Houston Grand Opera Studio is training a new generation of stars
What a marvel Joyce DiDonato was as Sister Helen Prejean in Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking. DiDonato may be a household name in opera circles, but she's also a former Houston Grand Opera Studio artist, which makes her meteoric career rise all the more meaningful.
One glance at the cast of Lucia Di Lammermoor and it's another Studio feast; with the exception of tenor Dimitri Pittas, everyone in the cast is either a current or former Studio artist.
Recent Studio alumna Albina Shagimuratova's Lucia proved nothing short of breathtaking. With her potent mad scene, I suspect that Lucia will be a signature role for the Russian powerhouse soprano. Studio Alums Scott Hendricks, Beau Gibson and Oren Gradus all delivered robust performances, while current Studio artists Nathaniel Peake and Rachel Willis-Sørensen demonstrated the caliber of singers working under the Studio roof right now. You can check that out yourself in their upcoming performance of Mozart's rockin' Cosi Fan Tutte on March 11 and 13.
It's not just the cast of Lucia that has me in a HGO Studio mood, but also because the Concert of Arias, the culmination of the 23rd Annual Eleanor McCollum Competition for Young Singers, happened Thursday night. Bless those fearless opera fans who packed the Cullen despite the arctic temperatures.
Competition for one of the coveted Studio spots is stiff. This year, 701 applications were narrowed down to 348, 20 semi-finalists traveled to Houston. Eight finalists, including Mark Van Arsdale, Noel Bouley, Mark Diamond, Thomas Florio, Adam Lau, Nicole Rodin, Lauren Snouffer and Jessica Stavros, competed for a cash prize and a possible Studio contract.
Judging from their performances, I have no doubt that all will have strong careers. Being a finalist is not the only path to the studio; HGO casts a wide net and seeks out the right fit between the artist and the program. Legendary mezzo soprano Frederica von Stade served as a guest judge along with HGO general director Anthony Freud and HGO music director Patrick Summers.
And the envelope please: Diamond won 1st Place; Florio, 2nd; and Snouffer 3rd. The evening was not without a little touch of Opera Idol, Lau won the Audience Choice Award, and rightly so, the lad has chops and charm.
So why am I making such a fuss over HGO's Studio program? It's not just hometown pride.
While we do a tremendous job of training artists in this country, ensuring those well-schooled artists have the tools for a sustainable career needs some serious attention. Like any performing artist, a singer's career is full of risk. It's a gig-to-gig life, with much uncertainty, and not a choice for everyone. Which is exactly why programs like the Studio are so important.
They provide bridges from the academic to the professional worlds, paving the way for the next generation of artists. As a passionate advocate for professional development, I often use this space to highlight the best of these programs. Without them, the arts suffer and highly trained artists abandon their passion. We end up missing out. Who here would want Shagimuratova doing anything else but singing?
Founded in 1977 by composer Carlisle Floyd and the then HGO director David Gockley, the HGO Studio has grown to one of the best programs of its kind in the country. Today the program is headed up by Laura Canning and music director Francis Greep. You only need to follow the careers of DiDonato and Ana Maria Martinez to understand its reputation.
"My job is to ensure we deserve that reputation," says Canning. "The development of an opera artist differs from other musicians in that voices mature over time, so the training process goes on much longer."
Artists stay from one to three years, depending on their needs. Training is tailored to exactly what each artist needs, whether that be Italian language lessons or movement training by distinguished Houston choreographer Sara Draper.
HGO cultivates an ongoing relationship with these artists. So, when they move on, we still get to watch them blossom. I can't wait to see Shagimuratova make her role debut as Violetta in La Traviata next season, which alsofeatures performances by other Studio alums, including DiDonato, Martinez, Willis-Sorensen, Tamara Wilson and Hendricks.
Visiting with Peake and Hendricks drove home the point: Artists need a transitional time where they are fully supported during their continued training.
"I can't imagine a career without the Studio," says Hendricks, who mezmerized audiences in Rigoletto last season. According to Peake and Hendricks, the main stage performance opportunities make all the difference. That and getting paid. It's nearly impossible to train at this level and hold down an outside job. Peake had his own peak experience performing Pinkerton opposite Martinez in Madame Butterfly earlier this season.
"It was beyond my wildest dreams," recalls Peake, a Humble, Texas native who won the Audience Choice Award in 2009. "It doesn't get better than that."