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Samuel Ramey Returns to His Alma Mater as Artist-in-Residence

by Brian Manternach



Ramey teaching a class at Wichita State University.
Like professional athletes, most performing musicians are faced with a choice at some point in their careers: What to do next? When life on the road becomes more trouble than it is worth or when the engagements begin to taper, many singers look to transition into teaching. This move is a smooth segue for some. Others, however, find it much more difficult to make effective classroom and studio lessons out of the skills they have been practicing as professionals.

Few can claim more professional practice in our industry than American bass Samuel Ramey. Despite his status as a septuagenarian, he is still regarded as a force in the operatic world with recent engagements at the Metropolitan Opera, New Orleans Opera, and Opera Omaha. But he has decided to shift his focus a bit and dedicate more time to teaching, thanks in part to a five-year residency at his alma mater, Wichita State University in Kansas.

So, when the Grammy-winning, world’s-most-recorded bass decides he would like to do more teaching, how does he secure a contract? He just asks.

“I’ve been doing a little teaching at Roosevelt University in Chicago—I’m on the faculty there,” Ramey says. “But they have a lot of voice faculty there and I’ve still been fairly busy singing, so I haven’t really had a whole lot of time to give them—to establish a studio of my own. So I just started exploring some options and I contacted Wichita State, which is where I went to school many years ago.”

As one might imagine, it did not take much to convince the university to bring him on board. “When a world-renowned opera singer contacts his alma mater and expresses that he wishes to be engaged with our students, we want to find a way to bring him here,” said Elizabeth King, president and CEO of the WSU Foundation. 

In order to create his position, Ramey received a 100 percent privately funded WSU Guest Artist Fellowship in Opera, presenting no financial burden to the School of Music. Now in the second year of the five-year arrangement, Ramey is bridging the gap between stage villain and studio hero.

“I go there for a couple of two-week periods each semester—two times in the fall and two times again in the spring,” he says. “I do private coachings with what they consider their best students—graduate students and more advanced upperclassmen—and I worked with the singers on their opera performances.”

This year, his role has expanded to include opera direction. WSU Opera will stage Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah this fall, an opera in which Ramey has performed numerous times and recorded on the Virgin Classics label. “I’m going to help direct the production a little bit. I’ll get my hands sort of ‘wet’ in directing,” he said, adding with a laugh, “I have no idea how that will go!”

Kansas Beginnings

Though Ramey has garnered significant international recognition, including three Grand Prix du Disque awards, and earned the rank of Commander in the Order of Arts and Letters from the French Ministry of Culture, he has not ignored his rural roots. In fact, the Native Sons and Daughters of Kansas named him “Kansan of the Year” in 1995.

Since his graduation from Wichita State University, he has maintained strong ties to his alma mater as a lifetime member of both the WSU Alumni Association and the WSU Foundation President’s Club and has been a recipient of its Alumni Achievement Award.

WSU Associate Professor of Voice Deborah Baxter has known Ramey longer than most. “My husband, Dr. Vernon Yenne, was on the voice faculty at Wichita State University when Sam was a student,” she said. Over the years, she and her husband have maintained contact with Ramey and traveled across the world to see his performances and spend time with the man she describes as “a loyal WSU Shocker.”

It was this loyalty that inspired Ramey to contact WSU about “coming home” to teach. “I decided to give back a little bit to my university,” he says. “I always felt they had a lot of talented people who have come out of there. So we just worked out a very nice situation for me. So far, so good!”

His “giving back” has not been limited to the current teaching residency, though. Ramey also donates to WSU and has established an endowed fellowship in Opera Performance. He also started the Samuel L. Ramey Professional Development Fund, which helps WSU students with travel expenses for out-of-state auditions and competitions.

Like the path to a successful career in opera, Ramey’s initial route to Wichita State after growing up in small Colby, Kansas, (population 5,438) was not easy or direct.

“When I graduated from high school, I decided in my senior year that I was going to go off and study music,” Ramey says. “I had spent a couple of summers at a music camp at Kansas State University, and they offered me a small scholarship. Money was of the essence for my family in those days; we were very poor. So that’s where I ended up going my first couple of years.”

One of those summers in college, Ramey was engaged to sing in the chorus at Central City Opera in Colorado, which he cites as his first real exposure to opera. “I got interested in opera during my K-State years by going to the library and listening. So I sent off a tape to Central City and they took me for the summer of 1963. I went out there and I had actually never seen an opera until I was onstage in one. It was very exciting.

“There were a couple of students from Wichita State also in the chorus that summer,” he continues, “and they sort of said, ‘Come to Wichita State; we have a really good opera program there.’”

One of the voice professors from WSU made the trip to Central City to see his students performing in the chorus. Those students then lined up an audition for the young Ramey with their professor while he was in town. “I ended up auditioning for him in one of the bars in Central City,” Ramey remembers. “I liked it very much and so I transferred, and that’s how I ended up at Wichita State. They had a very good voice faculty at the time and a very good opera department. The opportunity to learn opera and to perform was great.”

WSU faculty members know that these inauspicious beginnings can provide exactly the model and inspiration that their students need. Director of Voice and Choral Studies Dorothy Crum felt this way from the beginning. “Through Sam, the reality of an operatic career became more visible and more within grasp,” she said. “As do most of our students, he started from a small-town community and is a great example of how hard work and persistence can lead to the top echelons in the operatic world.”

Teaching

Though not every operatic singer has a desire to pursue teaching, it has been in Ramey’s long-term vision for some time. “It’s something in my later years that I’ve thought more and more about,” he says. “I always thought, ‘What happens when I finish singing, when I’m done, when people stop hiring me?’ And so many of my colleagues—friends of mine that I’ve sung with over the years—have gone into that. So it’s something that was in the back of my mind for a long time.”

While life in the academic world has generally met his expectations, he does admit to some initial trepidation. “I was frightened to death of the prospect of teaching. It’s much easier to get up and do it than it is to try to tell somebody else how to do it, I’ve found. But I’m coming along, and the students that I’ve worked with have given the-powers-that-be good feedback about my work with them. So, that’s one thing, anyway.”

Laughing, he adds, “It’s a work in progress. I’m not pretending to be very good at it yet, but hopefully I’ll eventually get to where I can offer the students more and more.”

His colleagues, however, quickly refute his own mediocre assessment of his contributions. “From the beginning, Sam willingly jumped into the academic world with a busy schedule,” says Crum.

Pina Mozzani, associate professor of music, says she was impressed that Ramey is so willing to work with the students in any capacity that is comfortable for him. “From the professional lens, Sam has been able to emphasize the constant work that is necessary to become a professional opera performer.” He even engages nonstudents. And Mozzani points out that besides Ramey’s normal teaching load, he holds open sessions for the community to ask questions about his operatic career.

The students appreciate this professional perspective as well. “As a fellow bass,” says graduate student Andrew Simpson, “these coaching sessions have been invaluable to me in working on roles that he has performed on the world’s largest stages. We worked on language, style, phrasing, and more; all the while, Sam recalled suggestions from world-famous coaches and conductors with whom he had the opportunity to work during his career.”

A two-year recipient of the Samuel Ramey Fellowship, Simpson is particularly pleased with the progress he has made under Ramey’s tutelage. “As a testimony to his ability, teachers have commented they can hear his influence in my performances,” he says.

Observations and Advice

Since making his operatic debut in 1973 at New York City Opera, Ramey has learned from, performed with, and mentored four decades of singers. And he is encouraged by what he is seeing in the current generation of aspiring professionals.

“I see a lot of enthusiasm; lots of good young singers out there,” he says. “I was very surprised when I went back [to WSU] at the number of really talented people there were . . . I’ve been very impressed with their programs.”

One of the areas of interest he is finding among the students is the business aspect of singing. “That’s one of the things the students actually ask me most about, the things involved in a career—the things you have to do, the things you sometimes have to give up to have a career.”

Ramey understands that many of the challenges he faced in launching a career in the 1960s and 1970s are the same as those current students are up against. But he also notes one particular advantage they have that was not available to him. “One of the most exciting things is the development of all the Young Artist Programs,” he notes. “Those were practically nonexistent when I was starting out.” He believes that the greater number of Young Artist Programs today allows singers to avoid the same burden of on-the-job training he had to face. “New York City Opera became my Young Artist Program,” he says.

Even so, one element of preparation that he still believes is lacking in most students is foreign languages. “I find that the thing I end up working the most with them on are languages,” he laments. “I feel a lot of the times that they’re not getting the language training that they need to get.”

To help them understand the importance of in-depth language study, Ramey relates experiences from his own journey. “He shares the fact that he travels to Paris to work with a coach whenever he has a new French piece to prepare,” says Mozzani.

Even beyond languages, she appreciates how he emphasizes that the learning process does not end with graduation. “Sam still talks about his teacher, someone with whom he continues to study throughout his performance career,” she says. “It was very important for our students to learn that you are never ready to go it alone—to stop coaching with someone you trust. We always need support musically, vocally, and linguistically.”

Generation Gap?

In relating pertinent stories from his experience, Ramey does occasionally run into a “generation gap,” where current students are unfamiliar with many of the iconic singers from the early part of his career. “There are a few [students] who have ‘explored the past,’ shall we say,” he notes. “But it’s funny. With a lot of them, you’ll mention singers that were famous when I was starting out—[Cesare] Siepi, Norman Treigle, people like that—and some people have never even heard of them. I say, ‘Go to the record library and find them! Go on YouTube!’”

Especially with singers of his own voice type, he feels there is much to be gained from those of previous eras. “I always tell young basses, ‘Go listen to [Ezio] Pinza, listen to Siepi, and all these people.’ Even sometimes I say, ‘Go listen to something that I did!’” Though, with a laugh, he adds, “No, I’m not quite so egotistical as that.”

But the other faculty appreciate all the real-life experience Ramey can relate to help their students truly understand what it is like to build and maintain an international career. “The students found invaluable the insights he gave through his storytelling of long hours in rehearsals, of body fatigue from traveling around the world for performances, and of the incidents when the ‘lighting went wrong during a performance,’” Crum states, “many of which were alarming at the time but comical in retrospect.”

Performing

While not performing as much as in previous years, Ramey still books several engagements each season. “It’s hard these days for singers like myself to sort of ‘reinvent themselves.’ I mean, I feel that there’s some [new] repertoire out there that I could do, but it’s hard.”

He points out how, in the past, basses could start singing smaller character roles when they felt they were becoming less castable in leading roles. But he recognizes the current trend for opera companies to cast young artists in these roles rather than spending the money to have a “named singer” in a minor part.

His colleagues, however, believe the university and its students have undoubtedly benefited from the fact that Ramey is still actively singing.

“The icing on the cake for the Wichita community,” Crum says, “was his willingness to sing for us: once at the annual fundraiser for the WSU Opera Study Abroad Program in Lucca, Italy, and once at the final concert of Opera Arias showcasing some of the Ramey Scholarship students.”

That opportunity was “an experience of a lifetime,” according to Simpson. “His presence on campus encourages a higher motivation from the students as well as a general higher quality of performance.”

Wichita State will have the chance to experience a more extensive performance by Ramey this fall. While trying his hand at stage directing, he will also sing the role of Reverend Blitch for a few of the university’s opera performances.

“We are very excited to see what surprises Sam brings when he works with us on our upcoming production of Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah in the fall,” Simpson says. “Sam has worked first hand with the composer and is highly regarded for his role of Reverend Blitch.”

Character and Presence

While it was likely Ramey’s wealth of operatic experience and knowledge that attracted WSU to their new hire, students and faculty alike are just as pleased by the kindness and down-to-earth qualities that make him a relatable person—the antithesis of the stereotypical operatic “star” that may have been in their minds before Ramey’s visits.

“Perhaps it’s in the character of Midwesterners to be kind, generous, and attentive to the social ties that bind us all,” notes Professor Marie King, WSU director of opera and musical theatre. “Samuel Ramey certainly has these characteristics in abundance.”

Mozzani agrees. “It was important for our students to learn how approachable Sam is, how human,” she says. “It has been important to grasp his lack of artifice. Despite his international fame, Sam is an extremely humble person.”

To this end, the combination of professionalism and approachability provide lessons that extend beyond his one-on-one instruction. “There has been a palpable improvement in all of them as a direct result of working with him,” says King. “When Sam is in rehearsals, they really step up their game.”

Similarly, Crum notes, “His presence alone raised the level of student’s singing. Sam led by example in all areas.”

It is clear that in proposing this residency, Ramey was interested in building a relationship—not just with the university that he has supported throughout his career, but with its students. As opposed to a day or two of masterclasses once a year, the current arrangement allows him the time to get to know his students and colleagues on a more personal level.

“Although he has been one of the world’s premier singers for about 40 years, he treats the singers he works with as young colleagues rather than inexperienced students,” King points out. “He gives them respect, praises their talent and accomplishments, and offers them his opinions in an avuncular manner that puts them at ease, rather than critiquing from the lofty heights of the world’s most recorded bass.”

For students like Simpson, working on this level with his real-life “hero” has been a dream come true. “Sam was one of my favorite basses before I met him,” he says, “and that opinion has only been reinforced after meeting and working with him. Even after a legendary career, he holds the standard for modesty and humility, and he is incredibly personable to the students, faculty, and fans. Working with him has been incredible.”

Since his days on campus are limited, Ramey makes the most of his time when he is in town by getting to know students and by supporting the community. “He returned early before his last session for WSU in order to watch both of the casts in our last opera production, which are always double cast,” Mozzani relates. “Sam has attended graduation parties, watched the Super Bowl in our home, and has become a friend and mentor to our students.”

This is an aspect of Ramey’s residence that Simpson appreciates most. “Outside the theater and the school, Sam has worked hard to get to know the students and for the students to get to know him. As a result, he has become a great friend and mentor. I mean, the man came out to dinner on my birthday!” he exclaims. “The students love him and miss him, and we are all looking forward to his return in the fall.”

Recent WSU grad Isabel Velazquez could not agree more. “He’ll randomly pop into one of our opera literature classes or one of our acting classes just to see what we’re up to and to give more useful input,” she says. “It’s kind of strange because, at first, all of the students get nervous and kind of freak out about it—but after a while, we get used to having a world-famous opera star just hanging out with us after class.”

Influence on WSU

WSU students, faculty, and administration quickly understood the significance of Ramey’s appointment. When announced, Rodney Miller, dean of the College of Fine Arts, acknowledged, “Very rarely do students have the opportunity to work with someone at the top who was literally in their shoes at one time.” He believes that Ramey’s international reputation has brought prestige to the community.

“I’m very excited about the whole thing,” Ramey says. “And I think they’re hoping maybe that my name on the faculty will draw some people there.” He chuckles. “We’ll see.”

Mozzani, however, has seen the results. “Sam’s work at Wichita State University has been a wonderful enhancement to a very fine program,” she says. “It has moved us to a whole new level.

“It is not too soon to note,” she continues, “that Sam’s participation in our program has had a positive impact on recruitment—always a plus for any music program.”

Baxter recounts a specific example: “[Ramey] went to lunch with me and the young man who will now be coming to WSU as the next Samuel Ramey Opera Fellow. Knowing he would have the opportunity to regularly coach with Samuel Ramey and discovering firsthand what a wonderful human being Sam is was instrumental in that young man choosing WSU over other conservatories and universities.”

Future Contributions

In the end, Ramey models the kind of balance and career management his students will eventually have to find for themselves. As a performer, he has built a reputation to which many have aspired, though few could ever truly emulate. As a teacher, now at two Midwestern universities, he can perhaps relate to his students a bit better as they strive for excellence together—he as teacher and they as performers.

“I hope that I’m giving them something,” he says. “I’m trying. I’m doing my best and I just hope that they’re appreciating it.

“Of course, I still love the little bit of performing that I do and I miss not performing as much as I used to, but I think that eventually I’ll come to really enjoy the teaching aspect. I hope I’ll continue to get better at it.”

But Mozzani has no doubt about Ramey’s competence as a teacher, a colleague, and mentor. “He gives honor to his time at WSU and supports us as often as he can,” she says.

As for continuing to pursue teaching, only time will tell. “We’ve started out with a five-year agreement. I’ll do it for five years, and we’ll see what happens after that. That will probably be enough for both of us,” Ramey laughs.

But, for the time being, WSU faculty and students are aware of how fortunate they are. “My colleagues and I owe a great debt to the WSU Foundation and the donors who made this teaching legacy possible,” says Baxter. “Faculty and students now and for years to come will be deeply indebted to the incomparable Samuel Ramey.”

“In short,” says Mozzani, “we have found a coach, director, performer, and friend in one of our very fine alumni.”

Tenor Brian Manternach teaches voice at the University of Utah in the Musical Theatre Program. He holds degrees in vocal performance from Saint John’s University in Minnesota (BA), the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (MM), and the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music (DM). He can be reached at bmantern@gmail.com.
E-mail the author at: bmantern@gmail.com











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