BOTH ART AND CRAFT: Lyric Opera to show off new Resident Artists in ‘American Voices’ program
People seldom become opera singers willy-nilly. It’s a step-by-step process not unlike the acquisition of any other professional skill. It’s also an art-form, and thus success can be more elusive. But these days there’s a fairly fixed course of action for a career on the opera stage, and at the center of this process is participation in one of the numerous post-university Young Artist or Resident Artist programs around the country. Here ambitious singers are allowed to “park” for a few years, not just to hone their craft but also to wait until their voices reach their full adult potential—which sometimes doesn’t happen until a singer is in his or her early thirties.
Perhaps the newest Resident Artist program in America is the one established in 2016 at the Lyric Opera of Kansas City, which last Spring graduated its first “class” and this season invites a new crop of five gifted young artists. On March 24th at the Frost Production Arts Building, all four singers from the new group (soprano Marlen Nahhas, mezzo-soprano Lauren Auge, tenor Martin Luther Clark and baritone Tim Murray) and their coach-accompanist, James Maverick, perform American Voices, a recital tracing the history of the American art song.
Forming the season finale of the Lyric’s path-forging Explorations Series, the program includes music by Amy Beach, Charles Ives, Samuel Barber (the Hermit Songs on texts by Medieval monastic poets), Jake Heggie, Juliana Hall, and the fascinating 1949 Cantata by the African-American composer John Daniels Carter.
In addition to frequent solo appearances (in schools, churches and other community settings) the RAs take part in the Lyric’s main-stage productions: All four singers were in the Lyric’s Rigoletto that ran recently at the Kauffman Center, and some will take part in the company’s upcoming production of The Barber of Seville, which runs April 28th through May 6th.
“Creating this Resident Artists Program has been a goal of mine since my arrival,” said Lyric General Director Deborah Sandler when the program was first announced. “Our intent is to give these artists access to the opera world’s leading conductors, directors, principal artists and Company leadership, and to help them grow as artists within this industry.” The program would also “increase our visibility in the industry as we commit to creating the next generation of exceptional artists for this beautiful art form.”
At the heart and soul of the RA program is world-renowned tenor Vinson Cole, who in 2007 moved back to his native Kansas City (after a career on the world’s major operatic stages) having already become one of America’s most sought-after vocal teachers. Vinson has not only performed with many of the major conductors of our time and sung on the stages of the Metropolitan Opera, La Scala, Covent Garden, Bastille Opera Paris, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Bavarian State Opera, Seattle Opera and many others: He also knows the music business as well as anyone you’ll meet.
Having already taught at the Cleveland Institute, the New England Conservatory, Aspen Music Festival, Santa Fe Opera and many other places, when he joined the faculty of the UMKC Conservatory—where he had started his own collegiate career before the school even had a “vocal major”—it was a homecoming of sorts. And the Lyric saw Vinson’s presence here as a prime opportunity to get him involved in something that could expand not just the Company but the Kansas City community as a whole.
There was much work to be done. Vinson gives his all to helping these artists make the difficult leap from semi-professionals to full-time opera singers. “Kansas City has many boasting rights and among them is one of opera’s most distinguished musical and operatic talents as its citizens,” Deborah said of the tenor, whose performances and recordings with conductors such as Karajan, Abbado, Giulini, Muti, Solti, Maazel, Mehta and others are legendary.
There’s no question that “Vinson was a great draw,” said Texas-born Martin Luther Clark, who cherishes the program’s generous availability of a teacher with “a world-class voice and a world-class career.” He’d heard of the successes Vinson was having as a teacher and said he knew “he would be really good for my development at this early stage of my career and of my vocal development. It was a no-brainer: ‘Let me go study with Vinson Cole!’ ” Who better than a fellow lyric tenor to help him through this transitional stage of his career? “There are aspects of this career that you learn as you go. … And then there are also aspects of this career where people can guide you through and give you good advice, because they’ve gone through it.”
Marlen Nahhas, who will sing the role of Berta in Barber, also said that when she heard Vinson was part of the Lyric’s program she was drawn to “this amazing master teacher,” as well as to the program’s access to the “incredible artists that the Company brings in.” Marlen, who grew up in Houston but has family ties to Mexico and Lebanon, started her training with the idea of going into musical theater, but when she first experienced opera she was hooked. “As I got older and became aware of the challenges of opera, it became another sort of exhilarating outlet,” she said, adding with a laugh: “To master this insurmountable art-form … became like a thrill-seeking thing. And that’s when I decided to go into opera.”
One unique aspect of the Lyric’s RA program is the sheer amount of time that the Residents get to spend with Vinson—this in addition to involvement with the main-stage productions that can include serving as understudy for lead singers. “They get coaching every day, all four of them, and then they get a voice lesson once a week,” Vinson said, adding that this is just one piece of the puzzle. “One desires the whole package: You want a voice, a musician, an artist, and you want somebody who can go onstage.”
He said he realizes the Lyric is competing with similar programs at the Met, San Francisco, Lyric Opera of Chicago and many others. “But I have hopes and dreams that we can accomplish, in a smaller way, what other companies are able to do in a bigger way. … Our goal is to get them out there to have careers, and then maybe come back and sing on the main stage. … Plus I want them to enjoy what they’re doing.”
Make no mistake: These RAs, selected from a field of nearly 300 applicants, are absolutely serious about their careers. Marlen fell in love with opera singing title roles in works such as La Bohème and Madama Butterfly, and her goal is to perform these and as many other roles as she can. And smaller roles are fine, too, as long as she can pay the bills. “If I do it in a small house or a huge house is irrelevant. … Just being able to survive while doing roles that I love is the main thing.”
For tickets to the March 24th American Voices call 816-471-7344 or go to kcopera.org.
Group photos by Aaron Lindberg. All other photos courtesy of the Lyric Opera of KC.
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