Category Archives: Interviews

Merola Opera: where future stars get loads of training and TLC

25 Young Artists. 7 Performances. And individual training, training, training galore.

Merola has served as a proving ground for hundreds of artists, including Susan Graham, Thomas Hampson, Anna Netrebko, Patricia Racette, Rolando Villazón, Deborah Voigt, and Dolora Zajick.

In short, Merola challenges and nurtures the “who’s who” of future opera stars.

Merola provides that bridge young artists need to access the professional opera world. Tenor David Lomeli, currently performing at the Santa Fe Opera Festival, was a Young Artist at Merola in 2008, wholeheartedly agrees:

For me, Merola was the place where the real world started, where I went from general training to specific training. I got to work with Chuck Hudson and Catherine Malfitano in my acting and with my teacher Cesar Ulloa that happened to be in Merola as a master teacher. I also got lots of work from it. They really work on giving you as much exposure as they can. It’s a program about the young artists–they are the principals of the shows–so everyone gets a shot on the spotlight.
–Tenor David Lomeli

Last week Merola artists or “Merolini” as they are dubbed presented four performances of Il barbiere di Siviglia. In ten days, Merola concludes its 54th summer program for young artists with a Grand Finale and Reception.

By all accounts, this season was very successful. Operatoonity interviewed Sheri GreenawaldDirector of the San Francisco Opera, who talked about this year’s program as well as plans for recruiting next year’s Merolini.

Peixin Chen as Basilio in the Friday/Sunday cast of 'Barbiere' |Photo by Kristen Loken

Sheri, how do young artists find out about Merola? (For instance, the artists from China, South Korea, Inner Mongolia, Venezuela, etc.)  We don’t ask singers how they hear about us, so I am guessing a bit when I answer.  We generally advertise our audition in Opera News and Classical Singer, and in addition, I would assume singers must know about YapTracker, where we now have our applications. Word of mouth is often the best way to hear about programs and with Merola’s reputation out there, I would be guess this is a big way that young artists hear about Merola.  Some singers come to us via recommendation, as well.  For example, Peixin Chen, a current Merola bass, was recommended by Francesca Zambello who heard him in China when he sang Zuniga in her production of Carmen in Beixing.

Can you tell readers about the annual process of recruiting/selecting a company? 
Audition announcements go out in August.  When the applications come in, we vet them and determine which singers will get an audition. Mark Morash and I personally audition singers in four cities, San Francisco, Houston, Chicago and New York City. At the end of this process, which generally means we hear and interview 400-500 singers, 30-50 pianists, and about 25 stage directors, we make our selection of the group. It is a huge undertaking but it is the best way, and really the only way, to really experience the vast talent out there and make our choices.

What sets Merola apart from other young artist programs, i.e., do you have more international artists than others; more success stories, greater numbers?  What distinguishes Merola from other summer programs (and I stipulate that we are talking about summer training programs, not permanent Young Artist Programs attached to a particular company) is that the focus is totally on individual training. We may use the singers to provide a small chorus for an opera, but we do our best to limit their involvement to as few a number of rehearsals as possible, so that they can still be having individual coachings every day. My particular focus is to send all the Merolini home in better shape than when they arrived. With the amazing coaches and teachers that we assemble for the summer, that is a fairly easy goal to achieve. We do accept non-US citizens into our program, but I wouldn’t say that is what makes Merola great. It really is about the individual attention that each of them receives.

Suzanne Rigden as Rosina in the Thursday/Sunday cast of 'Barbiere' | Photo by Kristen Loken

A related question, what in your estimation accounts for the program’s growth from a four-week to a twelve-week program? Merola deserves its reputation as one of the world’s most important training programs, not only because of the level of artistic offering but also because of the dedicated and smart board leadership. Merola has grown steadily throughout its 54 year history – in 1958, the program went from 4 weeks to 6 weeks, another bump to seven came in 1962 and as the program entered its second decade, the program expanded to 10 weeks and now, at the age of 54, we are at 11 weeks.  We’ve also always been on the lookout for new opportunities to offer, so the program now includes language, stage movement, career coaching, etc.  We have evolved with the ages, but as you know, slow and steady wins the race and Merola has always been conservative financially and ambitious artistically.

Where do Merola artists go after completing the program?  The path for young singers is as varied as the voices of young singers. Merola is known as the gateway to San Francisco Opera’s Adler Fellowship Program, so some of the Merolini do go on to this program. Others who participate in Merola are already committed to the year-round young artist programs at other major companies.   Some of them go back to school for further study, and some of them go directly into the world with professional contracts at companies. Opera is a complex field and successful artists take different paths towards that success.

Can you tell me more about the Merola event that took place on June 25 of this year? Who auditioned for what and who had the privilege of sitting in?  The General Director’s Auditions are basically for David Gockley, perhaps also Nicola Luisotti, and also the San Francisco Opera’s  artistic staff.  This is the first time David Gockley hears them, however they are not auditioning for anything in particular. It is the start of his impression of them as singers and artists.  And since Mr. Gockley is the head of the committee that selects the Adler Fellows, I suppose one could argue that this is the first step toward gaining an Adler Fellowship. For this event, Merola has a select group of patrons who are invited and so the event has a different feel than a normal audition. It’s a nerve wracking time for the singers, but the invited audience learns a lot about a singer’s journey and the artistic staff gets a chance to hear all the Merolini on one night.

Has technology impacted your outreach to artists and/or patrons and audiences?  From the perspective of our artistic process, the broad reach of Internet has enabled us to expand our reach to  singers. Certainly being able to do applications online has sped up that process.  Merola’s excellent marketing team is very savvy at social media. The company has an excellent website, an active Facebook page, and are experienced users of Twitter. Our young singers keep us current with all the tools of social media, and they are excellent partners to the Merola organization going forward.

What preparations have already begun for next year’s company?   In the midst of this season, we do have to think about next year. We are already preparing our audition materials to be sent to schools and institutions, and we have already selected audition dates and have our audition venues all lined up. We hit the  audition trail in October, once the applications will have been vetted, beginning in September.

Mark Diamond as Figaro in the Friday & Sunday cast of 'Barbiere' | Photo by Kristen Loken

Anything you’d like to add?  Merola is possible not only because of the work that we do at the Opera Center, but also because of their extremely dedicated membership.  With more than 800 individual members, many of whom are fanatic opera lovers, Merola is able to tap into the community for funding, audience participation, and support.  Merola members contribute financially, but also get very involved – sponsoring the singers, housing the singers, hosting post-event parties, bringing lunch for singers at break time, etc.  There are many famous singers whose Merola sponsors still attend performances around the world and stay in close touch.  It is truly a unique program  — wonderful for both the singers and the audiences.

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There’s lots more information and photos at the Merola Opera website. Visit http://merola.org. You can also follow them on Twitter @merolaopera and like them on their nifty Facebook page.

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Filed under 21st Century Opera, Classic Opera, Interviews, Opera Training programs, profiles

chattin’ up David Lomeli: Mexican tenor, toast of NYC!

Tenor David Lomeli

He’s an Operalia winner. He’s a recent graduate of San Francisco Opera‘s prestigious Adler Fellows program for the most advanced young singers.

As Nemorino in Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love presented by New York City Opera this past spring, tenor David Lomeli was the rising star New York critics raved about and audiences gushed over:

“Mr. Lomelí captured the opera’s potent combination of hilarity and pathos. He certainly deserved all the applause and bravos. He was, in a word, delightful.
–The New York Times (full review here)

After David sang “Una Furtiva Lagrima” on opening night (his first Elixir ever, by the way), the audience applauded for a solid minute and a half. “The choristers backstage timed it,” David said in a recent phone interview.

I saw David sing the role for New York City Opera. In my review for Backtrack, I cited his second-act aria as one the most magical moments I’d experienced as an operagoer, the kind we all pray to be in the audience for and are  fortunate to witness.

Without equivocation, David Lomeli was la estrella de Nueva York. As The New York Observer said in their feature “Who Matters Now,” David Lomeli brings “Latin ardor to the stage.”

In case you didn’t know, his first name David (which he pronounces daVEED) means beloved. How fitting! This is one performer who is simply adored — whenever he sings, wherever he goes.

It seems that this love fest for David Lomeli began 29 years ago when he was born in Mexico City into a musically talented family. As a small child, he had blonde hair and pink skin, and the thirteen women he grew up with fussed over him to no end because of his fair coloring. And it seems as though all the fussing over David Lomeli has never stopped. 

(Or maybe it’s only just begun.)

Since winning Plácido Domingo’s Operalia in 2006, to this day Maestro Domingo mentors him, regarding David not only as a protege but also embracing him like family. David has been generously encouraged by many big names in opera including Luciano Pavarotti who once told David that being a next generation opera star would be much harder than the challenges he himself faced because of the acting and staging demands opera performance requires these days. He considers another very famous Mexican tenor Rolando Villazón his generational idol.

David is currently playing Rodolfo in 'La Bohème' at Santa Fe Opera / photo by Ken Howard

David Lomeli is talented and  hard-working, putting everything he has (mind, body, soul) into each of his performances. He is uber-friendly, utterly charming, and yet very down-t0-earth, having agreed to be profiled on Operatoonity though he and I had never met prior to this interview.

His is fluent in English — he attended a British school in Mexico — and so his answers are his own. (No translation required).

Bienvenido, David! Since your performance in ‘Elixir’ so gladdened my heart (porque cantando se alegran, los corazones), it is such a pleasure to have this chance to talk with you.

Can you tell me a little about your childhood (besides being a native of Mexico City)–how you grew up and how it affected your decision to sing opera?
Well, in my family there was always music.  My grandmother and my mother were singers — my mom a mezzo and grandma a soprano. I was raised by them my first years. My dad plays the guitar. You can tell by the quantity and quality of the Mexican tenors, that we are surrounded my music all the time — between salsa, mariachi, corrido, cumbia and boleros we always singing. The opera path opened in college where I finished an engineer career in computer systems. The beautiful way of Mexicans to do things happened in college.

My university had a theater of 2,500 seats with  a concert series featuring artists like Pavarotti, Ramon Vargas and Gustavo Dudamel coming every year, a musical theater company that made many Spanish world premieres of Broadway shows and a full orchestra. But there was no music degree offered, so we did operas and musical with whatever student of other degrees wanted to do it as an extra credit. The opera company of the university offered to pay my tuition as an engineer if I dedicated my extra time to sing with them and that’s how it happened. They sent me to Barcelona and Milan to study my degree in evening with  musical training in the mornings. I learned a lot by doing performances, graduating with more than 300 performances in the school theater productions. It was a great period of my life.

David won Operalia in 2006, a competition open to all voice categories for singers ages 18 to 30 years who are ready to for the world’s great opera stages.

You were invited to compete in Operalia in 2006, representing the United States (according to the website). How did that come about?
You are right – the site says that I represented the US.  But, I am not sure why, because  when I won they said, “David Lomeli, tenor from MEXICO.”   I do owe a lot to my US  training and support, but my green Mexican passport does not lie.  Ha ha ha!  I am still proud to be Mexican! (The citation has since been corrected to reflect his real country of origin.)

What are your memories of that experience—being named a finalist and then winning 1st prize and zarzuela?
It was a dream come true. It was my first real competition, and  my career was starting so fast. In February 2006, I just was sneaked up by my teacher Cesar Ulloa for an audition with Plácido Domingo. By August of 2006 I had a legal working visa and I had my first musical rehearsal ever! And it was next to Ferruccio Furlanetto, Salvatore Licitra, Eric Halverson, the dear Dolora Zajick (she gave me multiple suggestions on voice and career) — all conducted my maestro James Conlon. It was wild! I was surrounded by new friends and idols like Rolando Villazon and Anna Netrebko and then — kaboom! Two months later I won Operalia. I really appreciate so much the judges that trusted me that I could represent the label of an Operalia winner, when I think they saw a green raw potential and they offered the help needed to really jump start my career.

I remember clearly the system —  I was last in the operatic round and also last in the zarzuela one. I didn’t have any rehearsal with the orchestra and I had never sang those pieces with orchestra ever. “O souverain” from Massenet’s Le Cid was my operatic piece, and it was a different version!!! And the zarzuela piece was very complicated. Thank God  Maestro Domingo was there to take care of me on the pit. An angel intervened that day for sure.  I was so nervous.

How has Operalia impacted your career since winning the contest?
It gives you a label that never goes away.  It is like being number one in a tennis rank or golf list.  It is an accomplishment that gives certain validation to your work.  And it is a very different kind of competition. Most of the competitions are judged by singers now retired or in their way to retirement. This is a competition judged by impresarios and general managers. Also there are more than 40 other scouts for management, PR and companies there. If you score high with the people that hire, then I think is a very good sign of your possible potential. Another positive difference  is that this is a world competition — you have to compete against the Latin tenors, the Russian beauties, the Korean baritones, the American superlatively trained musicians.

I think there are very few in the world that give so much money in prizes and accept singers from over the world. I was never a viable candidate because of my immigration status to compete in most of the famous competitions held at the US, so when I won this competition, certainly my career got a boost. Most importantly, it brought together my team.

Operalia and the L.A Opera Young Artist Program brought to my life my coach Anthony Manoli and my guru and agent Matthew Epstein. These men,  together with my teacher, have helped me shape every aspect of my singing nowadays. They are constantly pushing for vocal excellence, correct preparation of the roles, appropriate rest time, the suggestion of  having a little project every performance to improve something each time, and they ask me to retain a sense of every performance being better than the last. Also, of course, the help find me a lot of singing debuts. Ha ha!

What has been the greatest thrill in your career thus far? Greatest challenge?
The greatest challenge has been to understand that I was not yet ready. When I won Operalia, I was suddenly around the globe in operatic publications and magazines. I was mentioned in lists next to Ana María Martínez, Rolando Villazón, or Joseph Calleja. But I was really only an engineer. I needed high class training and on the speed of lightning. Thank God, Maestro Domingo and their family, the guys at CAMI (Columbia Artists Management, Inc.), and the people at the Merola Opera Program and Adler Fellowship Program at San Francisco Opera were there to calm me down. I needed help  to understand that this career is not of speed but of continuous improvement.

David as Nemorino in 'Elixir' at New York City Opera / photo (c) Carol Rosegg.

In truth, the greatest thrill of my career so far was the three previous bars to start “Una furtiva lagrima” on stage at NYCO for my premiere. I sensed it was the make-it-or-break-it moment for me. It was just a phenomenal rush of adrenaline and the moment that every tenor dreams about.  When I finished the aria,  it was a very big moment for me.  It made up  for years of sacrifice, lonely times when you lose yourself and then later find you in a different corner of a different city, wearing the same clothes, but speaking another language and a different composer.  It justified so many moments of tears. I was laughing and crying at the same time and I couldn’t stop for a long time after. It was at that moment that I had the sense of my OWN satisfaction with my own voice.

Do you have any favorites? Composer? Opera? Role? Venue?
I love Donizetti, and I am dying to sing more of it. Favorite operas:  Dom Sébastien, La Fille du Regiment. Favorite role: Duca d’alba. It is like Donizetti wrote for voices like mine. I adore his lines and the extension. My personality is a combination of Nemorino, Rodolfo, and Werther. So each three roles are a treat for my soul when I have the opportunity to voice them.

You got rave reviews in all the NY press after your debut as Nemorino for NYC Opera. How does it feel to know NYC is dying to have you back to sing? Are you coming back–soon (fingers crossed)?
As you know, the opera world is very booked in advance but there have been talks for me to come back.  It’s not yet possible for me to schedule a return, but I hope so in the future.

What is something most people don’t know about you, something not on your professional bio?
No one really understands how passionate I am about soccer. I have traveled the world for the experience of soccer in a stadium. I am a huge supporter of Manchester United and also my home team Barcelona. Just yesterday my country became champion of the world in the under 17 cup hosted in my birthplace, Mexico City.  To see more than 100,000  voices singing “Cielito Lindo” brought tears to my eyes so far away.

Where can we see you in 2011-12?
I start my season with the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto doing the Duke in Rigoletto, then I go to Germany to sing Edgardo in Lucia at Deutsche Oper Berlin, and again the Duke in Karlsruhe with my dear Stefania Dovhan as Gilda.  I am looking forward to my debut  in Houston Grand Opera with Maestro Patrick Summers as Alfredo  in La Traviata and also to my first major solo recital to be held in Birmingham, Alabama.  My season concludes with Bohème in the magnificent summer festival at Glyndebourne.

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David  is performing at Santa Fe Opera Festival through August 26, and is excited about Santa Fe’s upcoming Press Week (early August). He has a new website soon to launch, designed by the talented Catherine Pisaroni, who has created outstanding websites for many of today’s most renowned opera stars. You can also follow him on Twitter @davidlomelink, where he Tweets, con gusto, in Spanish and English.

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meet @mitchthetenor: sings internationally; loves American song

Mitchell Sturgess, tenor

Tenor Mitchell Sturges hails from Salt Lake City, Utah.  Currently, he lives in Tucson, Arizona, where he is under the tutelage of Dr. Kristin Dauphinais at the University of Arizona.

But in a manner of speaking, he’s like VISA. Mitch is everywhere you want him to be.

That’s because he’s really plugged into social media (he was one of the early adopters, judging from his huge friend and follower base), which is how I met him, and how I arranged for Mitch to be one of this month’s Talented Tenors.

Some of his past performances include leading roles in Gianni Schicchi, Il barbiere di Siviglia and Amahl and the Night Visitors, collaborating with the University of Utah Opera Theatre, Paradigm Chamber Orchestra, & Salt Lake Symphony.

In the summer of 2007, he sang the role of Gherardo in Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi & the Sergeant in Donizetti’s Rita in Pesaro, Italy, at international music festival La Musica Lirica. He has been a featured soloist throughout Salt Lake performing J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, P.D.Q. Bach’s Oedipus Tex, Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb, Dvořák’s Requiem & Händel’s Messiah. In spring 2010, he was a featured soloist with Utopia Early Music, performing music from 17th century England.

No wonder his Twitter username is @mitchthetenor. Being a tenor is his life and his livelihood!

Welcome to Operatoonity, Mitch!

Where did you grow up and how did it affect your life choices?
I grew up in Salt Lake City, and this definitely affected my life choices. When I was in high school, we were known for our music, specifically the choral arts, with approximately 500 students in the choir department.The arts here are supported very well, with lots of different performing organizations performing all 52 weeks of the year. In addition to the professional groups, there are quite a few community performing groups that offer solo performance opportunities to the young and rising talent of Salt Lake, giving the opportunity to perform with an orchestra and/or chorus. Beyond those groups, there are lots of community venues (churches, colleges, etc.) that have concert series that mostly feature local talent. This is one of the greatest things, as finding a venue is usually the hardest part of putting together a performance. Had I not grown up in a place where the arts are not as strongly supported, I could have gone in a completely different career.

Performing in MacBeth

Do you believe that being an opera/classically trained singer is your destiny?
Short answer: Yes. I feel, that wherever my career path takes me, I will always sing. I have a couple different interests in the classical music industry (in no particular order): being a professional singer, being an artistic director of a company or concert series, a faculty member at a college or university, or music director for a church. The nice part about some of these options is that, in some cases, more than one could occur. I think, as of right now, my career is lining up more toward being on faculty somewhere. While being on faculty, I could (and would) still have professional engagements around the world, and this is definitely an option during the summer. Even if I don’t end up at an educational institution, I have a strong love of performing and recitals, and would perform constantly, whatever my position is.
How would you describe your voice?
I would maybe say that it is like (read: heading towards) Rockwell Blake’s sound. I sing mostly Rossini & Mozart, but have a little more heft than the standard leggerio. That said, I have had my voice described as being ‘transparently clean’ and that I sing ‘honestly and with clarity.’

Singing in 'Betly'

What single experience has been the most meaningful in your operatic pursuits thus far?
The most meaningful operatic experience so far was when I went to Italy in 2007, and had the opportunity to sing in a production of Gianni Schicchi & Donizetti’s Betly in a young artist program. It was five weeks of pure bliss. During that time, in addition to our musical training, we were in 20 hours of Italian class each week.

Although not really operatic, the most meaningful experience for me in my classical training was this past summer when I was presented in recital at St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London. It was an amazing experience, and one I hope to repeat in the coming years.

Favorite composer? Favorite opera? Favorite role?  Favorite venue?
Picking a favorite composer is kind of like picking a favorite child. But, if pressed, it would be a tie between Rossini & Mozart. They wrote such beautiful timeless music. My favorite opera would have to be Barber of Seville–the music is so great and the characters are wonderful. My favorite role is usually whatever I’m working on, but Nika Magadoff in The Consul is quite a delight to sing. My favorite operatic venue is the Met, no question. Favorite concert venue is Disney Hall in LA. Favorite recital venue is St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London–the acoustics there simply divine.

What would you like to be doing in five years? Ten years?
In five years, I will be working on my DMA in performance. In ten, I would hope to be working professionally in some capacity in this industry. Ideally, I’d like to have a few years of real performing experience before I theoretically ‘settle down’ in a faculty position.

When did you embrace social media and how has it impacted your career or visibility. Or has it?
I started on Twitter mid-2008 on a whim and didn’t really use it to communicate with others until 2009. I don’t know if I could say that it has impacted my career . . . yet. My visibility has gone up though. What it has really done is put me in contact with people or groups that I would love to work with in the future.

What is something most people don’t know about you, something not on your resume?
I am an avid crocheter. I enjoy making afgans for my friends and family. This was actually something that was incorporated into an opera once…

a photo from his new website

Where can we see you in 2011-12?
In November of this year, I will be performing in The Consul with University of Arizona Opera Theatre. I have two recitals in March of 2012, one in Tucson, at St. Philip’s-in-the-Hills, and one at the Los Angeles City College. This recital is exciting as it is a test run of a recital I plan on taking to London and various parts of the US in the 2012-2013 season. Also, it features music that is a strong passion of mine: American song.

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You can find out more about Mitchell Sturges at his website. Or follow him Twitter @mitchthetenor or become his Facebook friend–where he is approaching godlike status with 2,292 friends (but would just love to have a few hundred more).

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get to know ‘Pavarotti of the Panhandle,’ tenor Eric Barry

Eric Barry, tenor

Eric Barry is setting himself apart with his distinctive sound–which is both passionate and earnest–and with his genuine facility for dramatic expression.

His performances have earned him international approval: the PBS documentary Young Opera declared him to be “the next big thing in the tenor world.”

The Spanish-American tenor has been heard throughout the US and Europe–including broadcasts on National Public Radio. Eric is a graduate of the prestigious School of Music at Yale University, where he earned both an M.M. and an A. D. in Opera Performance.

He has so many professional engagements in the coming year that they can’t can’t all be mentioned in this post. (I hope he packs as well as he sings!) Why? Because everyone wants to hear this young talent! (Including moi.)

Welcome to Operatoonity, Eric. We are very excited to learn more about you.

Where did you grow up and how did it affect your life choices?

Eric Barry at the Teatro Real in Madrid

I grew up in Sundown, Texas — population 1511.  Sundown is about an hour from the closest movie theater or mall, and over three hours away from the closest opera company.  My mother always listened to classical music in the house and every now and then played CD’s of ‘The Three Tenors.’  I remember hating it.  “They’re just screaming,” I’d tell her.  That was the most exposure I’d had to classical singing until I was 20 years old.  Little did I know that a seed was being planted way back then.

Years later I found myself studying business in college and basically tripped into an offer for voice lessons.  (That’s an entire story on it’s own!)  I was an accomplished trumpet player but singing was relatively foreign to me.  I remember thinking, “I have to read music and words??”  Nevertheless, I had a pretty natural gift for singing and kept taking lessons clear into my MBA degree. I’d get a gig every now and then when my voice teacher would recommend me for something and as time passed those gigs got bigger and more exclusive.  Within a couple of years of studying voice I had already sung for princes and presidents and all kinds of social VIP’s. It was quite a ride, and for being only a hobby at the time I was starting to get quite involved.

Before I completed my MBA, my voice teacher sat me down and told me that if I didn’t take the dive and study music full time I’d probably never do it. I took a trip to NYC with my teacher and my mom and sang for various people and eventually decided to move to the East Coast.  From there things really started to blossom. I’ve been on the coast for four years now and now sing opera full time. If you asked me just five years ago what I’d be doing in 2011, I most certainly wouldn’t have guessed this!

When did you know that you were destined to become an opera/classically trained singer?
Ha, ha. There is a specific moment in my life when I realized my potential, but that’s a very personal story that I don’t usually share because I consider the events somewhat sacred. I can say that after I stumbled into those voice lessons, I knew that I liked singing. It was fascinating to think that a single human voice could be so penetrating that it could be heard over an orchestra in a 2,000 seat house. But, it was at least three years after my first voice lesson that I realized I had real potential.

The longer I pursued the art form, the more opportunities began to present themselves. I was offered a gig with the local symphony, and a small role in the local opera company, then lead role, etc. etc.  I wasn’t even really pursuing it, but the opportunities were there. I decided to audition for a summer program and was accepted.  As I mentioned earlier, everyone encouraged me to move to New York and start working as soon as I could. So, in 2007, I packed up my car and moved. During that drive I remember collecting my thoughts as to how I came to the decision to make such a drastic change in my life, and honestly, it all happened so quickly I couldn’t even connect the dots. I was nervous, but proud of myself for taking the leap of faith.

Pavarotti of the Panhandle

You have been called the ‘Pavarotti of the Panhandle.’  Do you agree with the comparison?
A four-star general heard me sing the national anthem at a political event in Texas and started his speech by complimenting my rendition. He said, “I never thought I’d fly from the Pentagon for this event today and hear something like that. You have your very own “Pavarotti of the Panhandle.”  The event was covered by the newspaper and the title stuck from that point forward.

Let’s be honest…no one will ever replace Luciano. My talents pale in comparison, but I do think there is something engaging in my voice that is attractive to listen to. That distinct beauty is VERY present in Pavarotti’s voice. You can hear a recording of him from 500 feet away and know that it’s him within two measures. I think I have a distinct sound too, but more than anything we just look similar!

How would you describe your voice?
What a hard question to answer. I actually went onto my website to listen to a clip before answering this. My singing is very Italianate. That’s just the way I was taught – very long, legato lines with an emphasis on true Italianate vowels.  I have a decent range and can comfortably sing a tenor’s low-b to high-d on stage. I love romantic music, but can move my voice surprisingly well too so I’m starting to sing a lot of Rossini and Bellini as well. As to my timbre, I think I have a unique tone that has a quality I can only describe as “honest.” I don’t really know how else to describe it.

What  role/opportunity/person was the biggest single influence on your career?
So many people have played a large part in the succession of events that have put me here.  Dr. Joe Ella Cansler, my first voice teacher, is responsible for convincing me to take voice lessons in college.  Needless to say, I loved it, and without her I would most likely not be singing at all.

But, I’d have to say that Mary Jane Johnson has probably been the most influential person in my career. She is a dear friend of Dr. Cansler’s, was my second voice teacher, and is a small town girl from Texas who became an international star.  Mary Jane nurtured me, taught me everything I know about Italianate singing, and has worked me like a dog. We have laughed and cried together over the years and I consider her family. She still advises me to this day and will always be a fixture for me.

Curtain call for 'La Bohème,' Teatro Comunale di Sulmona in Italy

As to influential roles, they’ve all played a part in my growth. My most memorable production up to this point was La Bohème at the Teatro Comunale di Sulmona in Italy.  It was my international debut in my favorite opera . . . in Italy!  It was really a dream come true.

One of the most advantageous opportunities for me was studying at Yale University. They called me in May of 2008 and asked me to audition.  I nervously accepted, auditioned the next day, and ended up getting two degrees there in three years.  Being there opened a lot of doors for me and I was able to learn a lot about myself during my time there.

How did the opportunity to be on the PBS “Young Opera” special come about?
I received a call from the program host asking if I’d be willing to interview for a PBS documentary on up-and-coming opera singers.  I’m not sure how they had heard about me because I had only been singing full-time for less than a year at that point.  Heck, I didn’t even know I was “up-and-coming.”  But I did know that I couldn’t turn down the opportunity.  After the interview was aired on TV and posted to the Internet, it received an overwhelming amount of attention.  I’ve been fortunate to collaborate with that production team on other projects as well, but that initial interview was certainly a memorable moment in my early career.

Favorite composer? Favorite opera? Favorite role? Favorite venue?
Favorite composer:  Puccini (although Wagner is creeping up the list) Favorite opera: La Bohème. Cliché? Perhaps, but I love it. Favorite role: This answer changes with the weather.  On a serious day, maybe Don Carlo. On a light-hearted day, Gianni Schicchi is pretty great. Favorite venue?  Who doesn’t want to sing at La Scala?

As the Duke in 'Rigoletto'

What would you like to be doing in five years?  Ten years?
It’s healthy and important to review professional goals so I’m glad you asked that. I think it’s realistic to hope for very steady regional work supplemented by appearances in a few large houses in the U.S. and Europe (I am an EU citizen after all!) in five years, most likely singing Mozart, Donizetti, Bellini and some Rossini. In ten years, I’d love to be jumping between international opera houses singing all of that and Puccini. I LOVE concert work too. I’d be perfectly content singing requiems, hodies and oratorios wherever those opportunities arise too. And, since my background is in business, I think eventually I’d like to manage other singers careers!

What is something most people don’t know about you, something not on your resume?
I feel like I’m a prince of useless talent:  From spinning random objects on my finger to catching marshmallows in my mouth from seven stories high. Or being a killer ping-pong player, frisbee thrower, and competition kite flyer. Odd talent is my specialty, including singing opera I suppose. I also love to cook and travel with my own kitchen knives.

Where can people see you in 2011-12?
Currently I’m singing with the Wolf Trap Opera company. We just finished a run of Wolf-Ferarri’s Le donne curiose (Washington Times review, Washington Post review,) and I’m now prepping for a recital with Steven Blier and a production of Sweeney Todd (as Anthony) with the National Symphony Orchestra.  Here’s a rundown of my schedule for the rest for the 2011  (more in the works!):

  • July 10, 2011 – Recital w/Steven Blier, Wolf Trap Opera Company
  • July 22, 2011 – Sweeney Todd as Anthony, Wolf Trap Opera Company with National Symphony Orchestra
  • October 1-2, 2011 – La Bohème as Rodolfo, Amarillo Opera
  • October 14, 2011 – Symphony No. 1 by Frank Ticheli with the Yale University Concert Band

Eric will be touring the US in the Fall of 2011 performing the Mozart Requiem with the Munich Symphony:

  • Oct. 26, 2011 – Richmond, KY
  • Oct. 27 – Granville, OH
  • Oct. 28 – Carmel, IN
  • Oct. 30 – Manhattan, KS
  • Nov. 1 – Fayetteville, AR
  • Nov. 3 – Conway, AR
  • Nov. 4 – St. Louis, MO
  • Nov. 5 – Joplin, MO
  • Nov. 6 – Overland Park, KS
  • Nov. 7 – Lincoln, NE
  • Nov. 10 – Winston-Salem, NC
  • Nov. 13 – Athens, GA
  • Nov. 15 – West Palm Beach, FL
  • Nov. 16 – West Palm Beach, FL
  • Nov. 17 – Gainesville, FL
  • Nov. 18 – Daytona, FL
  • Dec. 1-4, 2011, Hodie by Ralph Vaughan Williams with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra

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Anyone is interested in the rest of Eric’s season, can visit him or contact him through his website. Or you can follow him on Twitter @ebtenor where his profile reads: Tenor, but also a sophisticated Spaniard, vaudevillian veteran, ultimate consumer, instigator/enabler, certified ninja, chef and visionary.

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meet a teaching tenor– K.E. Querns Langley

K.E. Querns Langley

K.E. (Ken) Querns Langley is a talented tenor and an international voice teacher. He has lived, taught as a vocal instructor, and sang in London and Italy. He studied classical voice with great teachers from The Royal College of Music in London, The Curtis Institute of Music, The Manhattan School of Music, and with coaches from La Scala in Milan, La Fenice in Venice, and The National Opera Studio.

Presently he is the Music Department Chair & Professor of Voice at the Pennsylvania School of The Performing Arts. His studio was recently voted, “Best Voice Lessons  in Philadelphia.”

One of Ken’s voice teachers lovingly exclaimed that his squillo (the resonant, trumpet-like sound in the voice of opera singers)  “could peel the paint off the walls.” Ken’s repertoire is primarily 19th Century Bel Canto & Romantic Repertoire, and he sings comfortably in: Italian, French, German, Spanish, English and Neapolitan.

He holds a Master of Arts in Humanities (Music, Opera & Language) and a Bachelor of Arts in Language (Music & Voice Performance).

Welcome to Operatoonity, Ken!

Where did you grow up and how did it affect your life choices?
I grew up in southern New Jersey amidst farms forests and wetlands. Most of my childhood was spent running through fields of corn playing ‘hide & go seek’ and building log cabins in the woods. Those were the days when parents could say “Go out and play!” and you would come home around dark, or when you heard them call for you. One of the most persistent sounds of my childhood was my grandmother yelling over the fields “Kenny” sustaining the finial “ee” in a high piercing belt voice.  The other thing about my grandmother’s voice was her yodeling. Every morning she would drive me to school and would yodel all the way.  I just figured that everyone’s grandmothers yodeled.

From that description, one would assume an idyllic rural upbringing, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. I spent most of my time playing outside because I couldn’t bare the thought of being inside. The son of an alcoholic mother and a deadbeat father, I was left to my own devices to raise myself, and “come up” as they say. My grandparents did their best to show me love and help me, but there is no substitute for a real family. So, when the time came to go to college at 17, I ran.  I ran as fast as I could and didn’t look back. When the city wasn’t far enough, I kept running … to London, Switzerland, Italy and back again.  How did it affect my choices? Simply actually, try not to get caught again in the fire from which I was wrought.

When did you know that you were destined to become an opera/classically trained singer?
I had begun singing as a boy soprano when I was 8 years old, and spent a lot of time in choirs and in the schools shows.  One day during choir rehearsal, the choir master stopped all the children asked “Who is singing with vibrato?” Seeing that none of us knew what that was, no one said a word. He then clarified, “Who is making their voice do this?” He made a rocking motion with his hands and 20 little fingers pointed directly at me as if to identify the one that should be taken off to the stocks, but the choir master’s response was “Good, keep doing that!!” Needless to say I was greatly relieved.  Thinking back, I imagine the damage he could have done by requiring me to sing straight-tone.

But honestly, I had no idea that I was suited to Operatic literature until I was 18 or 19 years old. When I began studying with a teacher from the Curtis Institute of music, I was told that I had an operatic voice and should consider training classically.  I was more interested in musical theatre at the time, but she insisted on classical rep. for technique purposes, and I found that I enjoyed the challenge.

How would you describe your voice?
It’s tough to describe one’s own voice objectively. I can only give a list of attributes, but as far as being descriptive, I can relay what I’ve been told. My two first principal teachers described my voice as having a timbre similar to Jussi Bjoerling, and as my first teacher described it “bronze colored with flecks of gold.” Whatever that means. Sounds like a compliment, so I take it.

Personally, I consider my greatest attributes to be: a sustainable full-voiced range well over three octaves (obviously not including falsetto which adds a significant interval), great coloratura agility (I enjoy fioratura and have a trill even in the upper register), Sustainable high-noted to D E F above High C, and a lush middle and lower register.  Now, getting it all matched up … that has been journey!

What is it about your voice that makes you so successful singing bel canto roles?
Perhaps I got ahead of myself listing my attributes. I think that the structure of the instrument itself is partially to thank, but it is difficult to know if it’s nature or nurture. I say that because during my formative training years I spent hundreds of hours singing along to Joan Sutherland while listening to her most famous roles. So I was performing difficult scales and training the muscles in bel canto style before I ever learned to fear the coloratura and sopracuti or ever realized the difficulty level what I was doing. I think had I not been singing along to Sutherland, I would have developed a technique, probably into much more dramatic music.  But all in all, I am glad that I was trained in a legitimate bel canto tradition.  My teachers came from studios of pupils of Marchesi and/or Lamperti, and I feel a sense of pride and continuity of history.

You are fluent in Italian. Did living two years in Italy impact your opera performance
I began my linguistic study with French actually. I had been studying French for 5 or 6 years before I began Italian and German, then Greek, Latin & Spanish. It just so happened that I had the opportunity to live in Italy, after 4 years in London, and that became the dominant language. I was quite lucky to learn Italian in Italy, because I was able instinctively understand the composition and importance of double consonants and the subtle shadings of vowels that occur under certain circumstances. You can’t really integrate the subtleties of a language from outside the country, because you don’t hear it everyday on the street or on the news, and you don’t have people CONSTANTLY correcting you in conversation. Also, living in Europe gave me an understanding of language diction that you simply can’t get from IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet), because many sounds use the same symbols which are actually pronounced differently in different languages.

Being fluent in any of the languages has truly impacted my ability to perform, because I am singing from a place of understanding, not of learning.  When you speak a language, you know the words and the structure and you have an intimate relationship with the language. Words give you an emotional response that can’t be replaced with acting. When you translate a word, your remove it from its own context and translate it into something you understand, but in the end it’s not the same. You sing the original, not the translation and you have to convince yourself of the meaning rather than truly feeling and understanding the significance … more than the meaning.

Favorite composer? Favorite opera? Favorite role?  Favorite venue?
Donizetti is by far my favorite composer and Anna Bolena, is my favorite opera. I have been enjoying this opera for decades and I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to see it coming back into the repertoire. I learned the role of Lord Richard Percy years ago, and was told that it was a waste of time, but it has now become an asset in my mind, because the role has sat with me for so long. Favorite venue is too difficult to say really, each one has their great aspects.

Why did you begin teaching? When did you realize you had an aptitude for teaching vocal performance?
The truth would have to be out of necessity. I was studying in London with Kenneth Woolham from the Royal College of Music, and I needed the extra income. I finally felt that I had acquired enough training that I had a least something to offer someone who had no training at all, low and behold I found that I was quite good at it. I was told by my teacher that I had “an ear for voice” but that really didn’t mean anything to me. I knew I was good with languages, because I had always been told so and had studied so many, and that my diction was good, even in German (I was once asked by a Dutch man if I was German after performing a German aria in concert). So, I knew I could offer help in that arena.

Very quickly,  I realized I could help beginners because it was nearly every week that someone new would come into the studio, not understanding how to bridge their passagio and get in to their head voice and it never failed that I was able to show them how to do it in that lesson. It was very rare that a student didn’t take to my technique. Then I began working with more advanced students, and the 10 years of hardcore language. Diction, style & coaching came in. It is truly enthralling to help a student understand the difference between Mozart, French or Italian legatos or how to approach a cadenza by different composers. Working legato and phrasing are very passionate and need to be fully understood and appreciated.

Website for Ken's voice studio

You have voice studios across the world. How did that synergy come about?
I began teaching in London, which is where my heart lives, but for visa reasons I had to return to the US until my EU citizenship came through. It took far longer than anticipated. In that time, I was able to develop my studios in the US and now have the opportunity to travel back and forth to the UK, and hopefully I will be able to expand. We are now considering opening a performing arts school in London which will offer most forms of dance, acting and music.

What would you like to be doing in five years? Ten years?
I should be based in London by that time, and I think I would like to be in full swing of a singing career. I’m not very old and have lots of tread still on the tires. The voice is very free and flexible, and the high notes require no more effort than the middle voice and the vibrato is nice and even, so I expect to have many more years of singing; barring that, I will continue to teach and develop both professionally and artistically.

When did you embrace social media and how has it impacted your career or visibility. Or has it?
Social media has become a necessity in reaching audiences. If you are not there, it’s as if you don’t exist. An artist either has to do it themselves or have someone do it for them. I have been using social media to promote my teaching and singing for many years, even before we had facebook or twitter. I’m not even sure there was a term for it then, but I was trying to get my name out there. But I really do enjoy being able to reach out and be more directly in contact with people from all over the world.  The difficulty now is the competition. Managing your online presence has become a second job and can be detrimental to the actual artistic work.

What is something most people don’t know about you, something not on your resume?
It’s so difficult to convey your personality in a CV. It requires the Social Media content to flesh out the artist with blogs, videos, pictures. So I guess it would be my dedication, perfectionism, comradely with fellow artists.  Any director or conductor that has worked with me has always asked for me again by name. I enjoy developing relationships with those around me and want to help us all work towards a more truthful and significant artistic environment. CVs tend to be lists of things, and what you get in the end is a sort of generic idea of what someone has done, with whom they’ve done and where they’ve been, but there is no soul … only PR. So, I would really like people to see the person behind the Tenor; a real person, a man and an artist.

Where can we see you in 2011?
I have a few recitals coming up, an Italiana in Algeri, and maybe a Cenerentola. But I will keep you posted as things develop.

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You can find out more about Ken’s voice studio at his website. Also, you can follow him on Twitter @KEQL and on Facebook at http://facebook.com/BelCantoSinger.

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Filed under Bel canto opera, Interviews, profiles, tenors

gaga for Marcy’s #operaplot!

Marcy Richardson, aka @OperaGaga

By her own admission Marcy Richardson, aka @OperaGaga on Twitter, is a soprano. Oh, and a lover of Handel, contemporary music, and sophisticated musical theater. Marcy also has a shoe fetish, loves aerial pole fitness, and laughs every single day.   

And one more important thing. She is a big winner in the 2011 #Operaplot contest, where you had to distill an entire opera plot into a single tweet. Judge Eric Owens selected five top winners,  including this plot of Marcy’s:   

I should be able to f*ck my maid. Apparently, no one else agrees. #operaplot [Le Nozze di Figaro]   

Marcy Richardson’s pithy (a scant 76 characters with #operaplot), plotty perfection! It’s bold. It’s beautiful.   

It’s blue.   

How lucky are we, then, to have Marcy give us the 4-1-1 on her prize-winning plot!   

Why did you decide to enter #Operaplot? Was it your first time?
I entered operaplot because my good friend and colleague Jennifer Peterson (gaspsiagore on twitter) told me as soon as it started, “You have to enter operaplot! You’d be so good at it!” I was like, uh…what’s that? So I had a few glasses of wine, went home, and just started writing. I was an operaplot virgin before this year. I didn’t even tweet before December! My Facebook status updates are rather legendary I must say, so it was only fitting that I start tweeting.   

Did you feel you had a winner when your plot was complete?
Not really. Non musicians often ask me, “What’s such and such opera about?” if I mention a show I’ve done or would like to be in. I try to give them the shortest and most concise/amusing answer as possible, so I’ve actually had some real life operaplot practice. I just started picking shows I liked and went for it. I loved the plots I wrote for Lulu, Boheme, and Capriccio as well. The Figaro one…I wrote it…I thought about adding more…and then I realized, nope! That’s it. That’s the whole show. And then I kept writing more plots. That one came to me VERY quickly and then I moved on.   

You specialize in singing baroque opera. Have you performed in Le Nozze di Figaro or simply know the opera? 
Yep. I’ve sung both Susanna and Barbarina in Figaro.   

Some have said you’ve elevated the f-bomb to an art form. Any misgivings about dropping it in your plot?
Of course not. I never have any doubts or apologies when it comes to dropping the f-bomb. I tested out using “screw” or “bang” for media’s sake when I was typing, and then I thought, no. That’s just not it. There is no real substitute for the f-bomb. It’s a great f*cking word. I f*cking love it.   

Any unusual reactions since winning the contest?
Nope! Nothing but congrats!   

What prize did you choose and why?
I chose the Deborah Voigt recital. She is a phenomenal artist–I got to sing shepherd boy in concert when she sang Tosca in Vero Beach and haven’t had a chance to hear her since! Though some of the prizes around the country looked really fun, that would not have been possible without free airfare and accommodations for a hustling bitch such as myself.   

How are you going to top this year’s plot or will you retire at the top?
If the spirit moves me and I’m feeling inspired, I’d enter again.   

How did you come up with your Twitter username @OperaGaga?
People often yell, “hey gaga!” to me on the street here in NY, usually when I’m wearing sunglasses–I guess we have a similar facial structure in some ways, light blonde hair, petite, and I’m not exactly conservative when it comes to how I dress. One day my voice teacher (Trish McCaffrey) said, “Hey, Mark and I have a nickname for you! Gaga! We don’t know if it should be MarcyGaga or OperaGaga or what.” I liked OperaGaga for a twitter handle when I was trying to come up with one later, so there it is.   

Where can we see and hear you singing in 2011?
I’m the soprano soloist in the Mozart Vespers on June 27th at Alice Tully Hall and am singing my second Dalinda in Handel’s Ariodante this March in Baltimore with Opera Vivente. Also, don’t forget to look for my Handel CD which I’m producing from my live concert/recording session of seconda donna Handel arias April 29th featuring fellow tweeps Jennifer Peterson (gaspsiagore), Bryan DeSilva (countertenorbry) and the OperaMission Handel Band. Other than that, if I don’t get some more work soon, I guess any interested parties would have to come shower with me and hear me then.   

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Learn more about Marcy, the soprano, at her website. Or follow her on Twitter at @OperaGaga. Read all five winning #operaplots and runners-up at the Omniscient Mussel here.

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Filed under 21st Century Opera, Interviews, Opera and humor, profiles

meet Amy J. Payne, young British mezzo

Mezzo Amy J. Payne

Amy J. Payne is a vivacious British mezzo-soprano who is amassing an interesting collection: glittering reviews. She’s being singled out for her performances, as in the comic opera Spinalba:

“Particularly successful in both facets was Amy J. Payne as Dianora.”
–Nick Breckenfield

And in Dialogues des Carmelites at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama:

“Amy J Payne gave a truly remarkable performance as Mere Marie. Payne conveyed a strength and depth of experience in her performance which is rare, she gave Mere Marie a real feeling of solidity.”
–Robert Hugill

 She graduated with a Masters in Performance with Distinction in November 2010 from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where she was taught by Theresa Goble. She also holds an Honors degree in French and German from King’s College, London.

At conservatoire, she has been directed in projects by Graham Johnson MBE (Vaughan Williams concert series, Nov 2008), Iain Burnside (Lads in their Hundreds, Jan 2009) and Sarah Walker CBE (Messiah, March 2009). In 2009 she was recipient of The School’s English Song Prize and won The Susan Longfield Competition. Last year she made her Barbican Hall debut with The Guildhall New Music Ensemble in Voices (Henze). Amy’s studies on the Opera Course at GSMD are very generously supported by Serena Fenwick.

As well as developing a career on the classical concert platform and on the operatic stage, Amy is a founder member of The Bombshellettes, the UK’s only 15-piece all-female swing orchestra.

Welcome to “Operatoonity,” Amy. It’s a pleasure to feature you this month–our first mezzo soprano.

Where did you grow up, what was your home life like, and how did it affect your life choices?
I grew up in a town called Newton Abbot in South Devon, UK., so I was exposed to a good mix of rural and urban living. I was blessed with a very happy childhood with one younger sister and parents and grandparents who provided every opportunity for us within their means. In terms of my life choices, I have have always felt that I have been ‘allowed’ to follow whichever path I choose and I felt that my upbringing gave me many choices as to which direction to take. My decision to follow a musical path was met with some concern by my family at first, but to their absolute credit they have always supported my determination to succeed.

When did you make the decision to pursue classical vocal performance as a career?  
In some ways I think I had always wanted to sing, but then I guess almost every six-year old girl wants to be a pop star! I remember singing constantly; making up songs and singing them to myself in the garden or in the school playground. I used to pretend to be Ariel the mermaid for Disney’s A Little Mermaid a lot! I enjoyed mimicking other voices. But the big moment came when I went to London with my mum and granny to see The Phantom of the Opera. I must have been about eight and became absolutely obsessed with the show. It made a huge impression on me, and I quickly learnt the whole piece by ear, with the aid of my double cassette original London cast recording and a libretto. Of course I wanted to be Christine, and I think probably then the first real seeds of an idea to sing for a living were planted then. Yet despite my mum encouraging me to join the local church choir, I didn’t really have the confidence, although later on I attended Newton Abbot Amateur Dramatic Society for a time. It wasn’t until I was fifteen that I had my first singing lesson (originally as a bit of a joke with my best friend!) and the teacher, Carolyn Harries, in her own words ‘got her claws into me’ and that was it, I was going to be a classical singer and no-one was going to stop me!

How would you describe your voice? When critics say ‘quirky,’ what do they mean?
This is a very difficult question! My voice is my voice and I can’t imagine having another. I feel lucky that when I sing I am recognisable as me and I guess that must be what critics mean by ‘quirky’. I stick out from the crowd a bit, which I like to think is a good thing! One thing I will say though is that I like my voice, I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but I think it is important to love your own sound, not least because you’re stuck with it, and it is surprising how many singers you meet, who confess to not being fond of their own sound! I don’t think I would singing if I didn’t think I had something worth hearing.

How is the UK as a location to launch a professional singing career?
I suppose I have to answer ‘great’ to this question, as so far so good for me! Although I want to see the world through my singing, and am a very definite Europhile, having lived in France, Germany and Austria, I hope that my career stays rooted in the UK. I certainly intend to start my career here. Of course if opportunities dry up, I may have to look elsewhere and that would probably be Germany, but for now I am giving it my best shot here and hope it eventually takes me to other shores.

Singing with the Bombshellettes

You also sing in a swing band. What is your role with the Bombshellettes? (I watched a YouTube video of you singing “Apple Blossom Time”–Andrews Sisters style. In a word–fab!)
I’ve always been interested in keeping my vocal activities as broad as possible. Having sung in musicals, chamber choirs, operas and big bands, I feel lucky that I can use my voice in different ways and don”t see why I should stop doing that so long as one technique doesn’t interfere with another. When the opportunity to sing with The Bombshellettes (the only UK all-female swing orchestra) came up about two years ago, I jumped at the chance and was delighted when they were happy to take on an opera singer! Having sung and played saxes with the big band at Exeter College, where I studied A-Levels in Music, English, French & German, I really missed the ‘swing thing’ and the opportunity to be part of this new ‘1940’s girl band’, came just after I had returned to Exeter to sing with a band made up of college alumni and I well and truly caught the bug again. I don’t really play much anymore, so I just sing with the band – and it is so much fun! It’s lovely to perform when your sole purpose is to make people smile and dance – quite a nice antidote to the constant critical ears one is performing to in the classical world!

You’ve done opera performance, oratorio and recitals? Do you prefer one over the others?
Opera is without a doubt my favourite genre, although I do enjoy recital very much also, and hope my careers takes me in a direction where I can do both. I find oratorio the most nerve-wracking of the three, but when a performance goes well, it is often the most rewarding, as things are often rehearsed only on the day with all performers and can be a bit of an unknown quantity. However my real passion is for getting inside a character and finding their physicality and their voice. I am never happier than when getting to grips with a new operatic acquaintance in the rehearsal room. I feel the most creative freedom on the operatic stage and despite, portraying somebody else, I probably expose most of myself in an operatic performance than in recital or oratario.

What would you like to be doing in five years? Ten years?
In five years, as in ten years, I would love to be enjoying a busy and varied career of opera and concert work, and hopefully with a bit of swing and musical theatre thrown in for good measure. I am very at home in London, so I’d hope to be even more settled here, with maybe a place elsewhere where I could walk my dogs!

To what extent have you embraced social media and how has it impacted your career or visibility?
I’ve had a website now for about a year, and until recently I really hadn’t noticed it had made any difference, but I felt it was important that I was in control of what people would see if they ‘googled’ me. In fact, you are the first person to contact me through it! But I hope people do go onto it and have a clearer idea of what I am about! I have been using Facebook for many years and some months ago joined Twitter in order to keep Facebook more for social purposes. Twitter so far has proved very useful for professional purposes. Keeping up with the latest developments in the opera world is fairly easy to as most houses and companies have Twitter accounts and jobs are also occasionally advertised. So overall, certainly useful. I have been booked for several gigs now through Facebook or found audition notices, and Twitter has raised exposure for my website and brought about my first interview!

What is something most people don’t know about you, something not on your resume?
I am a huge fan of Robbie Williams, born of being a Take That teeny-bopper! It is an ambition to sing with him one day – I’d kill to be a backing singer on tour!

Where can we expect to see/hear you in 2011?
This year I am making my summer opera festival debut at Garsington Opera. I am covering the role of the Second Lady in The Magic Flute and singing in the chorus. Later on in the summer I shall be at the St. Endellion summer festival, singing Schwertleite in Die Walkuere. I know I am a bit young for Wagner, but it was an opportunity to share a stage with some of the UK’s greatest living Wagnerians (Susan Bullock and Robert Hayward to name a couple!), and I couldn’t turn it down! It should be a wonderful fortnight-long masterclass! Yet before all that there is a recital of Handel and Purcell here in London.

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To learn more about Amy and her promising career, visit her website, follow her on Twitter @AmyJPayne or friend her on Facebook.

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Filed under Interviews, profiles, sopranos

meet soprano Samantha Jade Ash, opera lover and opera hopeful, who speaks Urdu!

Samantha Jade Ash

She blogs. She Skypes. She Tweets. Samantha Jade Ash may be the friendliest teenager I’ve ever met on Twitter. Now that I think of it, do I talk with any other teenagers on Twitter? Not that I know of, unless the irrepressible @leboyfriend is really a teenager and was just putting me on. Not to mention, that I raised a teenager. I think my daughter’s entire vocabulary between ages 14 and 19 consisted of, “Good. Nothing. Fine. No. Yeah. Hunh-uh.”     

Something else you need to know about  Samantha Jade Ash is that she’s a very upfront girl. I remember one of Twitter’s Follow Friday’s (#FF) when Samantha said to me, “Hello, Operatoonity. Why didn’t you include me in your Follow Friday list?”     

Good question, Samantha. I doubt when I was seventeen, that I would have had as much confidence as she has interacting with adults. In fact, I rarely talked with adults. But Samantha’s a pro at it.      

I knew there was something different about Samantha, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Then she posted a link to her blog on Twitter, and I read her profile.  That’s when I learned that Samantha was, in fact, totally blind.     

I could scarcely believe it. This self-assured young lady who is a presence on Twitter is physically blind? I also listened to her audio clip. Right then I decided that when soprano month came around next spring, I would ask Samantha if I could interview her on “Operatoonity.”     

And thankfully, she said yes. Because when you read this, you’ll be inspired by her story,  just as I was. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll feel a stronger connection to things that are good and right in this world, as I did, courtesy of one Samantha Jade Ash.     

Samantha, welcome to “Operatoonity!” So nice to have a chance to talk with you.     

Where did you grow up?
I grew up on the Isle of Man, a small island in the British Isles in between England and Ireland. I still live there and am planning to move to a college for the blind in Hereford, in the UK, this September, all going well, and if I get the grant.     

When did you begin singing? Did you start with lessons? Do you still take lessons?
I still take lessons. I started singing when I was about 4 years old, just singing little pop songs, that were on the television or radio at the time, and used to make my own, about how good my Nana was on the keyboard. 🙂 Apparently, people said I had vibrato in my voice back then as well. I told them: “I bet I sounded cute, didn’t I?” I then joined my first choir, in primary school, when I was 8 years of age, as a soprano.  By then I could already hit g5 which wasn’t a struggle. I then, moved on to the high school choirs at 11. There I was also soprano. I did not like the choir however, as they did not warm up before doing the pieces, they just  jumped straight in to them.     

I then was recommended by the teachers, that I join the Manx Youth Choir, at the age of 13. I joined, with the prospect of the choir going on tour. I was placed in the mezzo soprano section. I knew that straight away, it was too low for me and did not show my voice at its potential. Luckily for me, the sopranos were just a seat down, so I moved, without them noticing, telling them, “I am soprano, not mezzo.”     

How and when did you become interested in opera?
My granddad always used to play records of Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, Jose Carraras, Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, and all the greats. He would play Mario Lanza at Christmas and there is one song that will always be sentimental of his, and that is “Guardian Angels Around my Bed.” It was a prayer written by Harpo Marx, and Mario Lanza sang it. Every year, I would be in my room, and the sound of his voice would drift up through the house from the record player downstairs.     

I’ve been exposed to opera from the age of just a few months probably, but never really knew I loved it. The real time I discovered my true love for it, was Christmas 2007. Just before, I had suffered with a cold. I started to get pains in my back, which became worse over the week. One day, I could not move or breathe properly, as the pain was too bad. I was rushed to hospital and told I had pleurisy, where the lining of the lungs is inflamed. Sitting at home, recovering on Christmas day, I was called by Nana to listen to Andrea Bocelli‘s story on the television. I tried to decline, but came down. Immediately, when I heard his voice, I burst in to tears. I ran from the room, grabbed the CD I had received for Christmas, ran to the stereo in my room and played it, trying to find the song, “Melodrama” that made me cry and want to be like him so much. I found it and burst into song, as if I knew the tune already.     

"Time to Say Goodbye"

That is also where my dream for a singing career started. a few months after, I was told I could sing for  the school album. I decided I would do it. Running into the music room, I discovered they were writing their own songs, which I knew I could not and would not want to do. I asked, “Could I sing in Italian?” The teacher agreed. That was when I sang “Time to say Goodbye.” After that, I was stopped on the streets, being asked “Are you the young singer that sang ‘Time to Say Goodbye?’ My son showed it to me and that was the only song he loved on the entire album.”     

Over and over I was stopped by different people. It felt really strange at first, but then as I got used to it, I enjoyed it. I was prepared to talk and still, always am. 🙂     

Have you been to the opera? If so, what are your favorite artists or recordings?
I have never been to the opera, but it is something on the list; I need to sort out, if I want to become an opera singer. 🙂  I have had the privilege though of going to classical concerts, and there’s nothing like a live orchestra! It is only an experience one can explain, if you go there yourself. The orchestra does that for you. The vibrations that go through you are absolutely awesome, not like anything you have heard on the television, it is simply the best experience you will ever have in your entire life.     

My favourite tenors and sopranos are: Maria Callas, Dame Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti, Montserat Caballé, Renata Tebaldi, Renata Scotto, Angela Gheorghiu, Jose Carraras, Placido Domingo, Juan Diego Florez, Rolando Villazon, Andrea Bocelli, and many more of them which would be too much to write probably. 🙂     

You’ve been blind since birth, yet you started playing piano at age two? How did you learn to play at such a young age? Do you still play?
I was born premature at 25 weeks, weighing 1 pound 11 ounces. I was one of a twin, but sadly after I was born, just two days later my twin, Benjamin, who was 1 pound 14 died. I was diagnosed with retinopathy of prematurity, where your retinas become detached. My nana started encouraging me to play the piano, as it would strengthen my fingers for a braille machine. I was given small keyboards, and got very cross when I couldn’t play with two hands on them. I used to say: “Why can’t I play with two hands on this thing! I want one where I can play with two hands.”     

I just knew my way round the keys because of the sounds and always found middle C, 4th octave before playing anything. I went in to a solo performance contest at primary school. I played a prelude by Bach. They had a hard decision to make between a friend of mine, who danced or me. When they said my name, that I won the cup, I was stunned. I told my friend to go and get it as she had won not me. She said: “No go up there Samantha! You’ve won!” Lifting the cup, I was amazed and in tears.     

Do all your hobbies revolve around music?     

Urdu, a language of India and Pakistan

No, my hobbies are also languages, geology, the likes of plate tectonics, volcanoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, and things like that. I also love languages, and speak French, German, Spanish, Italian, a little Urdu, and a tiny bit of Chinese and Russian. My German and Spanish need improving though as they are very bad! I also like the human body and medical things as well. I watched documentaries when I was younger about how everything worked.     

What are your goals regarding your music studies?
I would, after I have been to a college for the blind to develop my independence, like to study at a music conservatory and gain a degree in music and then opera, then, if singing works out, go and perform around the world in places like the Metropolitan Opera, the Royal Opera House in London, and go to all the huge arenas, too. I would also like to give master classes and teach people, passing my passion for singing and opera on to them too.     

You have a blog, and I met you on Twitter. I know you also use Skype. How are you able to use the technology or how is it adapted for you since you can’t see?
I use a screen reader, a piece of software that speaks items on the screen. For my mac, I use Voiceover, which is built in to the machine, for my net-book I use Jaws, a screen reader you unfortunately have to buy. I just use the keyboard for everything and learn all the shortcut keys.     

It’s been said that when one sense is taken away, people often have heightened development of others. Has this happened to you?
Yes, my hearing is more acute then any of my other senses. I notice that more so when onstage. All of a sudden, it’s like someone has turned up the volume, and I can hear almost everything around the room, even a pin drop.     

If you could tell people one thing about yourself you would like them to know, what would it be?
I would let my voice tell you that one thing, I love singing and would love to become an opera singer. If you listen to me singing, that’s when you’ll know. 😀     

Here is an audio clip of Samantha  practicing an aria at home with a backing track done by an orchestra:     

Samantha Jade Ash     

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You can follow Samantha Jade Ash on Twitter @SamanthaAsh1993 and read her  new blog at http://samantha-samanthajade.blogspot.com/. And Samantha, it is my sincere wish that you have a chance to see a live opera performance sooner rather than later!   

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