Artist Profile: Jon Burton

I first met Jon in the summer of 2013 when he was singing Dick Johnson in Puccini’s La Fanciulla Del West. The titular role of Minnie is often referred to as “Turandot on a horse”. If this is true then Johnson is Calaf in chaps and nobody wears those chaps better than Jon Burton. But, what stood out to me was the fact that Jon NEVER marks. In fact, on one particular evening Jon was kicked in the ribs during staging by an over zealous chorister who was “in character”. We took a 15 minute break to allow Jon the time to catch his breath, but after that Jon sang a full voiced Ch’ella Mi Creda. When I first started this blog Jon was the first person I wanted to interview and I did. Unfortunately, I learned the hard way that phone interviews are not the best. It took us some time to edit this one, but I hope you enjoy it.

Me: First and foremost I’d like to thank you for giving me your time tonight. Also, I’d like to thank you for being a major factor in making my favorite opera, La Fanciulla Del West, more commonplace in the repertoire these days.

Jon: Wow, really?

Me: Yes, I genuinely believe there are 3 driving forces for it’s revival: 1) The influx of great, young dramatic sopranos, such as Alexandra Lobianco and Michelle Johnson, who are capable of singing Minnie. 2) Adventurous Artistic Directors, such as the late David Roth of Kentucky Opera and Kostis Protopapas of Opera Santa Barbara, who understand the value of such lesser performed operas and trust their audiences are going to respond well to operas that aren’t just La BohemeCarmen and Magic Flute. 3) And of course Johnson is a very difficult role to sing, but they have the security of having the technical god that is Jon Burton to sing it.

Jon: overly courteous laughter

Me: The other day we briefly talked and I pointed out that you never mark. I find it astounding. Of all the professionals I’ve ever worked with you’re the only one who has not marked in rehearsal. Why is that?

Jon: When I just did Radames we had about 5 weeks to rehearse the opera and then had 13 performances.

Me: Oh my god.

Jon: We were only supposed to do 12 performances, but they had to add one due to selling out every performance. But, the process I use is about dialing in the sweet spot where you’re not giving so much that you have to recover from it. Instead of giving it my full vocal capital I would rather pace it so when it comes to a performance I don’t find myself worried about. I’d just rather feel comfortable while performing. Maybe I give 5% less in a performance than other singers do. But, it’s about efficiency, it’s about making the machine run as well and efficiently as possible.

Me: So, you’re looking to get the maximum resonance with as little effort as possible?

Jon: Yeah, I’m really looking to get the appropriate resonance. This just allows me to sing efficiently and have confidence in my vocal health.

Me: Correct if I’m wrong but you began singing professionally around the age of 19.

Jon: It depends on what you mean by professionally. I was singing roles in Gilbert & Sullivan operettas then and getting small paychecks. But, singing grand operas at regional opera houses came later.

Me: But, fairly early on you tackled Rodolfo in La Boheme, correct?

Jon: That was at 23.

Me: So, you’ve been singing the harder roles since 23?

Jon: When I was 22 I had sung Camille in The Merry Widow, Alfred in Die Fledermaus, and Ferrando in Cosi Fan Tutte.

Me: Around 22 you were taking on roles that are significantly lighter than the rep you sing today, but are extraordinarily difficult nonetheless. Do you think that played a big part in knowing where you can give and where you can be efficient?

Jon: You know, it’s a really interesting thing that happened. I had done Falke in Die Fledermaus before I did Alfred because I couldn’t sing Alfred. I was supposed to sing Alfred, but couldn’t make the tessitura. But, in just being made to do Camille in Merry WidowI I  just figured it out in real time. There’s just no substitute for getting in there and just doing it. It’s not about listening to a Corelli recording and saying “I have to sound exactly like him”. It’s more about putting the role in your body, in your brain, put a cast around you, a piano and just make the sounds come out of your face. Sooner or later that sort of work will tell you so much more about your voice than any other work ever could. I don’t know if the weight of the repertory I was singing then taught me about pacing, but just performing most certainly taught me what I needed to know about pacing. It comes on its own. Its something of a survival instinct.

Me: I completely agree with you, there’s no substitute for just getting up there and doing it. Once you had gotten into it when did you feel you had started hitting your stride as a performer? Because the Jon Burton I’ve seen perform is very much at ease with being a performer.

Jon: I would say it came in layers. You kind of reach several different plateaus. At one point I had done so over 10 operetta roles that I was just excited to finally work out of a Schirmer score instead of the Kalmus. You kind of just go in steps. When I had my first Boheme it didn’t worry me, it excited me. Then when you sing small roles at big companies you learn things and you find your way. You’re standing around people who are 15 to 20 years older than you doing things that you just can’t yet do and you have no idea how what’s coming out of their face is coming out of their face. The first time I sang Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly I was singing with a woman who was considerably older than me. I had already sung Merry Widow with her and when we sang together she’d just blow me out of the water. But then, when I sang Butterfly with her I could just sense that it wasn’t like that anymore. But, those things just came in stages.

Me: So, these stages were very incremental?

Jon: Yes

Me: Do you believe that getting larger names behind you create larger steps in this confidence boost or was it just another small step?

Jon: Definitely so.For example, the liking Lorin Maazel took to me and the support he gave me was huge. He’s Lorin Maazel, who am I to tell him that he’s wrong about me.

Me: It’s remarkable when you think about it. He’s arguably the best conductor of Puccini since Toscanini and he entrusted you with 3 major Puccini roles in the course of 2 years.

Jon: Yes, that was huge.

Me: So, that was a much bigger step in the process?

Jon: It certainly carries a lot of weight, he’s a legend. It’s one thing to get work and it’s one thing to get consistent work. But, when someone who is one of the pillars of our operatic society wants to put his name on you it’s enormous.

Me: It’s rarefied air. I considered myself lucky when he took the time to have a minute long conversation with me. But, he could really open your eyes to some beautiful moments in the music that you didn’t know were there. We both recall that stunning moment in Ch’ella Mi Creda where directly after you sing “mio solo fiore” when he allowed the orchestra to linger before going right back in time for you to come back in with “Minnie”. Gorgeous moment. Do you think working with musicians of that caliber has enhanced your own interpretation as an artist?

Jon: Oh yes, it’s just little gestures like that or how some times he could take something very casual and make it something special. I think a great example is that aria. We started half as slow as it’s usually performed and then ended up twice as fast. Some times he’d just shake things up. Working with him has brought into place the idea that you learn all the rules so you can forget them and make your own. He was very courteous and very collaborative and so he could work on a deeper level. The great thing about him and conductors like him is you’re encouraged to take your own risks and take your own chances. That phrasing you talked about was a response to me slowing down on the “fiore” which I wasn’t sure that he was even going to like. You could see the gleam in his eyes. It was as if he was saying “I see your queen and raise you a king” and he paused and rolled that orchestra in like a prairie sunrise.  To be around people who know more than you and allow you to be your own artist really escalates your artistry.

Me: You sing verismo quite well. Whether it be Calaf, Johnson, Canio or Don Jose(which I consider to be as close to verismo as French repertoire has ever come) you sing them well. The common tendency is to give too much of the emotional angst in these pieces, thus sacrificing the voice in the process. How do you find a way to sing these roles efficiently while still portraying these characters?

Jon: That’s something that Canio taught me. My very first Canio was in 2009. Something kept going wrong in a tech rehearsal during the scene right before Vesti la Giubba when you’ve just caught Nedda with Silvio and we just had to keep going back. I don’t want to start marking because i want to feel the role as a whole, and I’m singing that line “perche pria di lordarla nel tuo fetido sangue” over and over again. We stop again. I’ll never forget, I put my hands on the back of the chair and I was looking down at the table and I said “Jon, you are going to have a lung pop out of your face and onto the stage. How are you going to make it through singing the final mad scene?” So a voice in my head said “let the composer do their work and you do yours and just sing”. I don’t necessarily like the words “connected” or “support” but what I find is if you sing with completely pure vocalism you’ll be fine. But, when people let the emotion of the piece overtake them, like in Canio or Otello or Johnson, they let their voices become too disjunct or too disconnected. I found that in those moments I must treat my instrument like it’s about to make the prettiest, longest legato line you’ve ever heard. I can bounce on that thing like it’s a yoga ball. It’ll give me plenty. If you leave your instrument in it’s normal parameters you’ll excel.

Me: You’re expanding your repertoire these days. You’ve taken on two massive Verdi roles in the last two years in the form of the French Don Carlos and Radames in Aida. As you venture forward you’ve already set the precedent that you can sing these difficult roles. Where do you see yourself going now? Do you see yourself adding even more heavy Italian repertoire such as Alvaro in La Forza del Destino or Otello? And is this something that actively excites you at this time?

Jon: Yes and yes. Honestly, the heavier the rep gets the more comfortable I am. I’m much more comfortable with Radames than Rodolfo. I don’t find Rodolfo easier, I find it harder. Otello has it’s own sets of issues, I think Alvaro is going to be wonderful. Fact is, if you sat Mario del Monaco, Franco Corelli, Domingo and Pavarotti down in a room and asked them to rank which one of these roles they would have the easiest time on a Thursday night they’d all have a different answer. Otello is definitely a role I want to do. Likewise, I want to sing Alvaro, I don’t want to sing the Duke of Mantua, nor do I want to sing earlier Bel Canto works. The most comfortable I’ve ever been is in German, I hope something comes of that.

Me: I’ve said this before, I’d love to hear a Jon Burton Lohegrin. I’m sure you would too. As your schedule has less Rodolfos or Pinkertons and more Calafs and Radames is there any future role you look at and say “that’s going to be really hard”?

Jon: The things that scare me are things like Manon Lescaut or Bacchus. Bacchus is really a sprint.It’s about 17 minutes of singing, but, man it’s difficult. I have one coming up in 2018.

Me: I’m sure you will sing that with aplomb. I might have to make a road trip to hear that one. I believe in this era young artists have more of a pressure than they ever have before, more pressure to be told that you have to sing show stoppers and have that “perfect” five aria package. What would you say to us young artists to really encourage us along in this process?

Jon: I’d say try to carve out a place for yourselves. It’s not about singing show stoppers, but rather proving yourself to be valuable somewhere, somehow. It’s not only sing what you’re comfortable with, but sing something that shows you as a singular artist. Why are you special? What’s good for you? A lot of young tenors ask me about advice getting their audition packages together and they come to me with the greatest hits, all of the most difficult rep you can sing. I say that you could potentially sing 3 of those back to back to back in any audition. Do you think you can handle it with no trouble? Don’t set yourself up for those situations. That’s the worst way to go about it. Show what’s invaluable about you. Companies are always looking for someone who brings in something new or something special. Not everybody has a fireworks voice, not every soprano is Joan Sutherland.

Me: So, for a young artist is it crucial to say “here I am and this is why I’m valuable”?

Jon: Absolutely and it is possible to say that without singing for the repertory fences every time and “pulling it off”.

Me: I’ll admit that was somewhat of a self-serving question.

Jon: To a certain extent it’s about what can you do and get paid for. If you’re, for example, a heldentenor, then you are not going to be comfortable sing Rodolfo, forget it. Don’t try to grow tomatoes in the desert. I think people these days get too caught up, and I’m as guilty as anyone, of trying to figure out exactly where their face is. It might be that you overlap them in uncommon places. Sing what works for you, not what you think or have heard ought to work for you.

Me: One thing that is somewhat of an anomaly with you is that you don’t have a bachelors degree from a name brand conservatory. These days there seems to be quite a premium placed on that for young artists. What would you say to someone who looks at schools and says “Maybe that’s not the best option for me.”? How would you advise them on starting their careers?

Jon: I’d say stay away from situations where there’s a lot of pedigree sniffing. In some situations people can’t help but hear things with their eyes. They see someone went to Juilliard or Curtis and then there’s a guy who went to nowhere or doesn’t even have their degree and they’re kind of afraid to trust that singer. Try to hit the grassroots circuit where a product matters more. You have to make some noise and you can do that by getting to know people like coaches or accompanists on a personal level. There are coaches and accompanists who are very connected to companies. Find out who plays what gigs for what companies and contact them and ask for a coaching. They’re around when decisions are being made for casting for the following season. They say “we’re looking for a Don Jose” and that guy speaks up and says “I know a guy who can sing that really well”. The next thing you know you have an audition and then you get a contract. That’s how it happened for me.

Me: I only have two more questions for you. Thank you for being so gracious with your time. You and Corey Crider(whom I’m interviewing in the coming months) both have these great family lives. You’ve both built beautiful homes with your wonderful families. How do you manage a family life with your hectic singing career?

Jon: He and I kind of cheat because our families travel with us. We home school our children so they can travel with us.

Me: Do you feel getting to have your family with you makes you less distracted as a performer?

Jon: Of course it does. I don’t have to worry about my family. There are complications that come with your family being there, but they’re far better than the complications you have without them there. But, before they were with me, that was absolutely the worst and hardest thing about this business. Maintaining lasting and meaningful relationships.

Me: I’ll say, during that Butterfly we were in together you looked more tired than had during the Johnson, but you looked exponentially happier during the process. I’m guessing that’s because your family was there with you and it certainly didn’t effect your singing. Last, but not least, if you have one piece of wisdom you could impart upon people trying to start their career what would you say to them?

Jon: It’s great to have coaches and teachers you trust. But, when you’re on stage it has to be you that takes control of your voice. The other thing I’d say is be the nicest guy in the room. Don’t complain and make sure that company likes having you around. If you can do this you’ll thrive.

These are great words to live by for all of us invested in the art of singing. You can’t find a nicer guy in opera than Jon Burton. You might ask yourself how good was Jon Burton’s Fanciulla that I mentioned at the beginning of this article. It was so good that Neil Shicoff(who was on faculty at the festival that year) came up to him after a performance one night and said he couldn’t have sung it better himself. I’m truly thrilled to have him as my first artist interview. I’m truly lucky to call Jon a colleague and I’m even luckier to call him a friend.

 

Indiana University

As another part of this series I’m asking alumni to tell me about their experiences at graduate schools. This series will range from the biggest of big names and schools you might not have ever heard of. 

The first post in this series will be from Jesse Malgieri. Jesse did both his bachelors and masters at IU. I figured there wasn’t anyone I knew who knew Bloomington better than him. Here’s what he had to say:

It’s hard for me to condense my thoughts on IU into a few paragraphs. It is equally as hard for me to either recommend or dissuade prospective students. The school is huge and complex and individual experiences and opinions among students are diverse. That being said, I truly loved my six years there. I found that the challenges of being a small fish in a very large pond prepared me well for the realities of the professional opera business. Further, the quality of the education, both in the voice studio as well as in the classroom, is very high. The intellectual expectation is strong at Indiana and you will work hard at refining every aspect of your musical intelligence. This will serve you well as a pro. 
To me the most positive aspect of IU is twofold: the sheer number of operatic opportunities (6 full productions a year) and the large network of colleagues you have upon graduation. I cannot tell you how valuable the IU Opera Theater is in preparing you for the expectations of a pro opera singer, from musical preparation with amazing faculty, to production quality…world class. They bring in conductors and directors who are connected throughout the business, and they will reward your hard work and talent with jobs in their young artists programs, etc. In that vein, the network of IU grads in the business is immense and we all do our best to support the development of each other’s careers. This is a gift that I cannot discount. I have benefited greatly from the friends and professional associations I made in my time at IU.
I encourage any prospective student to visit the beautiful IU campus, have a lesson with a couple of teachers, visit the opera house, and listen to their gut. I cannot speak highly enough of the overall quality of the educational and artistic quality of the school. I’m happy to answer anyone’s specific questions about faculty, the town, the operas, etc. 
Cheers 🙂
And, as always, I hope this is helping you, the reader, with any decision you might make. Whether that be to attend IU or recommend it to others. 

Young Artist Spotlight: Tevyn Hill

The first time I met Tevyn was during one of my first turns as a tenor, singing Cavaradossi in act 2 of Tosca for a graduate coaching students project. Tevyn was the only tenor in the chorus for Tosca’s cantata. I was struck by how generous he was with his time then because he chose to do the chorus for this, despite the fact that his academic year had ended a few days earlier. But, as I’ve come to know Tevyn more I’ve realized this sort of generosity is not an anomaly for him, but rather his default. I’m reminded of this once again as he so graciously agreed to do this interview with me.

Me: What first attracted you to opera?

Tevyn: I was never interested in opera (or didn’t know anything about it) until I attended Oklahoma City University in 2010.  Musical theatre was my main focus when I got there, but Dr. Catherine McDaniel (my voice teacher) gave me lots of classical rep to sing to build my technique.  That was my first exposure to opera.  It wasn’t until my sophomore year, when I was cast in the chorus of OCU’s production of Les Contes d’Hoffmann, I completely fell in love with it.  Opera is just exciting in so many ways. Portraying larger-than-life characters, the extravagant costumes, but the ability to sing gorgeous music over an orchestra without any amplification is what got me.  And the notes the singers were hitting were unreal (I almost fell out of my chair when I heard The Doll Song for the first time!).  I never heard anything like it before.  It was then when I started thinking about becoming an opera singer.

Me: And you went from just falling in love with opera to your first big role the following year, Almaviva in Barber of Seville. What was it like taking on such a staple of the repertoire at such a young age?

Tevyn: That production was truly one of the best experiences of my life. Of course I was terrified when I got the score…so many notes. I wasn’t sure if I could pull it off, but I learned something after listening and watching various productions of Barber: the opera is so dramatically driven, and the story is best told when you are singing with the emotion of the character in mind, and not worrying about all of the fast/high notes. I got to a point where I was able to trust my technique and my ability to sing the role, and just have fun being Count Almaviva, because he is SO FUN to play. Not only do you get to be the romantic, you have tons of comedic moments! Almaviva is a role I can perform over and over again and never get bored, and I had the pleasure of performing it a second time last summer at Seagle Music Colony.

Me: While you were at OCU you also got to perform the stage manager in Ned Rorem’s Our Town, Tamino in Magic Flute and Ernesto in Don Pasquale. How important was it to be able to take on such roles in a safe environment?

Tevyn: It was great to do those roles at OCU because it allowed me and the rest of the cast to take risks and make mistakes without feeling any judgement from our peers.  OCU is a wonderfully supportive environment, and my cast mates and creative team were always encouraging.  For example, when I did Our Town, our music director knew how intimidated we were by the music, so at the first music rehearsal, he worked with us individually to make sure we all knew what we were doing, and even provided us with tools that made preparing our roles easier.  If I ever sing Our Town, or Tamino, or Ernesto with a professional company, I know I’ll be prepared for anything.

Tevyn: You also performed the title role in Batboy and are currently in Dream girls. How important has versatility been for you as a performer?

Me: I believe being a versatile performer makes you a reliable one.  With the opera and musical theatre world meshing together, it is important to be a well-rounded performer.  This is a skill I learned from attending OCU (I don’t know where I would be without this school..really.).   Music theatre majors are required to audition for operas and vice versa. It challenged me to step out of my comfort zone. Furthermore, because I’m a classically-trained singer, I learned how to sing contemporary styles while maintaining my classical foundation, so I can produce the most efficient sounds possible.  Through that, I learned how to be a consistent singer in classical and contemporary repertoire.
People often ask me if I want to do opera or musical theatre, and the truth is I want to do both.  I love both worlds very much for different reasons, and I don’t think I’ll be completely satisfied if I just stuck to one or the other. I love performing in shows like Dreamgirls, and Bat Boy was a blast (although singing with fangs in my mouth wasn’t that fun).  I would also love to sing Nemorino someday, and would kill to sing Almaviva again.  I just wanna sing, mama!

Me: My next question is one I’ve asked a lot in interviews, so much so that they should start paying me for the advertisement, what did you gain from your time at Seagle Music Colony?

Tevyn: I spent two summers at Seagle (2014 and 2015), and both times were a magical experience.  The talent they bring in is unbelievable.  I learned a great deal just from watching my colleagues perform in audition class as well as the productions.  It’s a wonderful community, and I made friendships that will last a lifetime.  It’s always a joy when we run into each other at auditions!

I also gained a wonderful support system from the Schroon Lake community.  The patrons and guild parents that come to our productions, record audition classes, throw us parties, or simply invite the young artists to their house to hang out and get to know them are huge blessings in my life.  Jim and Eileen Carnahan were my guild parents in 2014, and Lisa Reid was my guild parent last summer.  I can’t thank them enough for making my experience a memorable one.

The mentors are equally as wonderful.  The coaches I worked with pushed me every week to be the best performer I can be.  Darren Woods is someone I respect deeply.  He works tirelessly to nurture the young artists, because he sincerely believes we have something to offer to the world of opera and musical theatre. He makes sure that people in the business hear us, and I got to sing for people from Glimmerglass, Houston Grand Opera, and the Met Council Auditions, to name a few.  Seagle gave me the confidence I needed to pursue a singing career.  I miss it every day.

Me: You’re also one of the few people I know who did both their bachelors and masters degree at the same school. What do you think you gained from doing so?

Tevyn: The main reason I decided to stay for grad school was my voice teacher.  She is one of the most brilliant people I’ve had the pleasure of working with, and I knew she had much more to teach me. Some people advised that I go to another school and study with another voice teacher, because it helps to have different ears. Although that is a good reason to switch teachers, I thought “Why fix it if it ain’t broken?”
OCU was also a great fit for me because the musical theatre program is very strong. During grad school, I focused on bulding my operatic technique and strengthening my musical theatre chops by taking extra classes. I got to perform in Bat Boy: The Musical, Don Pasquale, and The Magic Flute, and even perform in the OCU musical theatre showcase in New York City. I don’t think I could’ve done that anywhere else.

Me: And what’s on the horizon for you now?

Tevyn: In September, I will be working with Portland Opera’s touring outreach program, singing The Witch in Hansel and Gretel. After that, I plan on moving to New York City!

Me: Any roles that you desperately want to sing in the near future?

Tevyn: Nemorino in Elixir is at the top of my list right now, followed by Ferrando in Cosí. As for musical theatre, my all time dream role is Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar. I would also love to sing Lola in Kinky Boots one day. I’ve been practicing dancing in heels. (Tevyn inserted a winking smiley face here that for some reason just looks awful on the computer I’m using for this, so pretend that the winking smiley face from your smart phone is here).

Me: What words of wisdom would you have for young students who are about to start their artistic journey?

Tevyn: For any young artists still in school, my advice is to stay committed to your work, but don’t be so immersed in your work that you forget to have fun and enjoy being a college student.  My voice teacher gave me this advice, and I wish I followed it a little more than I did.  In my first couple of years of undergrad, I was always looking into the future; where was I going to go for grad school, what repertoire I’m going to perform in my senior recital, etc. I’m glad I had someone like her to remind me to slow down and enjoy my life in the present.  Focus on building your technique.  You have plenty of time to worry about the big stuff.  Which brings me to my next piece of advice: be patient.  Singing is an ongoing process.  Becoming an artist is an ongoing process. Enjoy every minute of it, even when you want to pull your hair out. I’m 23 years old (I’ll be 24 July 30th…YAS!) and fresh out of grad school. A baby. I still have tons to learn.  Show up to rehearsal on time (aka early), prepared, and ready to work.  Be kind and supportive to your colleagues, because they may be the people that could give you your next job in the future (and, of course, it’s the right thing to do).

For those out of school (and for those about to graduate in the near future), technique is everything. Consistency, longevity, everything. Although you may be terrified going into the real world without regular voice lessons (at least I am), trust your technique.  Trust that you’ve put in the work to be the best singer/actor you can be and just have fun auditioning and performing in shows.  When you reach a certain level, everyone is talented. Everyone is a great singer.  Find what makes you stand out from the rest of the audition pool and use it to your advantage.  Never stop practicing, and sing for as many people as you can. Going back to my first point, don’t get too consumed in your work.  Find something outside of music that you enjoy to do.  We all need a break sometimes.
Finally, this may sound cheesy, but it’s so important: no matter how hard it gets, never give up.  Never, ever, ever give up.

Not only is Tevyn one of the kindest colleagues I’ve had, but his jovial energy is infectious. I love all of the interviews I conduct, but this one had me chuckling and/or smiling whilst reading every response of his. I’m not a betting man, but if I had to make a prediction I’d guess that Tevyn’s career is going to soar as high as his seemingly never ending high voice. God knows it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.

What the Fach Am I? Matthew Arnold

I’ve decided that to give you, the reader, more material I’m going to be doing shorter segments that cover such subjects as graduate schools, young artist programs and Fach changes. The original intention of this blog is to be an educational resource and I only see this as a viable extension of that. Today tenor Matthew Arnold is going to talk to us a bit about his switch from baritone to tenor. 

People for most of my singing career have been very split on what I was. In undergrad at the University of Delaware, many people thought that I was a tenor, but others including my voice teacher thought that I was a baritone that hadn’t developed a bottom yet…which was definitely understandable considering I was about 21 or 22 at the time. Once, I got to UNC Greensboro and started work on my Masters degree, the switch seemed more and more inevitable as my bottom still had not filled out and my top had gotten stronger. My teacher at the time, Clara O’Brien felt that I was some type of heavier tenor voice type. However, we decided to continue down the baritone path for the remainder of my time there and I am very glad that I did. Large tenor voices really should not start that switch until their mid to late twenties, which is right around the time that I started doing it. Also, continuing my study as a baritone helped to anchor the bottom of my voice which has a naturally baritonal quality. Lauritz Melchior always said that the best Heldentenors started out as Baritones and never lost touch with that “baritonal” grounding and I agree with him 100 percent. When I finally made the switch with my current teacher, Marilyn Taylor it was the absolute right choice for me. I was having trouble with my speaking voice after I would sing, but when I started vocalizing in my tenor range, my speaking voice improved tremendously. Once we really dug into the tenor rep and exercises, it was like my voice suddenly lined up and made sense. Now, that isn’t to say that this switch has not had its trials and tribulations…there have been many times when I was very frustrated that my voice wasn’t getting something or doing what I wanted it to do, but that is also because I am incredibly impatient! The decision to switch from baritone to tenor is one that shouldn’t be made lightly, but I am incredibly glad that I did make the switch and found my voice in the process.
I do hope anyone on the fence about their voice might have found this helpful. There will be more artists that I interview on the subject and of course I hope to conduct a full interview with all of these artists in the future. 

Young Artist Spotlight: Stephen Clark

This week our young artist spotlight is on bass-baritone, Stephen Clark. When I first met Stephen Clark I was taken aback by how down to earth this guy was. I was fairly new to opera and was convinced that every opera singer was a prima donna. He and I would frequent an Irish pub in McNellie’s in Oklahoma City and talk about life, opera and most importantly Chicago Cubs baseball. Now his career is beginning to take off and I thought this was a perfect time to catch up with him about all of it.

Me: What first attracted you to opera?

Stephen: I had been exposed to opera from a young age thanks to Tulsa Opera’s outreach functions which, at that time, took kids into the Tulsa Performing Arts Center and did bits and pieces of opera for the kids, showed them how sets were changed, etc. While I remember enjoying those experiences a great deal, it wasn’t until high school that I saw my first opera by choice, Gounod’s Faust, at Tulsa Opera. When I was in college, I attended a big music competition in Dallas, TX where university students from all over Oklahoma and Texas gathered to compete, and it was there that I became absolutely fascinated with the different types and colors of vocal instruments that were present. After that, I decided to be a Vocal Performance major and left my pursuit of a Music Education degree.

I wasn’t actually in my first opera until 2010, five years after seeing my first opera, three years after deciding to be a performance major, and many years after those experiences as a kid. From then on, I have been involved with many productions of opera in many capacities with a number of programs and institutions. And I have to say it wasn’t until that first one that I really began to appreciate the artistic capabilities of opera and what makes it special, namely opera as theater. In many ways, it’s still something I’m still discovering things about this everyday. The story that’s being told through the singing, not the singing and beauty of the human voice itself, though that is extremely vital as well, in my opinion.

A bit of a lengthy answer, but to me, this is how I got into opera. In many ways it was a long process, and in some ways it even began before I was interested in singing opera at all. And I’m not sure I can say any one thing I’ve mentioned above was more or less important than another.

Me: I believe your first role was Dottore Grenvil in La Traviata(correct me if wrong) and then your second role was the titular role in Gianni Schicchi and the following year Dulcamara and the four villains in Tales of Hoffmann. How big of an impact does doing major roles so early play in your development?

Stephen: You’re correct on all of those. Going back to my previous response, I did my first opera in 2010, and my first role, in La Traviata, was only a few months later. And then all of those came in succession over two the next two years. The benefit for me was to go from a very green and inexperienced performer to someone who performed a number of large and challenging roles in a very short amount of time. It was a very safe environment for me to do this, in an academic situation and with a teacher and coach to help me through the entire process. Of course, it’s possible for the experience to backfire, and at the end of the day, I might be pretty lucky to have gotten through it. So it can be a tricky thing. But I feel like it had a tremendous impact on my development. I learned so much about acting and performing, as well as how to get through challenging situations, because of those experiences

Me: One of your first summer programs was Opera in the Ozarks, where you did a lot of roles at the same time. What did that environment teach you?

Stephen: Opera in the Ozarks was one of the hardest things I’ve experienced as a performer. There were three shows, double cast, so six casts in the season overall. I appeared in five of those casts with a number of different roles. On top of that, there was a 10 or so day period where we had to turn the set over twice a day, because one cast would have a dress rehearsal in the morning and then there would be another cast’s performance of a show that night. Add in helping with painting the sets for the shows and man, it was a very difficult summer indeed. But doing three different shows, Le nozzle di Figaro, Die Fledermaus, and Little Women, all very different stylistically, it was tough. The roles were also were different too: Bartolo and Antonio in Figaro are relatively low, while Frank in Die Fledermaus tends to sit very high. Going back and forth between all of those shows and roles for 5 or so weeks, it was a useful experience in that I came away from it knowing it couldn’t get much harder than that.

Me: And then you went to the Seagle Music Colony. I asked this same question to Eric Ferring last week, but Seagle is such a high profile summer program it’s worth getting another perspective, what did you gain from your 2 summers at Seagle?

Stephen: The first thing that comes to mind, and always will, was that I gained a lot of good friends. So many talented folks working together, spending time together, enjoying each other’s company. It’s a real community, unlike any other program I’ve ever been to do. It’s also a unique experience because rarely are you around such talented people in a young artist program that are performing lead roles in operas. Typically, young artists are in the chorus or covering the larger roles. So it was great to be around other people who were just trying to find their own way while tackling some really hard roles in the standard rep.

The mentors there were also amazing. There are a number of people, especially Darren K. Woods, who I’ve frequently consulted since my time there came to an end. They also bring in a lot of people to hear their young singers. In my time, representatives from Washington National Opera, the Met Council auditions, ADA Management, Houston Grand Opera, and Opera Saratoga all came to hear the young artists who were there that summer. That experience can potentially have a lot of positive outcomes for young singers, and if nothing else, getting feedback from them is great.

Seagle gave me a lot of confidence that, outside of an academic setting, I had a lot of potential and could really have a shot at making it in this business. Who knows what will happen in that regard, but that confidence was really been important and is still a part of my foundation as a young professional in opera.

Me: You mentioned young artist programs where the assignments are more based in chorus and covering roles. How were you able to navigate the challenges of these young artist programs and what did you gain from them?

Stephen: Well, the main thing you gain from them is getting used to what the way a real opera company is run, but from “a close distance” rather than firsthand. You see the professionals, how they handle themselves in rehearsals, you get used to working in more professional environments. This is definitely very valuable.

But, as your question insinuates, there are challenges too. Frequently, these programs ask a great deal of their young artists, including a great deal of performances, sometimes multiple in one day, which can really wear a voice down. In my experience, the best thing you can do is take care of yourself when things are hard, and do your best to learn from the difficulties. I can say without hesitation that I’d rather take these gigs, harsh though they may seem at times, than sit at home not working as a singer.

Me: When you’ve done these programs and covered a role(even the small ones) how thorough was your preparation?

Stephen: It can be difficult because, at times, you’re expected to come in ready to go with minimal preparation. Whether you’re doing a small role or covering a larger role, typically the majority of the focus will go towards making sure the principals are ready to go musically and are on the same page with the conductor. When you add to this that the amount of musical preparation has been trimmed often in companies due to issues with budgets, I’ve been in situations where the first time I sang a role in context was in a sing through, which even for smaller roles is more difficult that it may seem.

My recommendation for all people who might find themselves in this situation is to really work with the music by yourself, from a bare-bones starting place: text and rhythm first, understanding the tempi of whatever you’re singing. Then add in pitches. If you’re diligent, this should ensure that you will be well prepared once the rehearsal process begins. Coaching music before you show up to a program is great, especially for larger, more complicated roles you might be covering and performing for community events and whatnot.

One more quick thing about covering: walk the staging at home. Watching the people who you are covering may keep it in your mind, you may know when to move upstage or down stage, or when to take your colleagues hand in a scene, etc. But if it’s not in your body, your singing will suffer because, as I’m sure many singers both young and old know, it’s very difficult for the mind to coordinate vocal technique and and dramatic expression simultaneously. One of the two things must be pretty second nature, and even for seasoned singers there are plenty of roles where technique is something that must be at the forefront of their minds in order to stay on top of things. So, walk your blocking at home, keep it in your body so that you can do it in a pinch and also sing gloriously.

Me: You’re one of the few young artists I know who has done their young artist residency in their hometown, Tulsa Opera in this case. What’s that experience like?

Stephen: I have to say it’s pretty awesome. As I believe I mentioned before, the first opera I was ever in was with Tulsa Opera, as a choruster in a production of Rigoletto. The main thing I would say is that getting to represent the company which has had a part to play in my development as a performer is a special thing. But the way I think about it, it’s a tremendous opportunity. Whenever I happen to perform for Tulsa Opera, I feel like it’s an opportunity to inspire people. If I’m touring an educational show for school kids, it’s an opportunity to show them that if they have a passion or a dream, it’s something they can achieve if they have a lot of work ethic and desire. If I’m performing for donors or just people around town, it’s an opportunity for them to think about supporting the arts and arts education more in their community. I may not have that kind of influence, but I’d like to think it’s possible.

Me: What’s your ultimate dream role?

Stephen: Man, there are a number I could think of instantly. But the ultimate dream role, not unlike the dream role of many other young low-voice singers probably has to be Scarpia. It’s such a great role because it has almost everything a singer would want in a role: musical moments which inspire a great deal of passion and emotion, being a very powerful character who can really dominate a performance, and also being a character who acts counter to what we as a society believe is moral and just. From a young age, well before I even had thoughts about being an opera singer, I was always drawn to the villains in stories or movies, or when I’d be given opportunities to do little scenes as a kid. I always thought they were far more intriguing than the heroes.

Me: And to draw this interview to a close do you have words of wisdom for aspiring young artists?

Stephen: I’ll make this kind of a two-pronged answer.

If you’re thinking about furthering your education in some way, my rule is there are three things you really need to consider above other things: Teacher (is there a teacher there who will really help you develop during your time there), Roles (will you get ample stage experience, particularly with orchestra in larger roles), and Money (can you get enough money from the school to only have to take out small loans or, better yet, avoid them altogether). If you’re going to a school, they better have at least one of those three things in spades, preferably two. And don’t be afraid to take a year or two off if you don’t feel like it’s the right fit. If you’re really committed to getting a master’s degree, keep taking lessons and coachings, continue seeking performance opportunities, audition again a year or two later, and see if you can find a school that meets those criteria satisfactorily.

To anyone who’s out there in the real world (or about to be), I’d say the number one way to be a working singer is to work. Get out there, take gigs, anything you can find. Keep honing your craft. Always be a student. Being prepared and professional will project more to your superiors than your voice possibly can. The life of a young singer is far from easy. You’re on the road a lot, you frequently work hard and aren’t always shown off as well as the more established professionals, and you almost assuredly make less than a number of your peers in other fields. But there are a number of positives. I can say without a shadow of a doubt that I love the life I’ve been living over the past two or so years now as a singer with pretty consistent work. Don’t lose sight of what makes you want to be a performer and keep pushing ahead and good things can happen. I’ve been in some pretty low times myself, and while it seems like things may never be any different, they can change if you keep up with it, and pretty quickly, too.

 

 

Artist Spotlight: Jennifer Black

My first experience seeing Jennifer(Jenna) Black perform was as Elle in Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine. If you are unfamiliar with the work I will tell you that it is 50 straight minutes of just Elle, there is never another character that comes in at any point in time. Jenna handled this massive role with great aplomb and from that point I had a new artist whom I admired deeply. The following summer I worked with her in Don Giovanni. I remembered her artistry, but now I got to see how kind and generous Jenna was as a colleague. Jenna continues to be a kind and generous colleague by granting me this interview. I hope you enjoy.

Me: A lot of great artists have gone through the Merola program in San Francisco, but how you got there is a story I’m quite fond of. Would you mind sharing that?
Jenna: Oh yeah, that one!

When I was looking in the Opera America Guide for a summer program after completing my undergrad, I stumbled upon Merola and saw that it was affiliated with the San Francisco Opera.  With both of my parents having grown up out west and having a fondness for the city, I thought “what better place than to spend the summer in San Francisco”!

I knew it was prestigious but, in all honesty, I spent most of my early career completely ignorant of the level of programs and competitions for which I was auditioning.  I always got plenty nervous but it was beneficial to me to not realize the full spectrum of what might happen if I totally crashed and burned these auditions.

That was the major selling point, to spend the summer in San Fran with generous side helpings of doing what I love to do, gather irreplaceable knowledge and working with some pretty amazing people.

Turns out I was lucky enough to get to spend TWO summers in San Francisco and also participate in the last WOT tour.  Ignorance was bliss!

Me: This brings me to a question that I didn’t actually think I’d ever ask another singer: do you think young singers today have too much information and too many resources so easily available?

Jenna: Too many resources, no.  Too much information, perhaps.   I think it depends on one’s personality.  Some singers, for example, like to see who else is auditioning and what their competition is, some would rather not know.

On that note, when I started out I didn’t really know who the big hitting competitors were, I was just doing my thing.I think it’s important for young singers to have confidence in their skill and what they, as an individual have to offer.  Companies want to see you do well, they don’t want a copycat of some famous singer.

Back to resources: The thing to remember about recordings is that in recent years there is so much sound manipulation, it’s almost impossible to know how these singers sound live. Listening to a recording to get a sense of style is great, but they should not be used as the ultimate learning material.  Trust your teacher and coaches for that.
Does this answer your question?

Me: I couldn’t have asked for a better answer. You say that we trust our teachers and coaches for all of that and I completely agree. But, as performers we are often away from our teachers and coaches. How significant is your own independence when you’re actually performing?

Jenna: For me, it’s important to do enough prep work before getting on the road.  My teacher tailors necessary technical points for each role, which we work out before I leave, but fortunately she is also available via Skype if I find myself in a sticky situation.  At this point in my career I am fortunate enough to know my voice and how to handle pacing, fatigue, illness, etc.  But for a long while I still had a skype lesson or two if need be while on the road.

This new found independence is quite liberating, I must admit, but it has taken a long while for me to feel this way (I only felt this way consistently for perhaps 1.5 -2 years) Luckily my chosen few “board of directors” (trusted teacher and coaches) understand the way I work and vice versa.  Again, it has taken me years to find these wonderful, talented and trustworthy people. I would say that confidence plays a larger role while I’m performing than independence does.  If I have the tools I need to perform well in any situation then I have no problem contacting my board of directors should I need help.

Me: You’ve taken on and conquered monumental soprano heroine roles such as Mimi, Violetta, Juliette and Poulenc’s one woman tour de force La Voix Humaine. These roles are challenging for their vocal demands and their historical precedent. How do you personally handle the task of performing them?

Jenna: Mimi is like an old friend, I love having the chance to visit with her every chance I get.  Vocally, the role is very comfortable and she’s a character with whom I can identify with on many levels.  Obviously I’ve never experienced tuberculosis, but both Mimi’s and Violetta’s sickness are a small part of who they are.  They weren’t always sick and I believe it’s important to portray them for the women they are, then layer the addition of their illness and circumstance.  If you’ve known and loved anyone that has been struck by a serious illness, you know this to be true.  What do they like to do in their spare time?  What books would they read?  What’s their favorite color, food, flower, etc?  What does their laugh sound like?  What makes them happy?  Mimi and Violetta are selfless and loving women and I just love them.

Elle in La Voix was very challenging for me.  It is only you on stage “hearing” your lover on the other end of the phone with the occasional interruption of the operator.  Learning this role took A LOT of time and energy, and money!  It’s one of those roles where, just when you think you’ve got it down, you slip back and start going in circles!  That’s where the staging process came in handy.  I thought, “okay, at this section I’m standing by this table…at this section I’m halfway on the floor”, so for me with this piece, even though I could have had more liberty on stage, it was important to have those anchor points.

I draw a lot on personal experience and I’d like to think of myself as a very empathetic person.  This helps me identify with the characters I portray even if it’s a situation which I’ve never experienced.  There are always elements to every story one can identify with.

Vocally I’ve learned how to pace myself with certain roles.  Mimi and Elle in La Voix are very comfortable.  With Verdi I need to be more rested to retain the agility for the coloratura sections.  As we have a baby on the way and I’m singing more Verdi these days, I welcome the challenge of being able to sing through this style on less rest.  Thank goodness for technique!

Me: In recent seasons you’ve also starting taking on roles that are seldom performed like Bea in Heggie’s Three Decembers or Lida in Verdi’s La Battalia di Legnano, which prior to your performance had only been presented 4 times in the United States. Is there a great pressure in these roles or is there less pressure in these roles due to the relative anonymity?

Jenna: Less pressure, actually. I only had the original recording of Three Decembers and a few recordings of Battalia.  For 3D I listened to the recordings for entrances, tricky bits, you know, and the original cast was AMAZING, of course.  I had a great time creating my Bea with the other two members of the cast and our extremely talented creative team, I couldn’t have asked for a better experience.  You discover so many layers to each character in that piece, I came home from rehearsal both exhausted and fulfilled.

As I’m just getting my feet wet with early Verdi, it was quite liberating to sing a role rarely performed.  There isn’t an expectation of “well, Callas did this and Scotto did that”, so I felt freedom and had only my voice in my ear while performing.  Which, in turn, taught me A LOT as far as building confidence, as we discussed before.  All of our voices are unique and our strengths and weaknesses are different, why not embrace that and see just how far we can go as artists?

Me: I’ve asked a lot of questions about pressure and I’m going to wrap it up by asking how do you handle the pressure of singing at major houses like the Metropolitan Opera?

Jenna: Having done the competition at 21 and starting the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program at 26, I essentially grew up at the Met, which is a double edged sword.  On one side, I know what is expected of me, I know my way around the building and personalities, what the acoustics are like, what to expect while on stage.  I have had the chance to work with some amazing singers, conductors, directors and the highest quality of costumes, hair and make up artists and backstage staff.  On the other side, it’s very difficult to break out of the stigma of young artist there, even though it’s been 8 years since I completed the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program.

When I walk into the building I still struggle with the feelings and insecurities of having been a young artist there.  But when I can get myself out of that mindset and tell myself, “hey, they keep hiring me back, I must be doing something right, I must belong here in some capacity”, that gives me a reality check.  I envy people with big egos and massive amounts of self confidence.  I’ve always fought myself for those things.  Within the last 3 years or so there have been many things I’ve dealt with in my personal life, both positive and negative, which have made me realize that pressure and nerves are useless, except when the adrenaline they produce can get you THROUGH a difficult performance rather than hinder it.  I have never felt competitive with others, only myself.  Therefore my goal is to always do better than I’ve done in the past and keep moving forward, never get complacent and always be the best version of myself.

Me: Your vocal maturation seems to have opened up your repertoire considerably. Do you have any roles that you now excitedly look at and say “thank god, I’m finally ready for this”?

Jenna: Yes!  The lyric side of Strauss: Arabella, the Marschallin, Daphne to name a few.  I recently performed Strauss’ Four Last Songs with orchestra which was liberating, exciting and in a place where i felt completely at home vocally.  I’m looking at more early Verdi and exploring which gals are right for me right now.  In a few short years I look forward to some meatier Puccini roles like Tosca and Butterfly.  I’m VERY excited about all of this new, beautiful rep.

Me: I’m going to finish this interview by asking if you had one piece of advice for young artists what would it be?

Jenna: Be yourself, be confident, find a handful of people you can trust and keep them close, be honest with yourself and your expectations, always give your all and open your mouth and sing!

Me: I actually have one more question. As a fellow southerner I have to ask Texas, Memphis or KC BBQ?

Jenna: Oooooh, BBQ…that’s a hard one.  I’m going to go with Texas 😉
Jenna’s artistry speaks for itself to people who have never met her. You could go visit her website and listen to her Mimi or Desdemona and say to yourself “wow, she really knows what she’s doing”. But, she is 8 months pregnant at the moment and gave me so much of her time for this interview. I’m hard pressed to think of how a person could be more generous.

Artist Spotlight: Justin Griffith Brown

I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone more ferociously passionate about opera than my good friend, Justin Griffith Brown. As a singer, that passion shone through intensely. But, now he’s taken his passion into another venue, directing. I caught up with Justin about his life as an up and coming director.

Me: Justin, I always knew you as a performer. What first drew you to directing?

Justin: Firstly, I thought it could be done better, so I took it upon myself to start doing better. I love the process that went into discovering who these characters were, the place and setting. What was the political climate of these circumstances? The dramaturgy goes on. That is always fun for me, and I wanted to be able to do it for every role, not just my one part with the piano vocal score. Also, as a singing actor(once a singer always a singer, in my opinion), I deeply understand the need for communication in these pieces, as well as the need for new works. I wanted people to see what I was seeing, and to also conceal the “ism’s” of being an opera singer that I thought were getting in the way. I LOVE working with singers, and it brings me great joy having the chance to unfold the source material with them, including their individual selves- to all the performers reading, you are the source material- and seeing, through specificity and their own unique insights, how we can calm their bodies, harnessing their meteoric energies, open them up to creating the world around them.

Me: As a singer and a director how much do you prefer a singer to emphasize technique over acting or vice versa? Or do you believe the two should be intertwined?

Justin: I’m going to Tarantino this answer a bit. The two should absolutely be intertwined. If you want to tell a story, tell it from your gut. There’s no better way to say something than with your gut. Where do you feel the butterflies, heartbreak, anguish, giddiness? You feel them in your gut. Where do we support from? Your gut. There is intrinsic value in this connection. With the expectations that are put upon singing actors these days, one needs to tell a story that is physical and energetic, and that can absolutely be done in service of the voice!

However(back to the beginning), technique is key. You mush have a solid enough technique that once in the rehearsal room you only need to check in with it. Coaching, lessons, private practice, those can be as technical as needed. Once we’re in rehearsals though, it takes a sound understanding of your technique to make dramatic discoveries. I will avoid speaking technically for as needed with a singer, because it is a very private experience, and my goal is to get them out of their heads, and into their bodies, into their characters and their emotions, their text and the texture of the music. The real work begins once you know the book, and you are no longer worried about high notes or that weird interval. When a singer comes in as prepared as possible, only then we can collaborate and make discoveries. Now, this doesn’t mean you should have all the answers. Have thoughts and opinions on how things should be done, technically and dramatically, but knowing what tools you have from the start, certainly makes playing in the sandbox much more rewarding.

Me: Richard Strauss famously asked the question, and just as famously never answered, “what’s more important, the music or the text?” Where do you fall on this question?

Justin: I love that you asked this because I recently made a discovery along those lines. My answer is “text”. Not just text as a literary phrase, but text in its linguistic origins; text as tissue, interwoven materials. How do we often describe music? TEXTurally. In the case of opera, they cannot be separated. The words were there, and the music usually came after. A good composer has the words along with their music, a great composer convinces you that it couldn’t be done any other way.

Me: Does much of directing come naturally to you or have you picked up much from those you’ve worked with?

Justin: I feel that a bit of it comes naturally, essential for creative works; instincts. They give me lofty ideas, and then my ferocity kicks in towards making them happen. I’ve learned a significant amount from mentors and assisting other directs, also from relationships with voice teachers, coaches and conductors. Being a director is much more than just interpretation. With the technological advances in theatre it is pertinent to be able to communicate, not just with actors but with designers as well. I started doing scenic carpentry to learn more about the tech side of things. Along with my lofty ideas, I need to be able to know how to present them in a way that actually seems possible, versus some creative bantering on about his “vision”.

Just like singers, it’s about practice; practice in progress, in technical theatre, in reading people, in pitching ideas. To be a director, and hopefully a great one at that, takes encyclopedic knowledge of theatre and the world.

Me: Let’s talk about the modernization of operas. Directors seem to take a lot of risks with modernization these days. There are some good modernizations such as the Met’s production of Rigoletto or Falstaff, but for every good production there’s ten Mimi’s dying of heroin overdoses. How far can you take a modernization and still have it serve the dramatic intentions of Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, etc?

Justin: I think updating older operas can be great. I have trouble saying that there is a too far, because I don’t appreciate that kind of limitation. I’ve always thought that if a work invokes a strong emotion, whether it be love, hate or anything in between, then it worked. However, for my own experience, I look for cohesion. Even to make something absurd, avant-garde or “conceptual”, is there a cohesion within style and approach? I don’t agree with or like everything being done, but I’m glad it’s happening as well.

Me: What’s your ultimate goal as a director for any production?

Justin: Depends on the production. With each production there are new challenges, thus, new goals. In order to make that happen though, I strive to create a safe space that allows for dialogue, minimal judgements of self, so that the full weight of your being can be felt. With all the spectacle and heroism of opera-which is great toe see- it boils down to what I call the intangibles. I hope to help the circumstances vibrate, like carbonation bouncing around in organized chaos and then it finally gets to burst at the top. You know when you’re in the presence of it, you can’t help but lean forward to get a little bit closer.

Me: Do you have any dream operas as a director?

Justin: Ha, of course! I have a fascination with biblical operas, particularly as we approach the 20th and 21st centuries; Nabucco, Salome, Moses und Aron to name only a few. Wozzeck is an all-time favorite. I would love do From the House of the Dead by Janacek. I love an opera with a strong libretto.

I also have dreams of seeing our own operas come to life. We have a platform, as American musical theatre artist, that is ripe for picking. I firmly believe we are approaching a golden age of American opera. I hope to pull teams together to create new works that speak to a cinematic, and psychologically, liquid audience.

Me: Normally, I ask those I interview to leave words of wisdom for the reader. I’m going to ask you to do the same, but for two groups. What advice would you give to singers about the collaborative process and what would you say to young directors who are trying to get started?

Justin: That’s a strangely loaded question. There is a lot of overlap, but some otherwise specific aspects of the individual positions. For singers: know your part, the other parts, the score, text, music, performance practices. Fill your mind with as much information as you can handle, then put it all away and see what the rehearsal process brings out. We must constantly forget the knowledge we have about a piece, but knowing it also informs discoveries in the moment. Singers must go in to a process with an open mind. Practice working with your body, how does it feel in new positions; on your knees, laying down, sitting or lounging. Do this in your own practice. Opening your body opens your voice and physical demand asked of singers is higher than ever. Don’t wait for some one to give you an opportunity to get specific with your work, to raise the stakes. Practice this alone and you’ll have a stronger footing when it’s being asked in front of a panel.

Directors need all of this as well. Especially on the dramaturgy side, knowing the basis of the work itself. That is where inspiration and justification comes from. A director must also have an open mind. We have nothing without people who hopefully bring your vision to life, which mean being open to hear others thoughts on your vision. A director must also be relentless and see what can be brought to life with the right kind of questions and prodding. It is a balancing act between all of these aspects; openness, yet also unwavering belief in your ideas and in the seemingly impossible. Most importantly, for me, direction is about giving, we give direction. Through direction, one must create friction resulting in momentum. Once rehearsal is over, it is the singers that are on stage, so it is pertinent that you help motivate them to see your vision through to the end of a run, which is often after you’ve already gone home.

All that said, follow your gut. Stand tall for what you feel and believe. If you want something, work relentlessly to get it. Be open to what may happen during that time. You are as big or small as you choose to be. Take risks and do things that scare you.

Justin is at Glimmerglass this summer assistant directing for Francesca Zambello. Next season he is going to be the resident director at Palm Beach Opera. His credits keep adding up and rest assured there will be much more to come for this up and coming director. I can’t wait to see where his vision takes him next.

Young Artist Spotlight: Eric Michael Ferring

Full disclosure: I’ve only heard Eric sing live and in person once. But, the sweet tenor voice Eric produces was memorable enough for me to remember it all these years later. I caught up with Eric on his progression as a young artist. Eric is quite busy with Opera Theatre of Saint Louis at the moment, but he was incredibly gracious to correspond with me via email today.

Me: You went to a smaller college for your undergraduate degree. What are the biggest pros and cons of doing so?

Eric: Yeah, I went to a private university for undergrad. It was one of the best decisions I could have made. I loved not having graduate/post-graduate program (s) to compete with for opportunities. I had plenty of stage time, was put with the voice teacher I wanted, and had plenty of individual attention. I also enjoyed not going to a conservatory because I was able to get a true liberal arts education. My classes outside of music and my heavy involvement and leadership of a big Residence Life team were important parts of my undergraduate experience. It’s important to have skills and passions outside of music, and a liberal arts education at a private undergrad-only university was the perfect choice for me. However, some people really thrive in the intensity of a college conservatory and grow from seeing those older than them perform. I think there is plenty to be said about having singing mentors of people who are older than you, but I wouldn’t have changed my undergrad experience for the world.

Me: And while you were in undergrad you went to the Seagle Music Colony for 3 summers?

Eric: Yeah I went to Seagle Music Colony during the summers after my Freshman, Sophomore, and Junior year.

Me: What did you gain from Seagle and why is it a viable and valuable summer option for and young artist?

Eric: Seagle Colony gave me all of the tools that most schools don’t have time to give you. In undergrad, this often equates to not enough coaching time and not providing an accurate picture of the business. While at Seagle Colony, we not only had multiple coachings and lessons a week, four fully staged productions with two outreach productions, but we also had daily audition classes (where students would dress up and ‘audition’ for the panel, and then would be given feedback), as well as classes about the business (these ranged from classes on artist taxes, resumes and biographies, breathing technique, movement and more). Seagle Colony also brings in people from around the country to audition their young artists. During my time, some of these included Glimmerglass Opera, Tri-Cities Opera, the Metropolitan Opera, and the Houston Grand Opera. Although, Seagle Colony is a pay-to-sing, I would argue that it is the best bang for your buck. It provides a ton of stage experience, fantastic coaching and voice teachers, professional advice, and connections moving into the professional world. They also provide substantial scholarships, so it’s not one of many pay-to-sings who just steal your money. You get more than you pay for at Seagle Colony. I would recommend it HIGHLY.

Me: You transitioned from Seagle and undergrad to BoCo. What’s the biggest difference you found between your small undergrad and conservatory graduate school?

Eric: Well, instead of being a vocal performance major at a small university, I became an opera major at a major conservatory. The intensity and focus grew exponentially, and I started to hone in on not only what I wanted to do, but how I wanted to do it. I moved from Des Moines to Boston, so the competition increased but so did my desire to make this my life. Led by the dream team of Johnathon Pape, Andrew Altenbach, Nathan Troup, and the best voice teacher in the business, Dr. Rebecca Folsom, The Boston Conservatory was the perfect next step before moving into the professional world. The M.M. in Opera Performance is a very specified degree to help provide the finishing touches to those about to enter the professional world while also giving them the reality of the business. The Conservatory was the perfect choice for graduate school, and I could not be happier with my two years there. I had had a ton of friends that had attended the Conservatory, but it wasn’t until I worked with Johnathon Pape on two productions at Seagle Music Colony (Don Giovanni and Eugene Onegin) that I knew that BoCo was the place for me. It taught me the importance and worth our art has in the world. Our art has value and importance, and it’s our duty as artists to share it with the world any chance we are given.

Me: I’ve worked with Johnathon myself (Dead Man Walking at Tulsa Opera) and he most certainly is eye opening. You’ve also worked with some other great artists like Kim Whitman and Stephen Lord. How invaluable is it for a young artist to work with such strong creative forces?

Eric: Well you said it in the question. 1) It’s imperative that we have such powerful creative forces in our artistic world, and 2) I’m so thankful to have worked with some of the most brilliant minds in the business. Kim has created Wolf Trap Opera into one of the most important opera  companies in the country training younger singers as studio artists while employing some of the best singers as their principles (Filene artists). It’s not uncommon for many Met Winners to be walking the halls when you’re working at Wolf Trap. Between Kim, Lee Anne Myslewski, and Grant Loehnig, the team at Wolf Trap has been one of my favorite places to be. It’s truly a family (and I miss them!) As for Maestro Lord, he’s a dear friend and a major mentor in my life. He’s one of the most knowledgeable, gifted musicians I know. The Macbeth production at OTSL is brilliantly led by him and a fantastic cast and creative team. Although he is becoming the Music Director Emeritus soon, I’m sure he will keep gracing OTSL and the many other companies in the States and abroad with which he works with his passion and candor. They are all important mentors to me and a number of other singers in the business. I don’t know where I would be or who I would be as an artist without them!

Me: Eric, I’m going to wrap up this interview by pointing out that you will be joining Pittsburgh Opera as a resident young artist next year. You’ve gone through all the right steps as a young artist and it has paid off handsomely. Would you be willing to impart any words of wisdom that could be of use to those students who are soon to embark on the beginning of the young artist journey?

Eric: Well, I will say that much of this career (as is true of many careers outside of the arts) is about being in the right place at the right time and meeting the right people. I was blessed entering into Seagle Music Colony when I was 18, receiving top notch training for three years, and having mentors like Darren Keith Woods, Tony Kostecki, and Johnathon Pape helping guide me to the next steps in my career. Lee Anne, Grant, and Kim encouraged me to go to OTSL as a Gerdine Young Artist instead of coming back for a second year as a Studio Artist at Wolf Trap because they want you to spread your wings and grow! I think that’s something that many singers forget–administrators want you to be the one they need. They want you to succeed and sing the song that is in your soul. They are your allies when you walk into the audition room. I have been blessed to have a fantastic year long YAP right out of graduate school, but the work is never over. I encourage artists of all ages to create 1, 5, and 10 year plans (Thank Johnathon Pape for this). Under each plan create at least 5 goals for yourself (professional and personal), and make the future you want for yourself. There are only a few things under our control as a young artist such as language study, lessons, coachings, learning repertoire, and improving musicianship skills. It’s also important to be enthusiastic, easy to work with, and prepared. I truly believe that if you work hard, every artist has the chance to build a career that suits them. I would also encourage every young artist to create a mission statement. This mission statement shouldn’t just be about your professional life, but should encapsulate all that you hope to do throughout every part of your life: For example my life mission statement is: “I inspire action as a passionate create force.” Every career is different and every path is different, but remember, your art has value and worth, and it is worth sharing. Don’t let finances or other struggles pull you away from your art. Perhaps you have to work a day job to pay for lessons, or in order to go to the graduate school you want to go to, you’ll have to work a job and be a Resident Assistant. It’s all worth it. We are young and life is a journey we only get to live once. Life is hard and the struggles are real, but we as artists bring something to the world that is so uniquely and beautifully our own. We sing with our voices and breathe life into the brilliant works of the past (and future). I don’t know how there could be something better than that .

Eric really has gone through all the right steps as a young artist. However, I’m not sure he wouldn’t be where he is today if he hadn’t. A while back my teacher from when I lived in Oklahoma, Dr. William Christensen, told me “Talent will always find a way to rise up to the top”. The top is where Eric will be going, he’s definitely a young artist to watch out for.