Opera training program leads performers to success
Talent often isn't enough, but with good, rigorous nurturing success occasionally can be swift.
Less than a year ago, mezzo-soprano Lindsay Ammann was beginning her first season in the Resident Artist Program of Pittsburgh Opera. The program, like similar ones at other opera houses, is the first step from academic work to a professional career.
Ammann had an exceptionally good first year. Now, she's looking forward to her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City in the coming season, when she'll also return for her second year at Pittsburgh Opera. Ammann will sing at the Met in April 2011 in performances of "Die Walkure" conducted by James Levine.
"For a singer or conductor or stage director, the Metropolitan Opera really does represent one of the pinnacles of operatic activity around the world," says Antony Walker, Pittsburgh Opera's music director.
Walker is making his Met debut in February 2011, conducting a performance of Christoph Willibald Gluck's "Orfeo ed Euridice."
"I'm looking forward to it incredibly, not only to be in that wonderful house and conduct that fabulous orchestra but also for a sense in my professional life that I have arrived," he says.
Ammann will be following a path to the Met taken by many previous members of Pittsburgh Opera's training program for young singers. In fact, she's one of three singers from the Resident Artists Program making their Met debuts in 2010-11. The others are tenor Noah Baetge and soprano Danielle Pastin, who have minor roles in upcoming productions.
"I think it's unusual, debuts coming together like that. It won't happen again for maybe a while, but it's an indication these singers came to be very well prepared talent, good diction, good on stage -- ready," says Pittsburgh Opera general director Christopher Hahn. "That's the aim of the program. Then, we push them out. Go. It's the nesting birds out of the nest. You'll fly. Don't worry."
Most young singers don't fly as far as the Met. The Resident Artists Program also functions as "a winnowing process that identifies people who have the drive, the calling, for the rigors of an international career," Hahn says. "Singers begin to realize this is for real."
Mezzo-soprano Marianne Cornetti knows those rigors well. She was a young artist with Pittsburgh Opera 20 years ago. Since then, she's sung at the Met 41 times, and often performs at Europe's top opera houses, such as La Scala in Milan, Italy, the Vienna State Opera in Austria and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in London.
But 20 years ago, Cornetti was very inexperienced. At a class at the end of her first summer, she was asked by Tito Capobianco, then Pittsburgh Opera's general director, if she'd like to sing something. She was sitting in as an apprentice, not an artist, which meant observing but not participating.
"Dear God in heaven, this is not supposed to be happening," she thought. But she said yes, and he asked what she wanted to sing.
"Una voce poco fa," she said, one of the famous arias from "The Barber of Seville."
Before she sang, he asked her what her character is like and where the aria takes place. She tried, "Her bedroom, I suppose." He insisted: "No, where does the opera take place?"
"I was so green I couldn't think of it," she says.
Tito told her she was nervous, not to hurry, and waited. It was a long wait. Finally, he said, "What is the name of the opera?" Oh, "The Barber of Seville," in Spain. She knew it all along.
Each season, the Resident Artists provide the cast for one opera production and many also appear in the main stage productions that provide the opportunity to learn directly from operatic stars.
"I'll never forget Sherrill Milnes coming up to me during rehearsals for 'La Traviata' and saying, 'Could I give you a pointer or two• Maybe the Italian here should be a little more. Don't be shy to really come into the scene,' " Cornetti recalls.
The Resident Artists perform in many settings in addition to the opera stage -- outreach and small fundraising events that can occur in a variety of places and settings.
"Many require tremendous concentration to retain focus under duress," Hahn says. "It's all excellent training for the stage."
Behind all the performances is studio work that goes through a much higher volume of repertoire than in school.
"The range of a young singer is often limited to an aria book their teacher game them," Hahn says. "When a young singer enters a program like this they suddenly encounter the enormity of the literature that's out there. They begin to enter the real work, singing duets and trios with other singers. It's a sea change from sheltered academia into a quasi-real world with a tremendous demand for new information, new repertoire."
The work isn't entirely a burden. It wasn't for mezzo Kate Aldrich, who starred in "Carmen" at the Met in April, a month after starring in Pittsburgh Opera's production of the opera.
"The biggest thing was that it opened my eyes as to repertoire. I think, going through college, the voice teachers are afraid of doing anything remotely too heavy for your voice," Aldrich says. "Young singers can be cornered in to very light repertoire, which is good to a degree."
At Pittsburgh Opera, she encountered heavier repertoire, but when she expressed concern that it might be a little too heavy, Capobianco told her, "That's why you're here -- to try."
"He was actually liberating," she says. "I felt incredibly liberated in my own instrument. Singing lighter rep had not been great for me."
Aldrich, who was in the young artists program in the 1998 and 1999 seasons, also emphasizes the collegial aspect of the young artists program, and she remains friends with many singers from her early years with Pittsburgh Opera. Among them is tenor Rolando Villazon, whose career has taken him to top opera houses internationally, including 27 performances at the Met, and who has made many commercial recordings.
Cornetti, who is grew up in Cabot, Butler County, returns to Pittsburgh Opera when she can, and was a sensational last-minute substitute in March 2008 in the company's illness-plagued production of "Aida."
"I think Pittsburgh Opera is doing a phenomenal job with the young artists program," Cornetti says. "Christopher Hahn has taken it to a new level. It's a pleasure to come back and see how the kids are getting the opportunity, just as I did. It's wonderful to see budding stars coming out of Pittsburgh Opera."