CHAUTAUQUA - I have written before of the situation in which I was once spending some time in New York City.
Every day, I walked the same route from where I was staying to where I was working, but it wasn't until after a number of days that I realized that during one of the blocks I passed twice a day, I was walking at the base of the Empire State Building.
Sometimes by not looking high enough, we miss the significance of what we're encountering.
The recent production of ‘‘Manon Lescaut’’ by Chautauqua Opera included a number of the young artists described in this column. At center, tenor Brad Raymond portrays the dancing master, who has been hired to teach Manon to dance like a lady. Soprano Barbara Shirvis sings the leading role.
Many of our readers drive frequently past the gates of Chautauqua Institution, yet relatively few of those people understand that they are passing one of the outstanding educational programs in the world. In truth, the Institution has probably several of the outstanding education programs in the world.
This week's column will focus on the Chautauqua Opera Young Artists Program. Those of us who go to performances of opera may see the young singers' names on the program with asterisks indicating that they're part of the program, but few of us understand what that means.
Let me share with you some of what I've learned about the program, and then I'll share with you what I learned in six interviews with two sopranos, one mezzo-soprano, two tenors and a baritone from among the members of the program. It taught me a great deal, and I hope you'll enjoy it, as well.
YOUNG ARTISTS PROGRAM
This program is under the leadership of Chautauqua Opera's artistic director, Jay Lesenger, and music administrator Carol Rausch. It was founded in 1968, by Leonard Treash, who was then the company's artistic director.
In 1968, young people who were gifted singers had to pretty much break into the profession through their own resources, with the result that they often had to part with their dreams and settle for something less. The United States, in those days, had only a few opera companies, and they were nearly all located in our largest cities. Chautauqua Opera, founded in 1929, is one of the oldest companies in the U.S., and is the longest continuously operating summer company in the nation.
Professional opera singers, in order to audition for those companies, needed to be members of the American Guild of Musical Artists, which tried to serve singers the way the Actors Equity Association served actors.
In order to audition for a professional role, a singer needed to belong to AGMA, but in order to join AGMA, they needed to be hired to sing a professional role. This ''catch-22'' drove many potential greats out of the field. Young singers often spent years singing in night clubs, which often allowed patrons to smoke heavily, to the damage of the singer's voice, or appearing in endless college and community performances in the hope a professional director would hear them, be impressed, and hire them without an audition.
Nearly all young American singers spent years singing in the opera houses of Europe, where nearly every town of even medium size tended to have opera houses. Once they had some reviews from European critics and a reputation from opera lovers who had heard them in Europe, they could have more hope of being hired by American companies.
Once they were hired, singers were often forced to choose between risking damage to their vocal cords by performing roles which weren't right for them, or by performing too long or too often, without time to rest their voices, or else refusing to perform to the companies' demands, which might get them a reputation as being ''difficult.''
An opera singer earns his living through masterful manipulation of two very small folds of mucous membrane, located in their throats. Those folds can be torn, bruised, stretched, and badly damaged with astonishing ease, putting an end to a promising career and bringing a singer's earnings to a jarring stop.
Treash and Chautauqua Opera founded a program where young singers were given voice lessons and classes in stage skills, such as movement, combat, makeup and acting. In return, they sang without pay, as the chorus behind the professional artists hired to do the leading roles in the company's summer season. Chautauqua Opera typically performed seven productions per season, with each opera being performed twice. That meant that young singers needed to study and memorize seven full operatic scores, some of which were hundreds of pages long, within a bit more than seven weeks, in addition to their studies, class work, and rehearsals.
Their greatest reward for all of this was the promise that if they enrolled in the program, Chautauqua Opera would hire them for one, usually smaller role, for which they would be paid at AGMA's required rate. That would make them eligible to join AGMA and launch their professional careers.
Since then, apprenticeship programs like this one have become more and more frequently found in our country, and it's now possible for young singers to reach professional status in our country without a long apprenticeship in Europe. Among the current top singers in the profession who began their careers at Chautauqua are Keri Alkema, Douglas Ahlstedt, Lauretta Bybee, Shuler Hensley, Peter Kazaras, Adam Klein, Mimi Lerner, Julia Lovett, David Pittsinger, twin brothers Eugene and Herbert Perry, Jane Shaulis, Todd Thomas, and Tracey Welborn.
I could go on for pages, but you're getting the picture, I hope.
In 2012, Chautauqua Opera's season is still disappointingly reduced to the two full productions which have become the rule for the past three seasons, although the young singers also get to perform two Amphitheater performances with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, some of which are opera scene programs and others of which are pops evenings, plus a number of other individual and group performances at sites around the grounds and at public events in surrounding areas.
They get to study in master classes with some of the top artists in the profession, and they are directed and coached by top professionals. Today, the program is one of the most respected in the world. For the 2012 season, the company received more than 800 applications from singers. Lesenger agreed to listen in person to approximately 500 of those applicants, and from them, he chose 17 participants for the Studio Artist Program and eight apprentices.
Apprentice Artists are hired under AGMA apprenticeship contracts, which typically lead to membership in the organization. At Chautauqua, they sing and/or cover leading, supporting, or minor roles in mainstage productions, and they perform at outreach performances.
Studio artists typically sing in musical revues, art song recitals and a program of opera scenes. They may cover roles in productions, as needed. All of them, in both groups, receive their housing, a weekly stipend, and a travel alliance.
I spent some time at Chautauqua, interviewing soprano Rachel Sliker and mezzo soprano Courtney Miller, who are both apprentice artists, plus soprano Amber Garrett, tenors Brad Raymond and Christopher Hutchinson, and baritone Hunter Enoch. The latter four singers are Studio Artists. Let me introduce you to the future of opera:
Soprano Rachel Sliker is a native of Geneseo, in Western New York. She is a veteran of Oberlin Conservatory of Music, the Manhattan School of Music, Opera Theatre of St. Louis, the Aspen Music Festival, Virginia Opera and much more.
''I've wanted to sing opera since I was 5 or 6 years old,'' she told me. ''My mother had a great many records and tapes of great singers, and I was just thrilled that people could make those wonderful sounds. I started voice lessons at the age of 14, and am still at it.''
When she graduated from college, the soprano worked for a while for a financial corporation in New York City to pay the bills while working to establish a singing career, but the hours needed to study and rehearse and the travel to perform with companies which selected her for roles constantly battled with the hours needed to complete her job, so she has accepted a job with a company owned by her family, which gives her the flexibility of hours and dates which she needs to pursue her career.
She said that one of the things which attracted her to join the Apprentice Artists at Chautauqua has been her admiration for Jay Lesenger, whose knowledge of the art and whose skill as a director have greatly impressed her. She believes that the entire company at Chautauqua Opera are top ranked professionals, who not only present outstanding productions, but which are both skilled at helping young singers to develop their voices and eager to develop talents. ''There's never a feeling that anyone is envious or hostile. The advice is good, and the feeling is supportive,'' she said.
Mezzo soprano Courtney Miller was born in Madison, Wis. She has studied at the Boston Conservatory, the University of Michigan, with Boston Lyric Opera, Ohio Light Opera, and was a finalist for the New England Region of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, among much more.
She said she started to study graphic design in college, and participated in musical theater for recreation, but she found that she had the voice to do larger and more challenging music and found herself turning to opera. ''I still do some graphic design to help support myself while I'm developing my singing career,'' she said.
The mezzo grew up surrounded by music such as the Rolling Stones and the Eagles. ''My family was just stunned when I told them I wanted to sing opera. They never attended it before I started singing it,'' she said. ''But they got behind me, and now they are learning about it and doing everything they can to help me.''
One thing which she has noticed about an opera career is how vital it is that she remain in perfect health. ''If I catch a cold, if I have an allergic reaction to something, if I'm tired, all those things can affect my performance. One of the most important things we need to learn is how to prevent illness, how to perform when we are less than healthy, and when we have to cancel a performance - which is the last thing we want to do - in order to avoid doing damage to our voices,'' she said.
Ms. Miller believes that all types of performing arts have periods of popularity and periods in which they recede from the public's attention. She sees signs that opera is rising in popularity. ''It's very common that even in popular films and television shows, they use operatic music to set the mood for places in the screenplay where strong emotions are needed from the audience. People who think they don't like opera are probably listening to it and being thrilled by it, again and again,'' she said.
Soprano Amber Garrett is a native of Norfolk, Va. She has studied at Hampton University and the Boston Conservatory, and has sung with the Harrower Summer Opera Workshop and with Virginia Opera. She was a national semifinalist in the Classical Singer Magazine Competition, and has sung and been interviewed on the "Today" show.
''I came to opera later in life,'' she told me. ''I started singing gospel in public at the age of 4, but I never even tried to sing operatically until I was 18, and enrolled in college. I know that people like to think that opera and popular music are completely different things, but when a singer opens herself up and shares what's in her soul with the audience, there are a great many similarities. I can hear Aretha in Puccini, and I can hear Verdi in the most popular song going.''
I asked if new developments in opera, such as the high definition broadcasts to movie theaters around the world, from the greatest opera companies in the world, such as the Metropolitan Opera, La Scala in Italy, and Covent Garden in England, are impacting the careers of young singers.
She said that just as many smaller cities are starting to present opera, with their own companies; some music lovers are failing to support them, because they can hear the world's top companies for the price of a movie ticket, rather than pay an orchestra and singers and for costumes and scenery and everything which goes into a live performance. ''When a singer's face is going to be spread across a movie screen, there is bound to be more pressure for movie star good looks, too, but I always say that all that sound has to come from somewhere. People enjoy looking at a good figure, but you can see great figures on people who don't sing opera. It's great singing which makes an opera a success.''
I reminded the soprano that only a very small percentage of people who try for a career in opera are successful, and asked if she had a ''Plan B,'' in case it shouldn't happen. She said she does not.
''I feel that I have a calling. This is what I do,'' she said. ''If I have to adapt, I will, but as long as I can sing and fill an audience with excitement and emotion, that's what I'm going to be doing.''
Tenor Brad Raymond comes to Chautauqua from Houston, Texas. He has studied at Southern Methodist University, Indiana University, the University of Texas at Austin, and appeared with Virginia Opera, Austin Lyric Opera, San Antonio Opera, and a long list of similar companies.
''I was a business major as an undergraduate at SMU. I sang in my high school choir, and did some singing and took some voice lessons in college, but I never considered becoming a professional until my voice teacher suggested that I had an unusually fine instrument and that I ought to consider earning a major in music,'' he said. ''I did complete the business major, and it helps a lot with dealing with travel expenses and the costs of study and professional training, but one day I said to myself, 'Do you want to spend your life sitting in a cubicle and writing down numbers?' And, I decided, 'Not if I don't have to.'"
The tenor notes that opera has survived for hundreds of years, and that it still attracts many thousands of listeners. ''The Met broadcast 'Madame Butterfly' to a giant outdoor screen in Times Square, and drew thousands upon thousands of listeners, who didn't leave their house to hear an opera. If you asked those people if they liked opera, many of them would have told you no, but when they saw it and heard it, it stopped them from whatever they were doing, and got them watching and listening for an entire afternoon.''
I asked if Raymond had a suggestion of how someone who loved opera and didn't have a talent for performing could advance the artform. He said that if someone attended an opera and heard a young singer who touched the listener's heart with his or her voice, he could find ways to advance that particular individual. ''All young singers are struggling,'' he said. ''You struggle for opportunities to perform and you struggle to support yourself and your family, and on and on. If an audience member approached a singer's college or opera company and offered even a small amount of support specifically for that singer, it gives us courage and it helps us to remember that we are touching someone emotionally, in a way that matters to him.''
Tenor Christopher Hutchinson was born in Phoenix, Arizona, and studied at Boston University's Opera Institute, Louisiana State University, the University of Arizona, and has performed with a large list of companies. ''I started out studying clarinet, and gradually began to focus more on singing,'' he revealed.
Hutchinson believes that there are both positive and negative aspects to the high definition broadcasts of operas. ''Opera can be expensive to attend, but the broadcasts are far less so. I've talked with a number of people who would never have paid for an opera ticket, but who went to a broadcast because a friend or a date wanted to go, and who found that they loved what they saw and heard,'' he said.
''On the other hand, people need to understand that no singer actually sounds like what they hear at a high definition broadcast. A live performance is a communication between the singer and the listener. No electronic 'improvements' are making the voice perfect. The sound the singer makes is what the audience hears. I read that back at the beginning of the 20th century, opera lovers were complaining that electric lights were putting too much emphasis on singers' appearances. With gas lights or candles, the singer had a much easier time creating an illusion, but we've learned how to become lost in a performance, and we will with high definition sound, too.''
Baritone Hunter Enoch started life in Paris, but not the capital of France. ''I came from Paris, Tenn., about 100 miles north of Nashville,'' he said. ''I participated in high school chorus, but I got picked to tour the nation in a travelling boys choir and spent two years travelling with them. I'm sure that played a big role in how much I love the travelling around that goes with an opera career.'' The singer attended the University of Cincinnati, the University of Miami's music program in Salzburg, and has sung with Wolf Trap Opera, The Janiec Opera Center, and with the American Institute of Musical Studies in Graz, Austria.
One of the things he likes best about singing at Chautauqua is that opera in Norton Hall is performed in English. ''I know that opera composers place the long and difficult notes on syllables which allow us to open our throats, and that's why many singers prefer to sing in the original language. But, many people can't or don't want to spend an evening in the theater, reading. And I suspect that if you checked with an entire audience, the number who studied the opera in advance and came to the theater able to understand everything which happens by listening to a foreign language would be very small.''
The singer complimented Chautauqua Opera on its willingness to focus on the needs of the young singers in the company, and praised the quality of instruction and the amount of support he felt he had received already.
Next time you're driving down Route 394, think for a moment that great international careers are being fostered, talented artists inspired, and the goals of great education are being met. As baritone Enoch said, ''You watch a show like 'American Idol,' and if someone can even make a big sound, the audience is going 'Ooh' and 'Ahh.' And usually, the singing here at Chautauqua is so much better than that; it just blows the mind.''