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.