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Lyric Opera Center for American Artists Trains the Opera Singers of the Future

By Mark Thomas Ketterson

'I need more heat from you!' coaxes super-diva Marilyn Horne. 'Make it sexier.'

La Horne is putting mezzo soprano Guang Yang through her paces with Dalila's "Amour! Viens aider ma faiblesse." The setting is an audience-observed masterclass, the culminating event of ten days in residence Horne has spent with the Chicago Lyric Opera Center for American Artists. Noting improvement in the singer's chest tones, Horne credits Yang's teacher, soprano Gianna Rolandi. "Marilyn, I'm a coloratura!" Rolandi cries, to the delight of those assembled, "Please work on her chest tones!"

The tone is supportive, but this is serious work. The LOCAA is considered among the most prestigious vocal programs in America and has produced a number of notable singers; Elizabeth Futral, Harolyn Blackwell, Gregory Kunde, Donald Kaasch, David Cangelosi, Cynthia Lawrence, Matthew Polenzani and Kathleen Kuhlman are a few that come to mind. Throughout the summer, ensemble members participate in a rigorous schedule of intensive coaching with some of the world's most celebrated vocalists, and in performances with various orchestras as well as in staged opera. LOCAA productions have included world premieres such as Michael John LaChiusa's Chautauqua Variations. With the opening of Lyric Opera's formal season, young singers become contract artists, covering leading vocalists, performing as comprimari and, in rare instances, singing major roles. Artists generally remain with the program for two or possibly three seasons, after which they embark upon independent careers.

"These voices are so wonderful" Horne says by way of introduction, "I hope I have something to say!" It's a bit of hyperbole perhaps, but with a ring of truth. Over 500 singers audition annually, of which about three are taken. Many ensemble members have sung important roles in regional companies and boast impressive awards and academic credentials on their resumes. Ms. Yang is a Cardiff competition winner, an honor shared with the likes of Bryn Terfel and Karita Mattila. Tenor Roger Honeywell, who began his career in theater, is a recipient of the Guthrie award for his performances at the Stratford festival. Mezzo-soprano Lauren Curnow holds master's degrees from both Curtis and Julliard. LOCAA provides a protected opportunity for these prodigiously gifted young people to polish technical and interpretive skills. "I'm always afraid of some kinds of characters, those sexy French mezzo-sopranos." Yang reflects. "When I work on those, I think 'Argh, I'm a Chinese, how can you ask me to do this! Sometimes I have one of those days and I think, God, I could go back to China and teach and make a lot of money. But the desire is always there to be a really fine opera singer and even if I only do four or five roles my whole life, I want them to be wonderful."

Center director Richard Pearlman is one of opera's true Renaissance men. A gifted stage director, Pearlman came to Lyric in 1995 following a lengthy tenure at the Eastman School, where he nurtured scores of young singers (Renée Fleming among them). Pearlman has keen insight regarding the training of young singers in a modern world. "We live in a time where, 'What is opera?' is an increasingly vexing question. Minnesota Opera recently had a U.S. premiere-The Handmaid's Tale-and the word 'opera' was eschewed in every bit of advertising that went out on the piece. That's not an isolated phenomenon. It's what I call 'fear of the O word'-a feeling that opera comes with baggage that might be a disincentive for people who go to independent films or watch late-night cable TV. These are people in their twenties living in an era where opera is a signal from an increasingly distant planet. Cultural references, musical styles, and a sense of literary allusion have less meaning. So how do you take a talented young person and put them in the mode of doing these works as though they were new music?

"Then there is the cliché of the American singer as the product of an excellent musical education, making sounds that bear an astonishing similarity to many foreign languages and that are bland, boring and meaningless. My job here is to erase that phenomenon. I have developed a shorthand I call 'CCC' or 'Cookie Cutter Conservatory' singer. When I am auditioning singers, people I believe susceptible to getting past that get my attention. Someone who may be a bit technically crude, but has a burning desire to communicate that cuts through everything they do-give me someone like that and I can make something out of them."

Gianna Rolandi's presence as Director of Vocal Studies has given the program consistency in training and a strong voice of advocacy for singers' needs. Though singers may study with any teacher on Lyric's approved list (approved doesn't always mean good, one vocalist wryly observes) most elect to work with Rolandi. With her easy giggle and mane of ashen hair, Rolandi has lost little of the girlish charm that delighted audiences during her performing career (Beverly Sills once described Rolandi as "foxy as they come"). "I could never be one of those people who teach every day, nine to five. I'd blow my brains out," Rolandi laughs. "But I really enjoy LOCAA because you have the cream of the crop here. Everything they go through, I have been through. The first thing I want to pass on to them is how to do it. I was fortunate to have a solid technique and could sing standing on my head if I had to, and that's what I want for them-an easy production with no tongue in it, you know that 'Kermit' sound. Kids this age have to be careful; they all want to sound like Brunnhildes. Having been a coloratura, I know it is possible to be heard in big houses without screaming your guts out. I want them to develop patience and a real sense of self-confidence, so they can stand up for what they believe in musically and not be pushed around. That's so important in this field, you can have four sessions with four different coaches and they will all tell you something different. You have to learn how to make something your own, and how to tell somebody that's the way you do it. I want them to be unique."

It appears to be working. For young singers, changing teachers is like switching therapists in the middle of treatment, and incoming vocalists can be apprehensive. Now in his third year, bass Christopher Dickerson notes a level of confidence he only imagined two years previously. "My number one reason for that is the vocal instruction I have received from Gianna. Now, even when I am sick, there are things I can do technically to make my voice presentable to the public. In the past I wouldn't have known how to do that."

Soprano Erin Marie Wall agrees. "I'm singing like I never thought I could. I didn't have a sense of what I was doing vocally when I came here and Gianna has changed that. I have learned to trust my gut more and not always think that everybody else is right and I'm wrong."

If this all begins to sound as though LOCAA is little more than a group of attractive singers who make pretty noises while people stand around and coo, nothing could be further from the truth. These young people are under tremendous pressure; and feeling strain under a constant, evaluative microscope is inevitable. "It is very unsettling to know you are being watched," admits one artist, "and to not know what's being discussed behind the scenes." As tenor Scott Ramsay notes, "There are people here who are paid to tell you what you are doing wrong. That is just a life lesson."

"We have some volatility here," Pearlman says bluntly, a reality wrenchingly demonstrated by one vocalist who has an anxiety meltdown during a run-though with a conductor. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry," the artist wails, pacing tearfully about and stroking the throat, "I'm just so frustrated." It's horrible to watch, but a gentle reminder that even the gifted have lousy days at work.

"The best part of the program-and also the worst," one singer reflects, "is that we get so much attention. It can be difficult to get so many opinions." This plethora of input can be overwhelming, even when positive. Nicole Cabell is a beautiful young woman with a glorious, natural lyric soprano instrument. "My first year here everybody would say 'She's a Freni. No, she's a Scotto.' It's hard enough to make your own choices without being compared to everybody else." (This interviewer likely disgraced himself forever by suggesting the proper comparison might be Fleming.) Wall recalls a devastating session with one master teacher (whom she admirably declines to identify) as her "really traumatic moment here. I was so intimidated by this person and I wanted so much to please. It was positive in hindsight, but it can be intimidating, because these people are very famous and have strong opinions." Determining to whom one can fully expose weaknesses can be an emotional minefield. As one vocalist insightfully summarizes, "there is a pressure when you are being watched to put the Christmas tree in the corner with the bare spot towards the wall."

An inherent vulnerability in operatic life also challenges the psyche. Vocal chords are fragile, their protection an awesome responsibility. One artist, having inadvertently cried out when startled, suffered a hemorrhage which fortunately resolved itself. But, it made for sobering reflection, "Just to see how in two seconds, it's gone. Your whole livelihood is gone."

"I got hit in the throat playing basketball," Dickerson recalls, "and couldn't sing for two weeks. I've been playing sports my whole life and I have never been hit in the throat before. Do I quit having a life or do I continue to live it?" It's a delicate balance. "It's horrible. I've turned into a complete hypochondriac" Wall laughs. "I've never been the type of person to worry about every illness, but you start to worry because you are in that high-pressure arena."

A potential for celebrity isn't all rosy either. At the time of these interviews, a retrospective, which read more like a vendetta, of a famous singer who had worked with LOCAA, appeared in an important opera journal. "That was the most horrid thing to put in a publication," cries one artist indignantly. "Like he's this horrible person because the writer didn't think he lived up to his artistic potential. That's something about this business, if you have an injury or you aren't singing well, it's like you are this bad person."

How do they deal with all this? Mezzo-soprano Lauren McNeese is disarmingly frank. "You cry." There is support for the trauma though. "I find the coaches are more than willing to stop and let you adjust things vocally," says Cabell appreciatively. "They are amazingly patient and I think that needs to be said." Pearlman has strong ideas about this as well. "I tell people on their first day that I am a flexible person, but one thing I will not tolerate is unkindness to a colleague."

American artists are known for their versatility and this poses challenges as well. "I am a strong believer of national identity as an artist, of being an American and an interpreter of music written linguistically in an American idiom," Pearlman says with conviction. "When you listen to the singers of the past, they had a wonderful sense of style in their own culture that was often transferable into everything they did. Because we are such a polyglot nation of mutts, I think we have a pretty good shot at doing that."

One way to get there is through the study of American song literature. LOCAA's engagement of those great musical stylists Joan Morris and William Bolcom for cabaret training is one of the more provocative elements of the 2003 schedule. "Was that too tasteless?" queries bass-baritone Wayne Tigges, having oozed his way through the final bars of "How Deep Is The Ocean". Tigges has executed a rather spectacular bit of portamento, gliding from a delicate pianissimo down into the darkly resonant territory his velvety instrument appears to revel in. It's a bit of pure bravura, but the celebrated husband-wife team agrees he can get away with it. The range expected of these young singers is perhaps nowhere so vividly demonstrated as in a session with Patrick Miller, who in 45 minutes lends his ringing lyric tenor to the classicism of Don Ottavio's "Il mio tesoro" as well as a contemporary piece by Bolcom himself. "Don't make it more complicated than it is," coaches Morris, "because that's the charm." "It's like a little dance," Bolcom says, reaching for an analogy to help the singer achieve the straightforward simplicity required. "It's like a soft-shoe," to which Miller charmingly replies "and the piano is the feet."

Ensemble members are unanimous that the opportunity to work with artists of this caliber is the best part of the program and delighted to report that with few exceptions these interactions are overwhelmingly positive. Ramsay, who sang Rodrigo opposite the Otello of Ben Heppner, recalls the tenor's warmth during rehearsals. "He sat next to me, gave me a big hug and said 'You know, Rodrigo was my first role ever.' Oh God, I thought. And he said, 'when you come to this passage, you might want to make it piano, because every conductor will ask for that.' And he was right." Ramsay describes the thrill of standing onstage with the great tenor, the voice a "laser beam. It was a big learning experience, hearing what squillo is all about."

Tigges has similar memories of Dmitri Hvorostovsky, whose dressing room for Un ballo in maschera was next door. "He would knock on my door and ask, 'Would you like some help?' He worked on Russian pieces with me. It is so nice to see somebody at that level who is so down to earth and wants to give." Lessons learned on the rare occasion when a famous singer presents a negative role model (what not to do," one member observes) are noted. But generally, admiration for the renowned artists surrounding them is boundless. Ramsay was online in an opera forum during an Otello performance and encountered a number of posters trashing Heppner. "How many of you talking about this have actually seen this production?" he challenged. "I am currently onstage with Ben Heppner and you know what? We could only strive to be that good."

As Wall noted, however, working with celebrated artists can be daunting, even when they are as supportive as Horne in her masterclass. Baritone Levi Hernandez recalls his emotional state that day as the diva urged him to bring more bravura into his embellishment of "A per siempre" from Bellini's I Puritani. "I was terrified! I learned the aria that weekend! I opened my mouth like an idiot and said, 'I think I know that aria.' She said we'd do it. Then I looked at it," Hernandez laughs, "and thought, oh, I don't know this aria! That's why I didn't have embellishments. I was glued to the page!"

Quinn Kelsey sang a melting "O Du, Meinen Holder Abendstern" from Tannhäuser for Horne, mildly disclaiming it as "work in progress." "It was unnerving having her take you apart in front of an audience. I brought a bunch of stuff to her, and she didn't want to do anything that I had already been coached on a thousand times, she wanted to do something brand new. I thought 'O-o-o-kay...."

Beyond frustration and fear are moments of glorious exaltation. Unsurprisingly for singers who often function as comprimari, these generally occur when they can stop lugging around a candelabra or looking concerned for the soprano and let their voices pour out. "Die Walküre!" the ladies practically squeal with delight. "The first night, when we let out those 'ho-yo-to-hos' and felt that Wagnerian orchestra," Wall enthuses, "was pretty amazing!"

"I loved it" McNeese agrees, "I am not a Wagnerian singer, but man, I love being a Walküre!"

Dickerson proudly recalls joining with Tigges and Hvorostovsky for the trio from Un ballo in maschera, creating a formidable sound wall limned with technique and testosterone. "We were singing our balls off," he summarizes.

There is an inevitable bottom line here, one neatly voiced by Rolandi. "This isn't school. They really don't have to please everybody. They have to do their job, and, yes, that's a subtle distinction. What is that? Showing up and performing, working with the conductor, making music."

No problem there. Hernandez might have felt anxious in that masterclass, but it didn't stop him from caressing the ear with his beautiful baritone timbre. The beauty with which Curnow leads off the quartet from Don Giovanni or the sheer eroticism in the Manon San Sulpice duet sung by Cabell and Honeywell unequivocally confirms that there are some glorious voices on the way up. To hear these artist's concern for properly shaping a Mozart recitative or the respect with which they speak of their craft and their colleagues, one cannot help but breathe a sigh of relief that in a society that increasingly undervalues the arts, there is a cadre of young people who passionately believe opera does matter, after all.

In winding down her masterclass, Horne made a comment to an ensemble member that could well be said of any of them, a remark that repeatedly comes to mind while watching these young artists strive to perfect their craft: "I just keep thinking of more things I would love to hear you sing."

Mark Thomas Ketterson is a freelance writer and psychotherapist in private clinical practice in Chicago.


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