Scrolling through Instagram awhile back, I was introduced to this great couple who typically focus on Opera music. This year they are treating us to a Christmas album. John was gracious enough to let us talk to him about the album
Can you give us a bit of background on you and your wife, and how you came to Opera and how that has affected the choices you've made in your musical careers.
It's a fun question to answer. Gillian grew up in Buffalo, NY and was always a little performer. There are home videos of her singing all the parts to the classic Disney "Beauty and the Beast" at the age of 4 in perfect tune and with great flair. A true natural. In high school she was cast as the leading role in the Musical Peter Pan and was given the prestigious Kenny Award at the Buffalo Shay's Theater for Best Leading Actress in a Musical in Upstate NY and was given scholarship to attend SUNY Fredonia for her undergraduate degree.
Originally, she was a double major in education and performance, and when she graduated actually taught Middle School for a year before realizing she wanted to pursue performance. She then received a large scholarship to attend the New England Conservatory of Music and was awarded the Presser Foundation Grant to cover her schooling expenses past her scholarship. She starred in 7 operas at NEC in 2 years, and made quite a big splash.
Once she graduated, she was hired by Shreveport Opera in Louisiana as a Resident Artist where our story together begins.
I (John) grew up in metro-Detroit playing baseball. It was my passion, and I played high-level travel ball all the way into college. I was awarded All-State Academic and All-Region awards in High School for my pitching, and I truly hoped to continue on that path. However, my grandmother on my mother's side wanted her grandchildren to have lessons in the arts to be more well-rounded, and so I was encouraged to take voice lessons (and here is the kicker) because I could not match pitch.
Keeping a very long story short, it turns out my athletic abilities tied with my ability to learn make for a good canvas for a musician. Soon my vocal abilities came shining through, and the rarity of my full, baritonal TENOR voice became quite sought after.
What came next was a blur. I attended Michigan State University hoping to play ball and to be a voice major on the top scholarship in the program. I realized quickly I couldn't "serve two masters" and since my scholarship for voice was paying my way, I had to make the choice to give up my dreams of baseball to pursue new dreams of singing. Together with my teacher (and the head of voice to this day) Metropolitan Opera singer Richard Fracker, I had great success at MSU, and when the time came, turned down major scholarships to such schools as Manhattan School of Music, Houston University, Indiana University and others to stay with my teacher at MSU. I joke to this day that the inner pitcher in me came out: It's more about the coach you're working with than the name of your team.
In graduate school I won several competitions nationwide, and made my professional debut with the Michigan Opera Theatre in Detroit. I then was offered a position as the Resident Artist tenor at Shreveport Opera that I happily accepted. Once again, this is where my life changed forever.
In Shreveport, Gillian and I became fast friends. It is common in theater and opera to have what are called, "Show-mances" where you fall for someone you're working with, but ultimately it is not a long lasting relationship. Gillian and I were NOT for this, and tried our hardest to not date. However, life seemed to have other plans. The company, community, and even our colleagues continued to push us together until we couldn't resist our feelings any longer. We worked at Shreveport Opera together for 2 years, and by the end of the 2nd were engaged to be married.
What is amazing to consider now, is that it's been nearly 5 years since we got engaged, and we have our first child (Roman Daniel Riesen), are signed by the same NYC based management and record albums, and do concerts together all the time. What a blessed life!
What excites you about this album?
This Holiday album is going to be very special for Gillian and I. As a married couple who are both professionally managed operatic singers, we've wanted to make something of this nature for years. This summer, our first child Roman was born and we decided it was time to make something that he could listen to and introduce him to all our favorite Christmas tunes. With the support of Box Five Productions in Detroit, MI (a family oriented production company) we have set up our studio recording dates for this Oct and plan to release the album in hardcopy and on streaming services (Apple music, Spotify, Google Play, Amazon music etc) after Thanksgiving weekend.
To give you an idea of the music, we are going to be doing our own versions of such classics as "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year", "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" "White Christmas" and even "O Holy Night". We are incredibly excited to make this a reality.
I have one other album that Gillian is featured on, that was a Classical-Crossover album of opera, musical theatre, and pops music with just piano and voice-- This Holiday album will be much more than that with percussion, added bass, strings, and other instruments that suit the Holiday season (Jingle bells!).
Do you have a fun Christmas memory?
I think the most special, and amusing, Christmas story Gillian and I both share happened this past Christmas. Every year since we started dating, we spend Christmas with her family. Last year, we had been trying to get pregnant for several months, and had a sneaking suspicion it had worked. So on Christmas eve, we snuck out of her parents house and drove to the nearby target to get a test. When we found out it was POSITIVE, we were elated, and a plan formed. We had to scour all the stores nearby to find "Grandparent" related gifts, wrap them, and present them at breakfast on Christmas day. You'd be SHOCKED at how hard it was to find grandparent related gifts on Christmas Eve-- I think they were all sold out! However, we found some very cute plates that said "World's Best Grandma" and "Grandpa". The scene was set. In the morning, I snuck my phone onto the breakfast table, and turned it on for the big reveal. Gillian, in a true theatrical manner, presented the out of place presents and said that she "forgot to put them under the tree". Then, we got to watch with glee as they opened the gifts, realized what they meant and watched the tears of joy stream down their faces. It was ADORABLE, and perfect. We watch the video to this day for a smile.
You can find the album HERE