Brian Jagde (pronounced "jade") had to make a decision early in his professional life: Pursue a career as a sommelier or as an operatic tenor. He chose music, and he is now one of the opera world's stars.
I caught up with the 39-year-old tenor at a wine bar near San Francisco's opera house, where he had been killing it in the leading role of Cavaradossi in Puccini's Tosca. Over glasses of wine, he filled in the blanks on his story.
To earn spending money as a teenager in a New York City suburb, he worked as a bus boy and server in restaurants. "I put myself through college working at Harvest on the Hudson [in Westchester County]," he recalls. "We were forced to take wine courses, and I learned the basics—what grapes are grown where, what the wines are supposed to be like—that sort of thing."
At State University of New York, Purchase, he studied classical voice. "I just wanted to learn how to sing," he shrugs, but the first time he stood on stage and performed with an orchestra he got hooked on opera. "With a natural orchestra—not recordings or a piano or synthesizer—it hits you in the heart, not just the ear. That's what I wanted to do for the rest of my life."
When he moved to New York to pursue a singing career, he got a job as a waiter at A Voce when it opened in 2006. He even got paid to sing at New Year's Eve dinner.
His previous experience and wine knowledge got him assigned to tables where better wines were being poured. "One guy would spend $10,000 on wine, routinely. He'd start with a Montrachet and go on to first-growth Bordeaux," Jagde says. "He only took one or two glasses and left the rest of the bottle. All of us were like vultures after he left. That's when I tasted wines I probably will never taste again."
The sommelier at A Voce offered him a full-time job as his assistant. Knowing that it would occupy 80 hours a week, Jagde decided to keep plugging away at a singing career. "I had a real fascination with wine. I still do. But I had devoted six or seven years to singing, and I was starting to get young artists assignments. I said to myself, 'You gotta give it your best shot.'"
His biggest break came in 2011, shortly after he started retraining his voice from baritone to tenor, a huge change for a singer. After only six months he won a spot in San Francisco Opera's Merola program for young artists. A year later he sang Cavaradossi on the main stage at San Francisco Opera, a role he's reprised at major opera houses in Europe and Chicago, and three times at San Francisco Opera.
Recent gigs have featured him as Don José in Carmen at Arena di Verona in Italy, the Bolshoi in Moscow, Bavarian State Opera in Munich and twice in San Francisco. Upcoming are leading roles at Covent Garden in London, Dresden, Barcelona and Paris.
His interest in wine has only blossomed. A 350-bottle storage fridge in the New York City apartment he shares with his wife has "a ton of Grgich Hills from my many visits while performing with the San Francisco Opera," he says, but also Italian reds, especially from the Langhe, and some splurges on Burgundy.
"I knew I was an Old World wine person from the moment I started studying them while in college," Jagde says. "Italian wines in particular have become more and more interesting as I've been able to travel there. I've now been able to visit parts of Tuscany, Valpolicella, Soave, Campania …. It's a never-ending journey."
When he's out to dinner with friends, he's often the one combing the wine list. "I match the wines with their personalities rather than with the food," he says. "Just being able to choose the right one for everyone is appreciated."