Alumnus Chris Lysak ‘comes home’ to perform title role in ‘Parsifal’

Canadian tenor and Jacobs School of Music alumnus Chris Lysack brings a vast and unorthodox skillset to his craft. It has served him well.

While at Indiana University, he earned degrees in two distinct passions: piano (D.M.’09) and French literature (Ph.D.‘14). At Jacobs, he studied piano with André Watts and also studied voice with Andreas Poulimenos before completing his vocal studies at Manhattan School of Music.

For nearly 10 years, the “intrepid, individual artist” (Opera Now) has performed as a leading tenor throughout Europe, including at the Theater Bremen, site of his “sensational debut” (Das Opernglas) in the Wagnerian repertoire, as Stolzing in “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg”in 2014.

We caught up with Lysak in between preparations for the title role in Richard Wagner’s epic “Parsifal”—a veritable IU Opera Theater legend—to be performed on the Musical Arts Center stage again November 10, 13, and 16, after a 43-year hiatus. 

What was your first personal experience with “Parsifal”?

It was January 9, 2011. I was 31 years old and had just finished my studies and joined the Opera Studio at the Hamburg State Opera. It was my fifth piece there and my first-ever Wagner role: the Fourth Squire in “Parsifal.”

What was your first professional experience with “Parsifal”?

Same as above, although my first experience with the title role was in 2016 at the Theater Bremen.

Were you surprised to “get the call” from IU Jacobs Opera Theater about singing the lead in this production?

I’m still surprised! And still pinching myself to make sure it’s real. Not only is this “getting to come home,” it’s “getting to come home for this piece.”

This piece with its storied traditions and foundational role in the early development of the school; this piece with the parade of opera titans who have performed it in Bloomington over the years; this piece with some of the most perfectly crafted moments in all of Wagner and, indeed, all of opera.

I am both extremely honored and more than a little cowed by the opportunity.

How does it feel to come back to your alma mater, and how long has it been?

It’s glorious. I lived here for 12 years, and it was home during all of those formative youthful moments—both the ups and the downs.

After leaving in 2008, I visited a handful of times, but I haven’t been back since 2014, when I defended my dissertation in French literature and finally ended the project I’d started as a wide-eyed 17-year-old in 1996.

What’s it like to be reunited with Chris Alexander, who directed your debut role at IU, in “The Tales of Hoffmann” in 2008, and is directing this production?

It’s great to see Chris again for the first time in 11 years. Strangely, we’ve both done work at some of the same houses in Germany but haven’t managed to cross paths. I really enjoy the emphasis he places on character in his storytelling.

We were able to build a great arc for the complex character of Hoffmann, and I can see him weaving in the same kinds of threads with Parsifal, a role that all too often risks flirting with archetype and caricature.

What role did Jacobs play in preparing you for your current career?

Nearly every role! As I mentioned, I was here for a very long time, and got altogether too many degrees in too many fields.

But it was the myriad and seemingly unending opportunities provided by both the Jacobs School and the broader university setting that allowed me first to pursue my many divergent interests separately and, later, to find the right sphere to unite them.

Mentors such as André Watts first taught me how to think and how to make art, and then patiently supported me in changing fields when I was already nearly done with not one, but two distinct courses of study.

But when I was cast in IU Opera’s “The Tales of Hoffmann” and finally understood how I could do music and literature and language and storytelling all at once? Where else but IU can you have this kind of academic/artistic/professional journey?

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