up in Saratoga Springs when Ballet in the City had their trip. Jessica invited me to come speak to a group of participants. That was a wonderful experience, speaking with a group ranging from young children to teenagers and their parents about my journey and, essentially, what it took for me to become a professional artist. We found that so much of that applied in a universal sense, in terms of living and pursuing a life in the arts. I took away a lot of inspiration from the young dancers, as well. Then, Jessica graciously provided me with tickets to the New York City Ballet with their group on the last night of the trip, which was a wonderful culmination for me to have the opportunity to see ballet at its highest level.
You referenced that you spoke to the group in Saratoga Springs about your journey and what it took for you to become a professional in your field. Tell me about that journey.
I started very young; it was about the age of eight that I started performing publicly. I joined the Philadelphia Boys Choir at the age of nine. With them, I had a lot of basic musical training for choral singing. Every year, we did national and international tours, performing with various orchestras and opera companies. From there, in high school, I did a lot of musical theater study and performance in Philadelphia. During that time, as well, I took private piano and voice study; piano study, in particular I wish that I had spent more time in. I let the young dancers know about the importance of meticulous practice at a young age. From then on, I went to Loyola University, where I majored in music with a focus on vocal performance. Directly after college, I did an independent study in Italy. I went to a language school to learn the language, as well as a conservatory. That really was, in terms of opera, a very useful experience. There is an importance of international study, learning international language, and travel; it opens up doors and opportunities. From there, I went on to sing in what are known as the opera circuits’ apprentice programs. That is essentially where young singers make up the ensemble and chorus for opera companies, but also receive small role opportunities and understudy opportunities. From there on, I worked my way up to eventually being hired as a featured performer, and that is essentially where I am now.
Speaking of traveling, Jessica gave you the pointe shoes that got to travel with you and that you photographed at the various locations where you performed. What are some of the noteworthy locations that the pointe shoes were able to travel to with you?
I particularly enjoyed bringing the pointe shoes with me on a tour with the Boston POPS. We did a tour of the Midwest and of Florida. That was super fun because I was in so many locations. One day, we were in Kansas City, and the next day, we were in South Dakota in Sioux Falls. We got to travel to many, many interesting performance spaces that I would have not been in were it not for being on this tour.
That first pair of pointe shoes was presented to Ballet in the City at Saratoga Springs, and a second pair has been given to you for another journey. Are there any plans for where the pointe shoes are going to travel next?
The pointe shoes were just with me here in Philadelphia for my Philly POPS holiday concert series. Next, I plan on bringing them with me to a performance in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and San Antonio, Texas, and then I’m really excited about bringing them with me to Walt Disney Hall during a performance in June.
As for future collaborations with Ballet in the City, there are some ideas in the works for performances with you. What would you like to see come from a collaboration between you and this ballet organization?
I’m super excited about the possibility of this. We are looking to do a collaboration at the University of Michigan in the early fall. It would entail a type of symposium in which a panel would be speaking and taking questions, followed by a performance where dancers would perform while I sang a piece. I know that Beth Morrison and other groups have things happening that are very cool collaborations between dancers and singers; I haven’t had the opportunity to participate yet, and I think Ballet in the City, along with Beth Morrison and some other groups, can really create a whole new genre, and I’m really excited about that.
In a similar vein, why do you believe, as someone who is also in the arts, that it’s so important to have organizations like Ballet in the City, and for them to collaborate across the artistic spectrum?
There are a few different reasons. One, off the top of my head, is that times are tough for arts organizations. It seems like it’s about to get tougher, in terms of – not to get political, but it does affect us – the new tax bill. It is going to hit all of us in the arts hard. That being said, as we see fewer and fewer arts organizations flourishing, our strength will come from these collaborations. I think it could result in bringing new audiences, shared audiences, to our various fields and genres, as well as resources and knowledge.
In my opera career, the most fulfilling productions that I’ve done are where all of the elements come together. A lot of Verdi operas and operas of that time have a ballet written into them, and many, if not most opera companies, just skip that anymore, which is a shame. The best experiences that I’ve had are when the ballet is there, when there is a cross connection of dance and music, singing, and art. A lot of companies are incorporating art in a way that is more visual. When it all comes together, it’s like all of the colors of the spectrum coming together, and it really illuminates the potential possibilities of art.
Switching focus, you had the opportunity in your career to sing for the Dalai Lama and choose the piece that you performed for him. We would love to hear, in your words, what that experience was like.
Yearly, I would go to the Napa Valley area and sing with an old classmate of mine who had formed a nonprofit group to raise money for young humanitarians, those who were forming organizations that were really benefiting society around the world. We would have a benefit concert once a year. One year, one of the audience members was a philanthropist and winery owner who was a friend of the Dalai Lama, and he invited me to come sing before a ceremony that the Dalai Lama presides over once every other year in San Francisco honoring humanitarians around the world. They gave me the choice of song, and I thought about it, and I chose “Old Man River” from Show Boat. I thought that the message would resonate with the Dalai Lama in terms of the Tibetan struggle, as well as the struggle that Kern and Hammerstein were speaking of for a black man during that time period. It did resonate. The character is standing by a river and reflecting on his own life and struggle. Having done some reading on the Dalai Lama before the concert, I realized that, in effect, the character was meditating, so I presented the performance as a man, who is plagued and struggling with racial and socioeconomic struggles, meditates by the Mississippi and longs for the freedom that the river represented. I think the Dalai Lama understood every word, and it was warmly received. It was a great honor.
Is there anything else you’d like to add about your experience in the arts or with Ballet in the City?
To this day, the Philadelphia Boys Choir sings the Waltz of the Snowflakes in The Nutcracker every year when it is performed by The Pennsylvania Ballet. I did that from the age of nine until the age of 14. It’s the only point that Tchaikovsky wrote for singers in that piece. It’s such a lovely moment. Those early experiences I can remember as a young boy, when we’d have to walk backstage and get to the box where we would sing. We would pass all the ballet dancers, from the very young kids on up, and I remember being fascinated and wondering about their journey and what they were doing.
When I think about the happenstance of connecting with Jessica and Ballet in the City, it’s not so much happenstance. It seems as if this is a full circle, coming back to those ballet dancers that I would look at as a child in awe and wonderment.
You can read more about Justin Hopkins on his website, and stay tuned to learn more about his collaborations with Ballet in the City.
-Written by Laurel Wilder Meisel, blogger for Ballet in the City