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Chicago tenor tries out on ‘America’s Got Talent’

Updated: August 3, 2013 6:27AM

No matter the outcome Tuesday on NBC’s reality series “America’s Got Talent,” Chicago-based singer Branden James will be celebrating.

Though other reality shows such as “American Idol” and “The Voice” showcase budding pop music sensations, James, a member of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s chorus, specializes in classical crossover.

“My heart has always been in pop music, even though I’m classically trained,” said James in a phone interview Monday. “This show has allowed me to be myself.”

He previously tried out on “Idol” and “The Voice” but didn’t advance past the audition stage: “I always got good feedback, but they would say, ‘We don’t know what to do with you, because you’re an opera singer.’ ”

On “America’s Got Talent,” James will perform “Nessun dorma,” from Puccini’s “Turandot,” and the sine qua non for operatic tenors. “Nessun dorma” was the signature aria for Luciano Pavarotti, and became a pop-culture sensation after a Pavarotti recording of it was used as the theme song for the 1990 World Cup.

James regards Pavarotti as his all-time favorite, which is why he chose this aria. “He made it famous and almost everyone knows it because of that,” he said. “It’s important to sing something the audience at home can relate to. Plus, it has a lot of passion, and I can deliver that.”

On “Talent,” James stands in judgment before Howard Stern, the caustic “King of All Media,” who’s one of the show’s judges. “That’s the first question everyone always asks me: ‘How is Howard’? He’s actually incredibly sincere, and so caring as an individual and as a judge,” he said. “The show is lucky to have him.”

Though James, 35, a native of Anaheim, Calif., has sung in Lyric’s chorus since the 2010-11 season, and before that, sang in choruses of the Metropolitan Opera (2008-10) and Los Angeles Opera (2006-07), “I’ve always worked in crossover,” said the artist, who also performed in the music revue “The 12 Tenors” at Chicago’s Riverfront Theatre last year. “I like to sing classical covers of pop songs, such as Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah,’ Eric Carmen’s ‘All By Myself’ and Elton John’s ‘Rocket Man.’ I’ve always loved pop music.”

If his recording career takes off, he hopes to do a crossover disc of songs by ’80s rock-pop icons including Journey.

Music runs in his family; his grandfather Jimmy Ray Smith, “one of the last honky-tonk singers,” sang with Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash.

Those two artists broke boundaries, and James hopes that he can, too. He considers superstar soprano Renee Fleming, who’s also Lyric’s creative consultant, as one of his role models, “because she’s someone who has so many ideas that continue beyond opera.” Like Elvis and Johnny, she knows that “a good melody is a good melody — however you sing it.”

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