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Programs for young artists building opera's next stars

| Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013, 6:06 p.m.
David Bachman
PIttsburgh Opera resident artist Jasmine Muhammad at a Brown Bag concert in October.
David Bachman
Resident artist Danel Curran was a messenger in Pittsburgh Opera's 'Aida.'
David Bachman
Resident artist Phillip Gay as King Radames in Pittsburgh Opera's 'Aida.'
James Knox | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Daniel Curran (far right) and Phillip Gay (center) both current Pittsburgh Opera resident artists chat with Mark Trawka at the opera's headquarters in the Strip District.
James Knox | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Mark Trawka helps Daniel Curran, a current Pittsburgh Opera resident artist during a coaching sessionfor his role in the company’s upcoming main stage production of “The Magic Flute” at the opera's headquarters in the Strip District.

Defining luck as where opportunity meets preparation works particularly well in the performing arts. In classical music, that “overnight sensation” will have spent thousands of hours of study and practice to be ready to be lucky.

Rarely will a starring role be the big break in opera, but, more often, it is simply getting into the intensely competitive professional world.

In 1977, San Francisco Opera launched its Affiliate Artists Opera Program called Alder Fellowships, a visionary program that inspired opera companies in Chicago, Houston and other cities to launch their own young-artists programs.

The extensive stage experience and professional-grade coaching these programs provide leads some people in the opera business to say American-trained opera singers are the best-prepared in the world.

Pittsburgh Opera launched its young artists program — Pittsburgh Opera Center — in 1989 in collaboration with Duquesne University; an association that lasted until 2000. In 2008, the opera changed the name to the Resident Artists Program. The opera has featured the resident artists in main-stage productions at the Benedum Center and one production per season of their own, but will increase resident artists' productions to two in 2013-14 — “Paul's Case” by Gregory Spears and “Dark Sisters” by Nico Muhly.

After soprano Audrey Luna completed her masters degree and artist diploma at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, she knew she wanted her next step to be to join a year-long or multi-year young-artists program at an opera company. Pittsburgh Opera was her first choice both because she'd heard great things about the program and because “The Magic Flute” was scheduled to be performed in March and April 2007. The very high coloratura of the Queen of the Night role, feared by many sopranos, lies perfectly for her voice. She sang with Pittsburgh Opera's resident-artists programs for two seasons, 2006 through '08.

“I was the luckiest girl ever in covering Queen of the Night (as a resident artist). It was one of those fairy-tale big breaks where I was asked, or told, about 24 hours before opening night to sing all of the performances because (the singer hired for the role) was ill. It was the scariest thing I had done up till then and the most exciting,” she says.

Her success in the starring role jump-started her career. Queen of the Night was the vehicle for her 2010 debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. She's also sung Zerbinetta in “Ariadne auf Naxos” and Ariel in Thomas Ades' “The Tempest” in her dozen performances, so far, at the Met.

Luna is back in Pittsburgh to sing Queen of the Night in the opera's production of “The Magic Flute” that opened Nov. 9.

“In certain repertoire, the quality of the training in the U.S. for singers is probably the highest in the world,” says John McMurray, director of casting for English National Opera in London. “I'm not saying every young singer trained in the United States is the best in the world. I'm looking at the cream of the pool. That cream is at a very high standard and part of this development is coming through resident-artists programs.”

English National Opera was the first British opera company to have a young-artists program, which was founded 15 years ago and was based on American programs.

McMurray says two factors contribute to the strength of young American-trained singers.

“First, in the best of the university post-graduate programs and the best of the conservatory programs the attention to technique and to preparation for the business in the wider sense has retained importance, which has not always been the case in the rest of the world,” he says.

“Second, you see in the resident-artists programs opportunities coming to them at the point where they can make the most of the opportunity being offered.”

Canadian soprano Layla Claire, who is singing Pamina in Pittsburgh Opera's production of “The Magic Flute,” exemplifies McMurray's point. She chose the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia for her second master's degree before joining the Lindemann Young Artists Program at the Metropolitan Opera.

“I went to Curtis because it does so many staged productions, four or five a year with orchestra. With only a handful of singers, the shows catered to us,” she says. “Going to the Met program, I was singing secondary, smaller roles, but could be on stage with the great singers of the world. And the scale is enormous.”

At the Met, Claire had the opportunity to work with Kiri Te Kanawa and Thomas Allen, but re-encountering conductor James Levine was the highlight for her. She'd previously worked with Levine at the Tanglewood Music Festival in Lenox, Mass., and knew he had tremendous communication skills.

“He knows how to get what he wants and make us feel confident, and also respects our choices. He knows a lot more about music, obviously, but he never made us feel our choices were invalid,” she says. “He's also an acting conductor, in that, from the pit, he will transmit the emotion from his face and big blue eyes. He's with us.”

Current Pittsburgh Opera resident artist Meredith Lustig is singing Papagena in the production of “The Magic Flute.” She's a graduate of the Juilliard School's opera program and performed with New York City Opera before moving to Pittsburgh in 2012 to become a resident artist. Later this season, she'll portray Zina in “Dark Sisters” and cover Musetta as understudy in “La Boheme.”

“I think the Juilliard program prepares singers very well to function in an opera-house system,” she says. “I was pretty amazed at how easy the transition was from school to City Opera and the way things are run here.”

She was involved in four of Pittsburgh Opera's five productions last season.

“It was certainly the most roles I'd ever learned in a season. I never did that at school,” Lustig says. “But I'm in the professional realm now. They needed me, so I learned four roles. It was a lot of work, but the fabuous coaches make sure you're prepared. It's a great opportunity, even if you don't perform all the roles you're covering because now you have them in your back pocket.”

Young-artist programs are the point of entry to the professional world, emphasizes Sheri Greenawald, director of San Francisco Opera's Adler Center and artistic director of the summertime Merola Opera Program.

“By the time they become Adlers, the kids are already professionals on so many levels. They're really not students anymore,” she says.

Young artists are getting more work in main-stage productions because it's an economical way of casting smaller roles, says Greenawald, a former soprano who joined the Adler program in its second year. That also means comprimario singers, who specialize in secondary roles, are having much more difficulty finding work.

While young-artists programs are usually the finishing touches to a well-established career plan, major changes can still happen for the young singers, Greenawald says.

“Sometimes, you have a big girl singing mezzo most of her life because no one knew what else to do with her. Erin Johnson in our program now is making the transition to dramatic soprano. She has a high C the size of a truck.”

Greenawald says one of the dangers of teaching at academic institutions is that teaching to the room produces a particular kind of sound that doesn't carry in big opera houses.

“I don't teach to my studio. I teach to a 3,200-seat house. I always say if your sound doesn't hurt in my studio, you're not doing it well enough.”

Baritone Alex DeSocio, a first-year resident artist with Pittsburgh Opera, is singing First Priest in “The Magic Flute” and will portray Chaunard in “La Boheme” later in the season.

“Chaunard is my first principal role in a major company. I'm nervous and excited at the same time,” he says.

He spent one year after school at Colorado Opera's young-artist program, mainly doing outreach concerts.

“Pittsburgh is a jumping off point. I had a great time in Colorado, but here, you're with the big boys,” he says. “Pittsburgh resident artists are up there with Houston and Adler and the Met because we get so much experience on the stage.”

The proliferation of young-artists programs give singers difficult choices about which program to join because they offer different possibilities, according to Robert Gilder. He founded his artists-management firm 20 years ago and travels the world listening to young singers.

Gilder says the resident-artists programs of American opera companies are much older than those of European companies. While the Adler program at San Francisco Opera is more than 35 years old, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in London started its young-artists program only 10 years ago.

“I'm a huge admirer of the Pittsburgh program because they chose a very good array of young singers, currently including a young African-American bass named Phillip Gay. He had extraordinary talent but was patently unfinished when I heard him covering the role of the king in Aida at the Glimmerglass Festival (in Cooperstown, N.Y.),” Gilder says. “I felt he needed to join the resident-artists program for extensive coaching and extensive stage work.”

Gay was excellent as the King in Pittsburgh Opera's production of “Aida” in October.

“In my experience,” says English National Opera's McMurray, “the best young American singers are probably two years ahead of their British counterparts, and the British are probably two years ahead of their European counterparts, which is why you see major European opera houses with a lot of American singers early in their careers.”

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or

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