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Opera in ‘The City Different'
The Santa Fe Apprentice Singer Program
by Jason Vest
The cantina on the Santa Fe Opera campus where artists gather for lunch.Interstate 40 follows an almost straight line across the high plains of New Mexico with stretches where it seems you can see forever in every direction. Taking a right at the historic Clines Corners truck stop, a two-lane road begins its wind up to Santa Fe, a blacktop ribbon surrounded by sandstone-colored dirt accented with scrub juniper and sage. Occasional red rock formations jut from the landscape as the road gains altitude. Arriving in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, sandy, desert landscape is topped with majestic peaks to the east.
As the road continues north of town, a large, white, steel-girded structure rises on the left. The architecture, the green seats, and the views of the mountains from every angle create a thoroughly New Mexican experience. From its façade, the auditorium looks more like a stadium, with its orientation to the outdoor space. But when the singing starts, it is clear that this is a world-class opera house.
More than a thousand aspiring opera singers send applications each year in hopes of gaining an audition to the Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Singer Program, the oldest in existence. Those thousands are narrowed down to just 43 singers—the beneficiaries of possibly the most integrated apprentice program in the U.S. The apprentices arrive on the opera’s campus a week before the principal artists. “The Ranch” offers a sharp contrast to the surrounding desert landscape—green lawns stretching between wooden, adobe, and glass structures, from which constantly ring gorgeous voices.
If you’re not used to mingling in the company of well-known performers and directors, the main campus can be disarming. Walking downhill from the adobe and pergola administrative offices, the large white tent of the cantina sits next to the swimming pool where performers, staff, and their families relax during the summer.
Most eat lunch in the cantina, which features locally sourced food like creative salads and New Mexico specialties. While enjoying lunch in the cantina before meeting with young artists to discuss Santa Fe’s Young Artist Program, I suddenly find myself telling famed director Laurent Pelly about the history of Frito Pie with red and green chilis—a Santa Fe original. Then just moments later I shake hands with tenor Alek Shrader, Santa Fe’s Ernesto in this summer’s Don Pasquale. This close and friendly association with the principal artists, apprentice artists, and staff is a persistent theme when people rave about their experience in Santa Fe.
While audience members travel from around the world to attend performances at Santa Fe Opera, their journeys pale in comparison to those of many of the apprentices accepted into the program each summer. Take soprano Shelley Jackson, for example. After growing up in the Washington D.C. area and attending high school in England, she went to the Peabody Conservatory for her bachelor’s and then spent two years in Italy studying with Mirella Freni before returning to Temple University for a master’s and then attending the Academy of Vocal Arts (AVA) for three years.
As we sit in the cantina next to the pool, Jackson tells me that though she had sung mainstage roles at other companies and won prizes at multiple competitions, she auditioned five times before being accepted at Santa Fe. “Santa Fe is one of those places that you just kind of know about,” she explains. “It’s probably good that I wasn’t accepted five years ago when I was auditioning for the program, because I wouldn’t have been ready for the stamina and technique that the program demands. You also have to be put together yourself.”
In fact, most Santa Fe young artists have participated in multiple Young Artist Programs and have usually sung roles with major companies before arriving at Santa Fe. Sarah Larsen, a returning mezzo-soprano from Minnesota, has been a young artist at Glimmerglass, Seattle Opera, and Virginia—some of those more than once. Other apprentices have sung with Merola, Pittsburgh, Chautauqua, Des Moines, Opera Saratoga, and Florida Grand Opera, to name a few. Almost all of the 2014 young artists have completed master’s degrees and many have gone on to further studies. “I had heard before I ever came here that the preparation level was so high,” Larsen says, “so I was terrified that summer, trying to practice as much as possible.”
Bass Patrick Guetti, recently named a winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, is cognizant of how lucky he is to be returning to Santa Fe for his second summer. “This program was the first thing I ever auditioned for,” Guetti explains as we relax in a shady spot near the Ranch offices. “It was my second year at AVA, and they had very strict guidelines about what I should audition for and they agreed that Santa Fe would be a great place. From that point, I had a really great time working with people like Susan Graham, Joyce DiDonato, and David Daniels. It was surreal to be next to people who were working at that level and to have them be not only encouraging but supportive and continue to recognize me throughout the year when I’ve come across them. It’s a really special environment for people to grow and to learn, and I think that for me it was a great first step into doing something outside of school.”
Months before the actual auditions, singers submit materials by the established deadline—usually late August, one of the earliest YAP deadlines. While 43 singers were accepted this year, the percentage of new applicants accepted is in reality even lower, since more than half of the singers are returning from previous years. David Holloway and Robert Tweten are personally involved with the selection of every singer and take great care to nurture each apprentice that passes through their program.
“Part of the challenge with auditioning here is that there are so many returning artists,” says soprano Hailey Clark. “They also really like to match the singers with the covers available. So many people have auditioned five or six years before it’s the right time.”
“You never really know exactly what they’re looking for, but they’re always looking for something in particular in your voice and your look,” agrees Amanda Opuszynski, a returning soprano. “I would say to just sing as many auditions as possible and work to represent yourself as accurately as possible. Someone told me once to bloom where you’re planted—and maybe you don’t make it this year, but you might next year, and you just try again and make the best of who and where you are. As long as you keep getting green lights and you have people encouraging you, keep going and you will eventually find yourself in the right place.”
Other young artists echo this theme of persistence. “I auditioned four times, the first three without a callback,” says Larsen. “I auditioned for Seattle three times. Our voice is inside, so we take everything personally, even though we try not to.”
Baritone Dan Kempson had a similar journey. “I sang for this program five times before I got in,” he says, while sitting with me and Larsen in the cantina. “I didn’t feel like I was singing that much differently during the season that I finally got in, so I asked David Holloway what was different. He told me that when they bring someone to Santa Fe, they really want to have something that’s right for them and that can showcase them. I had good auditions, but they didn’t have something that was just right for me.
“The important thing is that you take opportunities when they come and that you’re ready for them,” Kempson continues. “We’ve all seen people who were given great opportunities and they squandered them. There were people here last year who came unprepared and didn’t learn their music and those people are not here this year.”
On Friday afternoon, 43 singers, a conductor, and one pianist gather in a small adobe building for a chorus rehearsal of Stravinsky’s Le Rossignol. The room is outfitted with only doors and fans to cool everyone, which is usually enough in the mild Santa Fe summer. With all of the singers toiling away on demanding Russian choral parts, however, the air grows warm. The singers work to conquer difficult passages and challenging diction.
This chorus work is an integral part of the Santa Fe experience because apprentices make up the choruses for each show. It’s a memorable element of the program each year, teaching valuable lessons about music preparation. During this season alone, the apprentices will sing in French, Italian, Russian, and Mandarin.
“Here, the chorus is the exchange, so that we’re able to do this,” Kempson says. “Because we function as the chorus, the company can give us all of the other opportunities.”
“You have to be smart about how you use your voice,” adds Jackson. “It teaches you a lot, though, as far as versatility and how to use your voice.”
“Coming back here is a reminder to get back to basics after the ‘glory and glamour’ of the Met competition,” Guetti says. “I’m almost embarrassed about it because I walked off the stage of the Met and I thought, ‘I wish I could have that note and that note back. I should have taken a better breath and done that spot better.’ To come back to Santa Fe [where] you are meant to deal with chorus music and being somewhere else than the spotlight is a reality check after all of that, which is really good.
“I don’t do this for money or glory, but because it’s an art form that I love and appreciate, and I want to focus on how I can be better today than I was yesterday,” he continues. “Everything else that comes is just the cherry on top. The hype can be a distraction from what’s really important, to be an artist and singer. That’s why programs like this are great. We’re pushed to the max in almost every single way. I have never had to sing in Mandarin in my life. Will I ever again? I have no idea, but here I am spending hours and hours learning chorus music in Mandarin. It stretches you as a musician and takes you out of your comfort zone.”
Learning from the Best
On Saturday afternoon, apprentices Larsen and Opuszynski sing, “Melons! Coupons!” behind a chain link fence on the mainstage during a staging rehearsal for Carmen. As the characters Mercedes and Frasquita, they climb atop a 1950s-era military truck as Kempson, acting the part of Dancaïro, watches them from a paneled wooden walkway to the side. Their polished, ringing voices resonate easily through the open-air auditorium, navigating with ease the leaping passages of the trio. Opuszynski displays beautiful legato as she introduces the themes, and Larsen’s round, lustrous tone follows her lines effortlessly. They both blend easily with Daniela Mack, who is singing Carmen this summer in Santa Fe after a stunning and critically acclaimed Rosina in San Francisco.
Singing alongside these world-class voices 10 times in a summer for each show is a great benefit of the Santa Fe Apprentice Singer Program. All of the returning apprentices still talk about singing with Susan Graham and Joyce DiDonato last season in La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein and La donna del lago.
“Getting to observe and be around these artists in rehearsal and performance, to be held to that standard, is really instrumental to this place,” Jackson says about her opportunity to work so closely with Graham and DiDonato. “I have found that here the apprentice artists are treated more as equals than in other places. I think the cantina is a big facilitator in that. You sit down at lunchtime with the principals of Don Pasquale, which I did yesterday, and I think as an apprentice you have to have a little more get up and go. You also learn about mingling and schmoozing because you go to a lot of parties here. You have to be able to go up to Susan Graham at a cocktail party and not sound like an idiot. You develop a certain level of confidence and learn to be comfortable with yourself in those situations.”
“You get that opportunity to stand on stage and watch people,” adds Kempson. “Last summer in La donna del lago, Joyce DiDonato sang ‘Tanti affetti’ near the end of every performance, three hours into it, and it was always beautiful and breathtaking. We would sometimes forget to come in because we were standing there listening to it. To stand 10 or 15 feet away from someone on stage who is at the top of their craft is as important as any voice lesson or coaching you can get.
“There’s no sense of separation of the students and the artists,” Kempson continues. “Last season, with Joyce, she was very open with us. She saw that I was at the Met last year (covering in Two Boys) and she came and sat down with me one day at lunch and talked to me about what to do to not go crazy there. She just gave me a little pep talk which I hadn’t even asked for, which was so beautiful. Because of the level of singers, the principals maybe feel that they can talk to us. Some of us are just out of school, but many of us have already sung a lot professionally and we have sung with some of the principal artists in shows outside of Santa Fe. Opera is definitely a small world.”
Though the workload for the apprentices can be overwhelming, the number of rehearsal hours is gratefully regulated through their AGMA contracts, another benefit of the program. “Being an AGMA contract, it’s much different,” says Clark. “It feels like a real job since you aren’t working 14 hours in a row.”
“There’s nothing worse than feeling like you’re being taken advantage of at some programs,” Kempson agrees.
Larsen offers a different perspective. “Those times, though, really help you value programs like these where your time really is carefully used,” she says. “You definitely don’t feel entitled after those experiences.”
The House Audition
Each summer during the first week of August, general directors from the major U.S. opera houses; agents from Columbia, IMG, and other agencies; and casting directors converge on the Santa Fe opera house with the express purpose of hearing each apprentice artist sing one aria. From that one audition, apprentices often receive offers for future roles, other apprenticeships, representation, or even just the opportunity to be heard by people they will audition for later in the year.
Singers prepare for this audition all summer long with teachers, coaches, and other artists. This year alone, the singers will work with voice teachers Marlena Malas, Vinson Cole, and Julia Faulkner. Isabel Leonard, Neil Shicoff, James Morris, and Maestro Harry Bicket will teach masterclasses. Robert Tweten, Carol Anderson, Steven Blier, and others will coach the singers. In addition, Matthew Epstein comes each summer to coach and prepare each singer specifically for his or her house audition. Many singers refer to this particular five-minute audition as one of the pivotal opportunities of their summer.
“The connections for me here really happened with the house audition,” says Jackson. “I actually got my management from Columbia Artists through the audition, which was very fortunate and was directly from that audition. I don’t know many other places during the summer where you have that caliber of people coming to see you.”
Guetti says that preparing for the house audition gave him what he needed to successfully approach the Met auditions. “Having people hear me at the house audition, where you’re basically singing for every major house in the country, was a huge jumping-off point for the year and, actually, for a few years down the line,” he says. “Santa Fe was the domino that started everything else falling down the line. I remember getting ready for my house audition last year, and that was the most nervous I had ever been for something. For the Met competition, when you’re singing for a practically sold-out opera house and there’s just enough light that you can see everyone sitting out there, that definitely beat this one out—but the preparation here to deal with stress, pressure, and expectation, that really helped me grow. The Met auditions would have been a much more jarring experience without my time in Santa Fe.”
Talk to administrators or staff at Santa Fe Opera and you will eventually hear about their former apprentices who are returning to sing principal roles that season. This sense of family and the entire company’s investment in each apprentice’s success is obvious. I caught up with apprentice alumnus Joyce El-Khoury, returning to Santa Fe this summer to sing Micaëla after being nominated for an international award as the best “young singer.” We sat down in the outdoor Opera Club pavilion perched above and to the side of the mainstage.
“Santa Fe really feels like coming home because this program was so nurturing to me, and I can talk about that for hours,” she shares. “I feel like I have come back into this family and they’re like, ‘You’re all grown up, and it’s so good to have you back!’ My first show I did here singing in the chorus was Carmen in 2006, and now I’m returning singing Micaëla, so it really feels like I’m coming full circle. I remember hearing Jennifer Black singing Micaëla at the time and thinking, ‘I really want to do that!’ I really benefited, actually, from being in the chorus. It was a really good way for me to work on my stagecraft without being in the spotlight. I was also bullied a lot when I was younger by peers and teachers, so I had issues with self-esteem. When I came here, what it did for my confidence was huge.
“I’ll never forget the production of The Tempest . . . there was this huge water tank along the pit that we had to swim in,” El-Khoury continues. “They had some of the chorus members and some supers swim under the water from the wings, pulling ourselves on a cord until we reached the center and then we rose up out of the water. The water was freezing, and it was so cold that most of the female singers dropped out. They were singing other things and they were, of course, worried that the cold would affect them. For me, this was my assignment, and I would not quit. I told myself that I had to do it. Because of that, now I’m not afraid and I never say ‘no’ to stage directors because I believe that I can do it through that experience.
“An apprentice program like this made a huge difference for me and gave me an awareness of what I needed to do to get where I wanted to be,” she concludes. “They nurture their apprentices here so that they can come back as principal artists. They want us to do well, and I’m one of many who have come back after being apprentices.”
One of the most successful alumni from the program, tenor William Burden, also speaks glowingly of his time as an apprentice in Santa Fe. He echoes the current apprentices about the level of work that is required for the program, but says there was no better place to learn your craft as an opera singer. “When I was there, I was influenced by so many artists,” Burden says. “I can think of Tatiana Troyanos, James Bowman, Marilyn Horne, and Frederica von Stade right away. There was also Sheri Greenawald and Ben Heppner. They were just the best singers in the world, and everyone auditioned here if they wanted to take that next step. To make opera in that place is so incredible, and there is nowhere on the planet like Santa Fe.”
With endless stretches of blue wrapped around the sky and small patches of cloud floating over the mountains, there is truly no place like Santa Fe to sing and hear opera. “Even though I was memorizing Mandarin this morning,” says Larsen, “I was sitting on a grassy hill with flowers and mountains around. This is really nice!”
The nurturing and friendly environment and beautiful surroundings, together with rigorous standards, have combined to maintain the reputation of Santa Fe’s apprentice program as a springboard to major opera careers.
Jason Vest was recently hailed for his performances in Les Misérables as being “a splendid Valjean” (River City News) who “easily handles the role’s demanding singing” (talkinbroadway.com). He has sung in England, Austria, Madagascar, Bulgaria, and throughout the United States. He is an assistant professor of voice at Northern Kentucky University and graduated with a doctor of musical arts degree from the University of Kentucky.