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The Lone Star's New Stars
by Olivia Giovetti
HGO Studio ArtistsThere’s an adventurous spirit that dominates Texas—prior to the phrase being pummeled into the ground in the name of political rhetoric, one could even have dubbed many of the state’s key figures as mavericks. But while the labels may change, a certain lust for risk taking remains the same, and the Houston Grand Opera has not been immune to this same gumption. When David Gockley took the helm of the company in 1972, he lit a creative fire within the organization that led to 35 world premieres and six American premieres in just over three decades. Gockley was also responsible in part for the opening of the Wortham Theater Center, the integration of HGO into the airwaves with radio broadcasts that have an international reach, and the introduction of free outdoor screenings of HGO’s multifarious offerings.
Perhaps nowhere is Gockley’s lasting effect on this Texas metropolis and the country’s opera scene in general more potent, however, than with the Houston Grand Opera Studio program. Created in conjunction with composer Carlisle Floyd (who owes many of his own premieres to Gockley and the company), the HGO Studio describes its mission as providing “career development for young artists who have demonstrated potential to make major contributions to the opera/musical theatre profession [and] . . . to develop well rounded professionals prepared for all performance aspects in the fields of opera and musical theatre in all genres.”
Such a mission has resulted in a training program that has been continually operating for almost 35 years and whose greatest legacy—a staggering number of alumni who have indeed made major contributions to the opera and musical theatre professions—includes names like Margaret Jane Wray, Denyce Graves, Kelly Anderson, Michael Chioldi, Ana María Martínez, Beth Clayton, Eric Owens, Joyce DiDonato, and Marie Lenormand. Some alumni (such as the late Richard Vernon) graced the floorboards of the Metropolitan Opera well over 500 times. Others, like Albina Shagimuratova, have at a young age already made prestigious debuts across Europe, working with no less a conductor than Riccardo Muti.
So what is it about Houston? Other American Young Artist Programs have similar prestige to be sure—from San Francisco’s Merola Program to the Met’s own Lindemann Young Artist Program. But there seems to be something in the Texas water that gives a special kick to the careers of the artists matriculating from the HGO Studio. After all, it’s a city that is notoriously hot with a crime rate higher than most soprano’s top notes. As Studio Director Laura Canning said, “If you asked me in theory, ‘Do you want to live in Houston?’ as the nice English girl who’d never been to Texas, I doubt that I’d have jumped at it.”
Between the groundbreaking work in Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, and Austin (not to mention the manifold smaller towns with flourishing opera companies), however, Texas may be, on a whole, the most exciting state for opera in America today. Unlike New York or California, the creative development isn’t restricted to one or two key towns. Moreover, because the state is “younger” in terms of its operatic development, administrators, artists, and board members seem to be more invested in exploring the art form as a whole, pushing the boundaries, and promoting both young and established artists. Being in the middle of the country also helps this point. After relocating from the Welsh National Opera to Houston, Canning notes of the city’s general spirit that there’s a “hunger” for new works, new artists, and new productions. “There’s a real excitement for the art form today rather than necessarily something that people are remembering from 50 years ago,” she adds.
“One of our biggest strengths, I think, is that we are out of the limelight a little bit,” says Canning of the location. “We all know that the process of getting great isn’t necessarily just a straight line of slow improvement. Sometimes you have to take things apart, sometimes you have to go through a sticky patch—and perhaps the output on that particular day may not be great. But if you don’t actually take yourself apart and put yourself back together in that way, you perhaps can never reach your full potential.” While Canning notes that this is not true for every artist, not every artist is attracted to Houston’s Studio program for that reason. For others, however, the city—still a burgeoning urban mecca but without the pressure of, say, a San Francisco, Boston, or New York—serves as an ideal place to do that slow, careful work while working toward a long-term goal.
“The stress is already high enough for what we do,” explains bass-baritone Studio member Michael Sumuel. “So when you come into a work environment where you know people are going to be supportive and caring, it makes the entire experience that much better. Our administrators, they demand a lot of us, but you can tell that they have our best interests at heart. I don’t know if every place can say that; I’m glad I can say it about Houston Grand Opera, though.”
Southern hospitality aside, Houston’s Studio program boasts many advantages for its training. It’s no small wonder that hundreds of singers, many of whom are probably reading this article, apply each year. Moreover, it’s unsurprising that HGO’s Studio is at the top of many singers’ lists for YAPs.
“I had several offers before I had come to Houston,” says Studio member Catherine Martin. The young mezzo-soprano actually turned down work from other companies in hopes of landing a spot in the program specifically to train with the program’s director of vocal instruction, Stephen King, and coaches Peter Pasztor, Craig Kier, and Bethany Self. Whether it’s major reconstruction as Canning described or maintenance, each singer gets a luxurious amount of coaching and training time—including one hour each week with King—under the same music professionals who work with the company’s mainstage artists (which last season alone included Frederica von Stade, Susan Graham, Anthony Dean Griffey, and Luca Pisaroni).
Equally alluring is the professional experience Studio artists get with these same singers onstage in each HGO season. “The whole idea of a Young Artist Program like that is a wonderful thing for an aspiring singer bridging that gap between student and professional,” says HGO Studio alum Eric Owens (who recently scored a vocal coup as Alberich in the Met’s new production of Das Rheingold). What made the program all the more special to Owens—and countless other singers—was the balance of a nurturing environment with the opportunity to grow and learn in a world-class setting, be it in smaller roles or covering leading parts.
As important as the vocal training is, there is a huge difference between developing one’s instrument and repertoire in a room with a pianist and working on those same tools in a living, breathing production—from rehearsal room to Sitzprobe to stage.
“I got to cover Susan [Graham] last year in Xerxes and it was just really incredible,” says Martin. “I remember the first time just hearing her voice in a room. I’ve heard her sing live, but being in a room where you know the sound . . . those are the times where you’re like, ‘This is why I’m here and this is why I’m in this program.’ How many people get to hear artists of this caliber when they mess up or forget words? They’re human and they enjoy rehearsals a lot. That’s another thing I really thought about, because you spend most of your life in rehearsals.”
Sumuel has also been in comprimario roles onstage in his time with the Studio. This season he sang diverse roles in Mozart (Antonio in Le nozze di Figaro), Strauss (Lackey in Ariadne auf Naxos), Puccini (Sharpless in Madama Butterfly), and Heggie (Motorcycle Cop and Prison Guard in Dead Man Walking). And while he’s been able to watch many of his bass-baritone brethren in action, Sumuel’s strongest memory of working with a visiting HGO artist may be mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade, who gave her operatic farewell performance as Mrs. Patrick De Rocher (in Dead Man Walking). Working with a legend such as von Stade can be surreal and humbling to say the least. There’s also something poetic about a singer at the brink of their career being able to study and work with a singer at the end of a long and distinguished career.
“Here’s one of the greatest artists that’s ever appeared on the operatic stage, [and] she has no ego,” says Sumuel. “If she had musical notes, she took them graciously and worked on them. To see someone of such great caliber that could still be as humble as she was, I think that was one of the greatest learning experiences I’ve had so far being in the Studio program.”
Working with top-shelf colleagues provides a kick to the figurative rear for most of the Studio artists. “You want to be at the highest level you can be, being prepared and bringing something to the rehearsal process,” says Sumuel. Martin concurs, though admits to sometimes feeling like wanting to show off her skills in front of her mezzo idols occasionally takes a backseat to watching them display their own skills—musical and otherwise. “Sometimes you feel like, as a young artist, you need permission to do these things and you want to do what’s right and you want to do what everybody’s telling you. . . . But at some point you just have to be an artist and say something and be true to yourself. I think that’s the biggest thing I see, especially in Susan [Graham].”
Canning concurs on this point. “Watching other people take risks, watching other people step outside the normal procedure, is eye opening for people at that stage,” she explains. “And that’s how they learn when it’s safe to do that themselves, and that’s really what makes them artists. It can take some time for people to realize that part of the job is not pleasing other people, is not doing what you’re told. It’s being able to get beyond that to being part of the process that really enables you to reach star levels.”
Canning likens this crux of the program to a hospital internship. “You’re on the job, you’re busy doing it—you’ve just got great people around you to make sure you’re doing it right.” The difference, of course, is that opera costumes are generally more captivating than doctor’s scrubs. And while no one wants a death in a hospital, it’s just not an opera without a high body count.
Training is one thing, but these performances also afford something every singer craves most—visibility. Martin echoes a common worry in the profession: “Is anyone hearing me? And what am I going to do if no one hears me?” In addition to the stage exposure, HGO Studio artists are given the opportunity to audition and sing for visiting administrators, conductors, and the like. “When you’re an apprentice and a young artist at Houston, you get a certain visibility. You’re given assignments that allow you to show what you can do, and I certainly got that when I was in Houston,” says mezzo-soprano Marie Lenormand who, in her time with the company, sang second-cast Dorabella and second-cast Poppea and also performed a small role in the world premiere of Floyd’s Cold Sassy Tree (the HGO Studio connections coming full circle in the latter). She was, at press time, back in Houston to sing Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro.
“The mere fact of being an apprentice at the Houston Grand Opera Studio put me on the short list to be heard and seen by visiting managers, directors, conductors, composers. . . . They saw you onstage or you got to audition for them, and so it’s pretty amazing to realize that before you even start to get out in the real world, start to freelance, you already have people helping you get your name out there and find management and start your career,” adds Lenormand. “You have to access this huge professional network and, to my eyes, it was essential—or certainly very helpful—for me.”
Of course, the benefits afforded by participating in the HGO Studio program don’t stop at vocal training, though that is, of course, the backbone. But, as Canning says of Studio alumna Joyce DiDonato (who, like fellow alum Owens, perked up a drab Metropolitan Opera production this year by virtue of her astonishing set of pipes), “[N]obody would be raving about Joyce as Isolier at the Met if she didn’t have the best Rossini coloratura this side of Christendom. But we do demand nowadays someone who can sing that stuff and look fantastic and charm us to the bottom of our hearts. “
Then, in come the other aspects of the HGO Studio—aspects that add up to strengthen its core. There are language coaches who help artists fine tune their French, Italian, German, or Russian. There are marketing and public relations professionals who give seminars on social networking, digital media, and DIY PR. There’s even a CPA who comes in once a year to teach the ins and outs of taxes and finances for freelancers. This probably explains why, when it comes to auditioning for the program, Canning and her colleagues look beyond the voice. True, that is the basis and it has to be sound, but the successful applicants have to go beyond the technique. After all, when you’re singing for at least nine months of the year (many HGO Studio artists also do summer programs such as Wolf Trap’s), the only way you can flourish is with technical security. Beyond that, however, a singer who communicates and has a connection to the piece that they’re singing—ideally through text, music, and language—is what HGO is looking for.
There is also a huge emphasis on genuineness. Less than looking to create the next Owens or DiDonato, Canning, King, and the rest of the program are hoping to make the best of each individual artist who enters the Studio. This also explains the extended audition process, which includes a week-long commitment in February in which all potential artists see performances, work with the music staff, and get to know some of the people behind the company and studio. What both Canning and Lenormand note with a foreigner’s perspective on America is that the training in this country becomes more bespoke in the right programs.
And yes, there are some very nice perks about being a part of HGO’s Studio. Though thankful for his busy schedule nowadays, Owens is still a little nostalgic for his time among the longhorns—time in which he didn’t have to travel for auditions and work at the drop of a hat. There is also something to be said for not having the additional stresses of temping or teaching to make ends meet and being able to focus on daily training.
“It’s only once you leave the Studio that you realize what an immense luxury that was,” says Lenormand. All interviewed for this piece, however, agree that the schedule and day-to-day life of a Studio artist is no walk in the park. “Intense,” said one. “Grueling,” added another. However, that’s all to a positive end as well.
It may not be as relaxing as Canyon Ranch, but Canning finds that the HGO Studio offers some similarities: “It’s very difficult at the beginning of one’s career to concentrate on the art, and I think we offer a huge oasis of calm and the chance to really look deep in yourself and to make yourself the best you can be.”
Olivia Giovetti has written and hosted for WQXR and its sister station, Q2 Music. In addition to Classical Singer, she also contributes frequently to Time Out New York, Gramophone, Playbill, and more.