Over the past two weeks I had the good fortune to visit two extraordinary groups of aspiring and inspiring opera singers. I gave master classes, heard a lot of auditions, discussed how to get ahead in the business of classical music, and talked (probably too much) about my own experiences. All in all I heard more than forty singers, aged twenty-two to thirty, most of them in either master degree or advanced programs.
As a General Director and in my other work in opera over the past fifty years, I have become critical of teachers’ encouraging people to become professionals when they obviously do not have the ability to join the ranks of employed artists. Though this trip was limited to only two schools, I found that neither of these schools could be so criticized; no one had less than real talent. Some were clearly more advanced and maybe in the long run more gifted, but everyone I heard had reason to believe that he or she could have a career.
The two universities turned out to be remarkably similar. The University of Cincinnati’s Conservatory for some years has been a source of many talented artists. Just as an example, in the fourteen years of Seattle Opera’s Young Artist program a great many of its graduates were chosen to come to Seattle, more perhaps than from any other school. The other, the University of Kansas, was new to me. I found its artists of an equally high quality. As always, teachers make a difference. Robin Guarino, the chief of Cincinnati’s opera department, has served as director and assistant director at the Metropolitan Opera as well as a free-lance director for many other opera companies, including the Cincinnati Opera. She brings enormous energy and creative ideas as well as a deep involvement in the musical life of that music-loving Ohio city. As with all successful leaders, it seems impossible to believe that she can do all that she does, but the students and the quality of the faculty reflect her hard work and the great tradition of the school. The University of Kansas has brought to its vocal department some extraordinary teachers, including the Distinguished Professor (a formal title if true) Joyce Castle, now in her forty-fifth year of opera performance. I was impressed at all of the voice faculty’s knowledge, intensity and commitment to their young artists’ success. Kansas University has had some high level donors who have provided a great concert hall, called the Swarthout Center after the late, great American mezzo-soprano, Gladys Swarthout, who hailed from Kansas; the Cincinnati College of Music’s concert halls and facilities reflect its high stature in opera education.
What pleased me the most in both schools was the reaction of the students, clearly an attitude instilled in them by their teachers. Every young singer displayed intellectual curiosity and was open to learn how to present his or her material in the most honest and professional way possible. Of course that is what is expected, but in my experience this is not always the case. These were young artists eager to try out any suggestion.
The balance of various voice types was encouraging. As to be expected, there were more lyric sopranos and lyric baritones, but the number of promising-to-very-good young tenors and even more than a few basses and lower-voiced mezzo-sopranos, two very rare voices in this era, was very promising. I heard for instance in Cincinnati an easily accomplished “O Isis und Osiris” with all the low notes authoritatively sounded resonantly and with color, and in Kansas an eloquent “Vecchia zimarra” with true bass sound. One mature soprano in Ohio turned out a really exciting “Suicidio” from La Gioconda, while a tall, handsome tenor in Kansas sang Lensky’s aria from Eugene Onegin in an expressive, stylistically superb manner.
The whole experience worried me in only one respect: where were these artists going to perform? Opera companies are not faring as well as they were ten years ago; the new technology millionaires are not as interested in furthering opera or any other fine art as their predecessors. The U.S. Congress has done very little to increase the funding for the National Endowment for the Arts since the huge cutbacks after President Reagan took office in 1980, and states, consumed with problems of funding all education, are less generous than before. So what does the future hold for so many amazing young talents?
The answer is that those who love opera must not only subscribe to their local companies (not just buy single tickets!!) and give when they can but stimulate the people who have the funds to give. Writing as someone who raised money for opera for over thirty years, this is neither difficult nor, as some think, embarrassing. The performances of bright young artists make contributing very satisfying, and though as a country we seem drowning in a sea of rock and rap, the value of opera (and ballet, classical music and drama as well) can be sold to those who want their community frankly to have some class. With so many great young people who are dying to show what they can do, we as opera lovers have an obligation on a one-on-one level to encourage the participation of those who can do it. No one has ever been offended by being asked to contribute or help, and large requests to the most unlikely subjects can result in shockingly great returns.