- Associated Press - Saturday, May 14, 2016

PITTSBURGH (AP) - Talent and determination may be the most common ingredients in success, but for young singers aspiring to a career in opera, they are not enough.

There is much to learn, from the fundamentals of musicianship to how to use one’s voice properly, from foreign languages to acting and movement, as well as vast amounts of repertoire and how to be a good colleague.

Actual performance in the academic settings of universities and conservatories is an integral step in operatic learning. Beyond that, many singers have found the young-artists programs at professional opera companies provide invaluable training for the highly competitive world of opera.

In Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University and Duquesne University offer undergraduate and graduate degree programs and present their singers in concerts, opera scenes and staged productions of complete operas.

Pittsburgh Opera’s young-artists program takes preparation for a career beyond academia to the practicalities of professionalism.

“Come to Pittsburgh Opera, and you’ll get as much on-the-job training as you will desire and then some,” says general director Christopher Hahn. “By the end of this period of time, you’ll have all the tools at your disposal for a strong, viable, productive career.”

Competition is intense for young-artists programs, which are now offered at most major opera companies. Pittsburgh Opera receives 600 applicants every year for two to four openings.

Mildred Miller Posvar, who sang at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City and top European opera houses in her prime in the 1950s and ‘60s and has taught voice at CMU for 17 years, says students typically first need help with the placement of their voice.

“Most of the kids have been performing in their high-school musicals, so the voice is often placed for Broadway singing way back in the throat or in the nose,” says Posvar, who founded Opera Theater Pittsburgh to feature talented young singers. “The voice has to be thrust, head voice through the resonance. Without the support and the breath, you don’t go anywhere unless you scream or use a microphone.”

After two years at Carnegie Mellon singing song literature and in a choir, as well as working on sets, lighting and other opera production work, young singers finally get to confront the challenges of singing operatic repertoire.

“In a song, you can pick a key that is comfortable and won’t expose anything,” Posvar says. “The challenge in opera is you have to sing in keys that are probably not as comfortable and you’re stuck with it. Often, it’s a much higher key.”

Genko Guechev, who enjoyed an international career as a bass-baritone and is director of the opera program at Duquesne, emphasizes the need for pacing the development of the voice, which includes not singing opera at the start of college.

“The voice is very fragile in the beginning. The vocal folds are not fully developed and although they can already sing like an adult, we have to be very careful as the voice teacher not to push the voice,” he says. “I’ve heard many voices around the world that have been damaged by improper repertoire given to them by their teachers at a very early age.”

That’s why young singers wait for music requiring a heavier and more powerful voice, such as works by Giuseppe Verdi, Richard Wagner and Giacomo Puccini.

At Duquesne, young singers start with songs and choral work, before performing arias, operatic scenes and ultimately complete operas.

Soprano Alianna Whiteaker-Chudecke, in the second year of her master’s degree at Duquesne, sang the starring role in the school’s production of Gaetano Donizett’s opera “Rita” in February. Her mother began taking her to the opera when she was in second grade, but she didn’t decide she wanted a life in opera until she was 13.

“Opera somehow spoke to me. You put your own interpretation into that character and use your own experience to communicate with the audience,” she says. “My parents told me, ‘Let your light shine and bless others with your voice.’ “

For all her interest and enthusiasm in high school, Whiteaker-Chudecke says she didn’t grasp what it actually meant to learn opera.

At Duquesne, she found her vocal niche as a lyric coloratura soprano, essential for identifying the parts of the operatic repertoire to which she is best suited. Whiteaker-Chudecke has already learned roles in several major operas and was a district finalist in the 2014 and 2015 Metropolitan Opera National Council auditions.

Carnegie Mellon voice teacher Maria Spacagna is proud that CMU’s program requires voice students to perform an operatic role in each of the four semesters of the junior and senior years.

Spacagna, who was the first American to sing the title role in “Madame Butterfly” at La Scala in Milan, Italy, emphasizes that a life in opera is not all glory.

“It’s a very difficult life,” she says. “Yes, it’s exciting because you’re doing something you were meant to do spiritually, vocally and emotionally, but if you don’t have that real desire, determination and discipline to take care of yourself, then you should do something else.”

Spacagna enjoyed a long career, performing into her upper 50s, and she was scrupulous about getting enough sleep, eating well and being well hydrated.

By the time she stopped performing, she was tired of packing suitcases and wanted to spend more time with her family, including grandchildren. She had never thought of teaching but decided to give it a try.

“I fell in love with it. I think I like teaching maybe even a little bit more than performing,” she says. “Watching the young people grow, I get emotional. I hope to do it forever and ever, just like Millie (Posvar).”

Guechev also characterizes working with his students as the high point of his life.

“They have dreams, big dreams, and we’re part of their dreams,” he says. “I never worried for myself when I was on the stage, but when I go to hear my students at auditions I’m sitting on the edge of my seat.”

Two of Pittsburgh Opera’s six shows in a season are fully cast with resident artists, who have the opportunity to perform in the main stage productions at the Benedum Center.

The composition of the resident artists’ roster at Pittsburgh Opera, according to Hahn, is based on a general aggregate of the voice types the company would likely need in a season. That means two sopranos, high and low, two mezzos, one tenor, who typically excels in lighter Mozartean roles and coloratura, and a baritone or a bass-baritone.

“Our premise is to look for the best possible instrument in each voice type,” he says. “We want to serve first the singer, the artist, and then find a way to make it work for the company, because I believe firmly you have to start with the talent.”

Hahn says the applicants vary in ability. Some have a few good languages, but others are poor. Or a singer with a notable voice may have problems staying in rhythm with a pianist.

He says successful applicants usually come from conservatories, where the strength of the opera programs is the result of large and strong graduate-degree programs.

“The singers who come to us have a variety of musical skills,” says Mark Trawka, Pittsburgh opera’s director of music studies. “Some are incredibly sophisticated musicians. Some need a lot of coaching. If we do our job right, nobody notices that but the music staff.”

Baritone Jonathan Beyer, who was a resident artist until 2009, starred as Figaro in the company’s production of “The Barber of Seville” in April. He credits Trawka with helping him to sing the role. Beyer felt the role was too high for him when he was a resident artist, but Trawka helped him extend his upper range.

“The joy of my job here is to make them better,” Trawka says. “Their baseline is already so good that it almost feels like I’m nitpicking when actually I’m challenging them to be better singers.”

Bass-baritone Matthew Scollin is leaving the resident-artists program for the best of reasons: professional engagements. He and mezzo-soprano Corrie Stallings, who just completed her second year in the program, will perform Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” at the French opera companies of Toulouse in December and Bordeaux in January.

Scollin values the nitty-gritty details of the coaching he received in Pittsburgh. The large volume of work in Pittsburgh, which includes not only staged productions, but also song recitals and Brown Bag opera excerpts concerts, develops the ability to learn music quickly. That’s an essential skill when called on short notice to fill in on a production.

“In some young-artists programs, you get a lot of performance opportunity, but not a lot of coaching, and others where there was a lot of coaching but not much performance opportunities,” Scollin says. “That’s why the combination of superb musical coaching by Pittsburgh Opera’s musical staff and real-life performing, particularly on the Benedum stage, is really the best of both worlds.”

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Information from: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, https://pghtrib.com

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