After Canadian opera tenor Thomas G. Glenn (BM ’99) sang Donizetti’s “Elixir of Love” at a benefit in San Francisco a few years ago, a woman approached him and asked whether he had always wanted to be a singer. He replied he actually had been intrigued with the idea of heart surgery and expressed a little regret at not pursuing medicine more seriously.
“But you are a heart surgeon,” she said. “You may not be cutting people open, but you are healing people on a large scale— in an audience—rather than healing one-by-one.”
“She was right,” he said. “I had seen people become visually affected during the aria, and I know music can change a person’s life. There is something singular about going to a live performance and being hit with a visceral human sound and realizing it is coming from a person opening his or her heart and soul. Singing is part of my identity, and whenever I have a blessed opportunity to sing, it is a reward in itself.”
Sometimes, though, the rewards are even more visible. Glenn and several of his musical colleagues received a 2012 Grammy Award for the contemporary opera Doctor Atomic by John Adams and Peter Sellars. By using actual documents, the story details the moral crisis that faced a group of physicists who worked feverishly to develop the world’s first atomic bomb.
Visibly delighted, Glenn gave the acceptance speech, and after thanking everyone from the creators to the cast, he simply said, “I’m Thomas Glenn, and I’m an opera singer.”
That he had found success in the opera world does not surprise at least one of his BYU music professors. “From the first time I met (Thomas), I could see he was obviously very intelligent and learned quickly,” says Lawrence P. Vincent (BA ’73) of the BYU School of Music. “He has a beautiful voice and received our Singer of the Year Award my first year here. He is well read and articulate; just a bright person in the top two percent. I also like that, despite a career that spans more than a dozen years, he remains approachable.”
Glenn grew up singing and playing the piano. He says when he figured out there were others competing in piano who were “much better and younger than me,” he put all his efforts toward voice. When he entered BYU, he thought he might eventually become a jazz singer and sang with Mack J. Wilberg (BMU ’79) in Concert Choir and Ronald J. Staheli (BM ’72) in University Singers . An opportunity to sing Bach’s St. Matthew Passion following his mission, however, forever changed his musical focus.
“I was just home and was gospel-hungry,” he says. “I played the part of the evangelist. It took a lot of work and I had to practice a solid two months to get it in my voice. It was an enriching experience—not just spiritually—but also musically. Opera has been an art form for more than 400 years and encompasses many different languages, roles and costumes. Being at BYU made me a discriminating musician and helped fuel my love for opera, and for that, I thank my professors.”
Glenn believed he needed more training and other perspectives and attended graduate school at the University of Michigan for his master’s degree and Florida State University for his doctorate. “I needed more time for my voice to mature,” he explains.
During his doctoral studies he was selected as one of 20 (among hundreds of vocalists) who auditioned for Merola, an extensive opera training program through the San Francisco Opera company. Accepted into the summer program, he sang in Barber of Seville and received a prestigious two-year apprenticeship. He stayed for eight years and sang nearly every season. Additionally, his credits include the Metropolitan Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago Opera, Netherlands Opera and English National Opera. He soloes with orchestras across the country and says his dream—aside from his family, which he misses dearly when he is on the road—would be to sing Mozart the rest of his life.
“I’m a Mozart addict,” he explains. “I would be a happy man if I could sing Mozart for the next 40 years. The more I sing Mozart, the more I understand about self-humanity, love, and beauty.”
—Charlene Renberg Winters (BA ’73, MA ’96), BYU Magazine, Spring 2012