• Operatic Education - an exclusive interview with an educator and a student

    Exclusive Interview: Operatic Education

    Interview with Dr. Marilyn Taylor, Chair of the Voice Department, A.J.Fletcher Opera Institute of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, and Mr. Richard Ollarsaba, young bass who is a third year student at the institute, in their Professional Artist Certificate program. [Opera Lively interviews # 3 and 4]


    The University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, merged its graduate opera program with the A.J. Fletcher Foundation to create the A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute. Opera Lively travelled to their very modern campus to interview one of the leading educators in the institute, Dr. Marilyn Taylor, Chair of the Voice Department.

    To add some background, our readers should know that the Fletcher Foundation has been supporting the growth of opera in America for over 50 years. Under the leadership of Mr. Alfred Johnson Fletcher, they created the Grassroots Opera Company in 1948, later renamed the National Opera Company, and remained in activity for decades until the merger with the school through a 10 million dollar award to foster operatic education.

    The Institute now exists in a large and well-equipped campus that encompasses several art schools, including Music, Dance, Design and Production, Filmmaking, and Visual Arts. The Opera Institute benefits from the collective expertise and the rehearsal and staging facilities and auditoriums on campus, so that fully staged operas can count on the Music School orchestra, with scenarios coming from the Design and Production School, ballet numbers provided by the School of Dance, and so forth.

    State sponsorship and scholarships from the Foundation allow students to afford their education and to reside on campus. There is a high school program for the arts, an undergraduate college, and several graduate programs.

    The institute presents two fully staged productions per year, and also counts on the expertise of Piedmont Opera – a professional opera company also headquartered in Winston-Salem, whose artistic director and principal conductor James Allbritten is also the artistic director at Fletcher.

    Students are trained in voice, language, diction, operatic and vocal literature, acting, makeup, a movement class including basic dances for the stage, and receive seminars on career enhancement strategies. Instruction is provided by a resident artist faculty and visiting artists of national and international renown.

    The chair of the Voice Department is Dr. Marilyn Taylor. A native of Louisville, Kentucky, Dr Taylor is a soprano who received her Bachelor’s degree in Music Education and Master’s degree in Vocal Performance from the University of Louisville. She completed her doctorate in “Vocal Performance” at Indiana University with minors in Music History and Speech and Hearing Sciences, specializing in “The Study of Professional Voice, Theory and Applications,” and “Voice Disorders.”

    Her professional singing career included roles in several American regional opera companies, and her concert repertoire has ranged from the baroque to the avant-garde, both abroad (the Bonn Orchestra, Prague Chamber Orchestra, the Flannéries Musicales d’Eté de Reims, Alba Music Festival) and in the U.S. at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the National Gallery in Washington, DC, and Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall.

    Dr. Taylor joined the artist faculty of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in 1992. She has served as Masterteacher and Mentor for the NATS Intern program, and in 2009 was granted the University of North Carolina Board of Governors’ Award for Excellence in Teaching.

    Her students have been National finalists at the Metropolitan Opera Council Auditions, and have performed with the Metropolitan Opera, the Chicago Lyric Opera, the Spoleto Festival, Zurich Opera, Hamburg Opera, Santa Fe Opera, and other opera companies and orchestras throughout the world.

    She counts among her alumni noted American tenor Anthony Dean Griffey who specializes in Britten, has sung leading roles at the Met, Covent Garden, Opera Australia, Glyndebourne, Opéra National de Paris, and appeared alongside Renée Fleming on the DVD of André Prévin’s A Streetcar Named Desire.

    Another one of her former students, tenor René Barbera, was the winner of Plácido Domingo’s 2011 Operalia competition in Russia, being the first singer to win simultaneously the three categories: the top singing prize, the Zarzuela prize, and the Audience Prize (Mr. Barbera has accepted an interview with Opera Lively - coming soon).

    It is Opera Lively’s pleasure to interview this accomplished opera educator.

    We met her at school, where she was teaching young bass Richard Ollarsaba, who won the student division of the Lynam Competition last year, the District Met auditions in Greensboro, and placed 2nd at the Regionals in Atlanta. Now in his third year at the Fletcher for his Professional Artist Certificate, he will sing the role of Falstaff in Nicolai's The Merry Wives of Windsor, in the production that the Fletcher is presenting in early February. He has been offered a position with the Young Artist Division of the Minnesota Opera for next year. Mr. Ollarsaba participated in the interview to give us the student’s perspective.


    OL - Dr. Taylor, please describe to us the scope of the A.J.Fletcher Opera Institute, and what it can do for the operatic career of young singers.

    MT - We were advised that the Fletcher Opera Institute would open its doors in the fall of 2001 on February 18, 2001—I remember the date exactly, because it was my birthday, and that was one of the most unique birthday presents I’d ever received!

    What we have here, in addition to an excellent music faculty and staff, is a school geared largely toward production of live shows, whether opera, dance, musical, or drama-based. The glue for all these productions is the School of Design and Production, whose teachers are or have been pros in their fields. The Institute provides a learning environment for aspiring opera singers, whether a graduate student, or someone not quite ready for prime time who needs more experience, or someone ready to develop more intensely their vocal skills, musicianship, staging ability, and language proficiency.

    Fletcher students have weekly lessons and master classes with their primary teacher, and aria sessions in which they work with either our conductor or director on the presentation of their audition pieces. We produce two fully-staged operas a year with help from our high school and undergraduate students, who provide our chorus and often sing supporting roles. The Fletchers also have in the fall an Opera Scenes Production, which is a look-ahead into the sorts of assignments they will receive for staged opera in the future. They have the opportunity to observe or perform with professional singers who sing with Piedmont Opera productions.

    They will have French, Italian, and German sessions with a native speaker or veteran teacher of the language. They have coachings once or twice a week with Angela Ward, who worked with John Moriarty for years at the New England Conservatory. She teaches our graduate and undergraduate diction classes as well as accompanying staging rehearsals and Opera Scenes performances.

    Fletchers are closely monitored; their voice teachers attend some portion of rehearsals to aid in all aspects of their performance, even during dress week. We’re a school - rather like a trade school.

    We don't just cater to the strengths they have, we also look at what they lack, as well as what they’ll sing in the future, and try to prepare them for all. We don't just make them comfortable (laughs).

    OL - Mr. Ollarsaba, what is like being a student here?

    RO - I would say very much that what Dr. Taylor had to offer is spot on. I came from the Cleveland Institute of Music in Ohio. Here at the Fletcher Institute, the whole program has anywhere from 6 to 8 singers at one time as opposed to the Cleveland Institute where I was one of 40 singers. If you look into other educational establishments like Juilliard or Indiana University you're one of hundreds, you know, and if you get the attention you're considered very lucky. When you're a member of the A.J. Fletcher Institute you don't have to worry about getting attention, like she said you get lots and lots of it through the coaches, the director, the conductor, the teachers, everybody. Their attention to each student is at the highest level, they provide us so much. And she is right, with the coaching and the diction lessons and the aria classes and the language classes, we are doing a lot, it all works very well towards the preparation for the career we are attempting in opera. I would say, it's a very encouraging place. Never at any point do we feel lost among the crowd. We are here to make mistakes and it's very comfortable, and I've enjoyed it very much.

    OL - I do understand the several advantages of it, because you count on a design school, ballet school, full orchestra and all that. Are there disadvantages for a music school in being inserted into a major university, as opposed to a private conservatory?

    MT - We have been part of the UNC system for some time, although we attained the title of the UNC School of the Arts rather recently. So, sure, there are disadvantages to being a state-supported school-- the legislature is one (laughs). But there are many more advantages. I don't think any school will forever be able in these times to say it is state-funded; but as a state-supported school, for example, if an in-state high-school student wishes to come to UNCSA, he attends for free-- an advantage we mightn’t have as a private institution. The Fletcher funds are a blessing—a needed resource, and we are drawing nearer to matching our final ‘challenge grant’ as was originally mandated.

    Any Fletcher student accepted into the Institute attends tuition-free, receives health coverage offered by our medical staff, and is given a stipend every month, so... while they probably need a church job or something to supplement, for the most part they can be students of their art.

    OL - OK, let's talk a little bit about the student body. You joined opera education in 1992. How do you compare opera education then and now? We feel that there is an aging of the interest for opera, there's lack of music education in our middle and high schools, it may be harder to recruit people, so how do you compare the quality of the student body from the past and now?

    MT - First of all, I think that the level of our student body on the whole is higher. One reason is that we have more students than in 1992. The school has grown—our opera department then was very young, one year old. The budget was lower, so there weren't many faculty to support it; we had a conductor who was also Piedmont Opera’s Artistic Director, but we did not have a resident stage director. We invited a guest Director for one production a year. We had no undergraduate opera program. We did have a graduate opera lab, of less intensity than our current classes. One has to be realistic – money matters. Often those wishing to explore opera are not rich, and scholarship can make the difference in securing a talent that’s auditioning elsewhere.

    In terms of the quality of education that middle and high school students are currently receiving, it depends on where they come from. At the moment, the level of our entering high school students is quite high. Undergraduates--- sometimes you find someone with talent who graduated high school in some place where nothing was going on musically. They may be lacking in experience but are hungry to learn. On the other hand, sometimes kids sleep through school, and because no one can fail these days, (it's not allowed) you can't make the one who is deficient feel badly, even if they don't have a work ethic. When they come to college, it's a shock. Those old habits are not going to see them through. Some of our students coming from high school to college are wonderful, but other times... they are not. [laughs]
    The main challenge—with everything so technologically oriented, one pushes a button and gets instant gratification... but may lack critical thinking skills. Teaching them how to process, how to access something that isn't immediately available, that's challenging.

    OL - How was it for you, Mr. Ollarsaba, at the beginning of your education, as a middle and high school student interested in music? Did you have opportunities?

    RO - I grew up in Arizona outside of Phoenix, I was at the tail end of the public education system, before the cuts started to hit the extracurricular programs such as music and the arts in general. I was fortunate enough to get that opportunity and that exposure when I was a child. I was introduced to music very early in my life; my parents encouraged it highly, they very much exposed myself and my siblings to culture and the arts, any given one - dance, drama, music... they very much encouraged that, and I started to play the violin when I was 8 years old and continued it for ten years, and along the way I picked up drama as well as singing. Fortunately we all lived in an area that was very affluent and had education systems and schools that could provide the interest in music and arts, so when I was in middle school I was in orchestra all three years of it and was able to be placed in ensembles that were adequate to my skills. I had a background in violin when I came to middle school; I wasn't just picking up the instrument for the first time so I was placed with the older instrumentalists, and was able to exercise that skill level.

    Going to high school I just began singing and was able to be in orchestra as well as a choir class, actually two sections of choir. I was very happy to go to the high school that I did. The choir program was enormous at the time; it sustained seven choirs at one time which encompassed a large percentage of the student body. Everyone took part. After I left, that's when the budget cuts started happening, and they reluctantly had to start cutting back on some of the programs.

    When I told my parents I wanted to go into music they were very supportive of that. I consider myself very lucky that I was able to participate in all of those things just in my mainstream education. My violin teacher hosted a chamber music program in which we put on concerts throughout the year with quartets and sextets playing music by the greatest composers of the genre. I was also in a youth orchestra. It was an opportunity that I find unparalleled, it's hard to find these days; it still exists, but you need to be very lucky to find this sort of comprehensive opportunities now.

    OL - What made you decide for singing as opposed to violin?

    RO - The decision came when I decided to pursue a collegial education in music, auditioning for different programs; the Cleveland Institute of Music where I ended up going being one of them. They provided me with a wonderful opportunity for voice as well as violin. I auditioned everywhere for voice and violin, and when it came down to going into a conservatory environment and having that intense education in music I had to make a decision because I wouldn't have time and energy to pursue both. I realized that I was able to translate my passion for music easier and just more naturally in voice. I wasn't able - as a turn of phrase - to sing through the violin as easily as I could through my own voice and my own body; really that's where the decision came from.

    OL - What is your advice Dr. Taylor for prospective voice students? When should they begin to get serious about it? What should they do at different age points? When does it become too late to get into it?

    MT - First of all, my opinions about that have changed over time, not in terms of the upper end of the age limit, but the lower end. I know teachers that begin working arias with students by the time they're 9 years old. I would not, but some manage to do so without harm, although young muscles will probably have to relearn the arias later. One can introduce them to this discipline, though, develop their stamina, it depends on the approach of the teacher. Scientifically speaking, your lungs are for the most part fully developed by the time you are 8, so certainly you can begin with breathing.

    I once taught a young student who started studying voice when she was 8. At 13 she was able to present an impressive quality with ease in the upper and lower registers – her Mozart “Alleluia” from Esultate, Jubilate, was superior to that of my older students. When older, she attended our High School program. Even with that kind of talent, there were other things to be taught, for instance, legato - she could sing the Queen of the Night’s second aria (flashy, but not really as difficult as the first aria) but when you turned her right ‘round to sing a simple song, it could cause her to lose a competition. From HS she entered the Juilliard School as an undergraduate.

    We normally admit students to HS in their junior year--they should be 16 by the time they enter, but we sometimes make exceptions, as in the case of one young lady we took this year…a sophomore…mature enough vocally and physically to succeed in the program who also has a very strong support system!

    OL - What about the upper limit?

    MT - Hmm... Upper age limit…again, it depends on the individual. A heavier voice, a more dramatic voice, is usually not going to sound good at age 19, and when you listen to that voice, you need enough experience to know – ah, what I'm hearing in terms of seeming flaws and weaknesses isn't the indication of what will come later. So you have to be patient, continue to develop them, and then the world has to be patient. For a while I was hearing quotes, such as one from a Young Artist Program’s director in a particular large city that I will not name - "if you haven't fixed your problems by the time you‘re 25 they’re not going to be fixed" - and that's not true! In some cases one is not fully capable of sustaining an intended fach until older, so there will be issues to fix--otherwise the career can be very short. In the meantime, the voice/artist needs nurturing and guidance.

    It also depends on the musical background. For example, someone like yourself who has been listening to opera for years-- if such a person is a truck driver with a voice like Mario Lanza, a truck driver who knows the repertoire—well, he sang and became a movie star. But, if someone has a voice but no background, nor the mental capacity to absorb languages or understand that you don't sing Mozart with the rubato or portamento of Puccini, a career is less viable. We have to remember that Pavarotti made his debut with the Met when he was 40, 41. He was obviously singing for a long time before that, but he said something to the effect of, "I knew everything about singing, what to do, when I was 20 - and when I was 40 I could do it." One of my teachers knew a great soprano in Germany who started her career at age 37. That could be difficult today, unless you found yourself at 37 ready to sing Brünnhilde.

    OL - How was it for you, Mr. Ollarsaba in terms of starting age for your singing lessons?

    RO - When I began studying voice at 13 I was very young, my perspective on singing was no further than listening to the musicals on television or the movies like the Disney musicals that came through, and the classical American songbook. That was my reference; that was singing to me. I didn't find an interest in classical singing until I got into high school, and even then, a lot of that was very limited. My education in opera was only so much, you know, like your website dictates, you know the Bugs Bunny, those standard things that are pointed into our culture. It's a learning process. I feel that every year I learn something new; even more so, every month, every week, every day you learn something new about yourself, about your voice. With every new discovery you feel that you can do something different or even better or realize that something you may have been doing for a while is maybe not the best thing. That's something I've learned with every teacher, every class, every master class I came across with great opera singers and great teachers.

    OL - Just for the record, how old are you now?

    RO - 24.

    OL - What about your alumni, Dr. Taylor, how does someone break into the professional operatic world? What kind of career advice do you dispense to your graduates? Are contests important? Or is it more fundamental to be part of a young artists program with a major opera house? Do regional opera houses offer a possible path for advancement? People need to be lucky and be at the right place at the right time, but other than the required talent that is the most important part, what is that makes some people make it?

    MT - I like to answer your questions with stories. I have a story about a very, very talented tenor, who was in the opinion of many, lazy. When our conductor and stage director first heard him, he was enrolled in a summer program while working at his brother's store. When he sang, you could hear immediately the quality of the voice, and knew what he could be. The vocal quality was of a more glorious vocal era. I remember leaving his lesson once, however, because he was (again) unprepared. How did that person finally end up having a major career? He had an awakening one summer when a cherished path closed to him, and this time when I talked, he listened. In that year, he began to work. He prepared a recital, started to take auditions, and as I expected, started winning competitions. In that case, yes, those competitions helped forge his career. As a Met national finalist, one of his judges who headed a major Young Artist Program invited him to audition, after which he became a member of a major opera center.

    This is all to say that as a teacher you're not just the person who provides technique, or a blow by blow description of how to portray a character/scene, it’s also about a little knowledge of life, and what to say when the time is right. Now this person knows absolutely that this is right for him, and he is very happy.

    OL - So you function as a life coach as well.

    MT - Yes, yes!

    OL - You, Mr. Ollarsaba, what do you plan to try in order to make it?

    RO - Well, I'm on the verge of heading in the direction of becoming a professional, I hope. This year we'll conclude the end of my education at school, and after that I will yield myself to the professional world, the next step being becoming a resident artist, to be an apprentice with a major opera house, to be able to see what a professional atmosphere really is, to be able to observe and participate at times in that atmosphere. I feel that I need to get the practical application of the business of opera, then hopefully after that, if it is another young artists program, good, if the Met calls, even better, you know, it's the right time right place, roll the dice, if you can plan it out just right, hopefully it will work out in a way that you get to achieve the status that you want.

    OL - You've already been through some competitions and had some good successes. How was that experience for you?

    RO - It was very good. I did a recent interview about competitions and their benefit to an artist. I feel that competitions provide to the artist himself or herself the opportunity to really stretch their legs, really show what they can do, to speak for themselves. You can have references, teachers, mentors talk about your successes to any given person, but a competition is really an opportunity for the product of a singer to speak for itself. Through that you get information, opportunity, and feedback that you wouldn't normally get in your usual atmosphere. I mean, you have teachers and mentors that are always with you, almost holding your hand, but then to sing in front of complete strangers who know nothing about you or your voice is tremendous. For them to get that first hand look, that first impression, and hopefully if it's a very good outlook they'll tell you. It's just good information that what you're doing is working for you in the best way.

    MT - I'd like to sort of jump in for a moment. Some major stars never entered competitions, never found them necessary in their life path. I work with a professional who went to Juilliard, and got his start when a famous conductor chose him to sing in a prestigious festival. He has had a very fine career not singing standard rep-- he is a wonderful musician, wonderful onstage, and a good colleague.

    Competitions aren’t essential to a career, but they provide an opportunity to be heard. We had one Fellow who did not win a particular competition, but was approached by a judge to audition for his opera company, anyway.

    OL - How good is opera as a career in terms of annual income for singers in different stages of their careers, such as those who perform for regional opera houses, national houses, and major houses with international reach? Of course a percentage of these artists make good money, but do people who are in regional opera houses need a day job?

    MT - I went to a seminar years ago where they gave statistics on such income. The percentage of top professionals in opera who are earning hundreds of thousands of dollars is very small, (at the time of this seminar, 1 or 2%.) Think of a Renée Fleming, she is probably at the top. You have a few more in a category just underneath this. Then you have a larger percentage of singers who make enough to support a family, who can say, "that's what I do for a living.” You have to take other things besides salary into consideration. Who is going to pay your health insurance? Do you need a car? How will you pay for your coachings? Retirement? Especially in these economic times, it sounds wonderful to say "I have an engagement in Europe" however, you are taxed there at a higher rate and you're taxed in the States as well. Out of your fee you may pay for your own flight, and you may not have your hotel provided for you. The largest percentages of singers have another job, whether teaching or working for a real estate company in New York while taking auditions. A plus---today the Web makes it possible for companies to hire singers whose work can be viewed online. Casting can occur without having to incur the cost of an audition trip.

    I nearly always supplemented my income with teaching when I was singing professionally. There was a brief period in my life where, with grants, I could strictly focus on singing. I obtained my first manager in my late thirties; had I not put my foot in the water, I’d not be teaching here now. Not that anything, however, could have kept me from trying. I did this because I had to. Don't think to enter this field with visions of making tons of money. Some will, but for many there is something inside, like a question that needs to be answered, that drives them on. You must follow your passion.

    OL - Mr. Ollarsaba, is what she says scary, or will your incentive be the passion?

    RO - Actually she sort of took the words out of my mouth. I'd say that this career path was chosen for me. I'm not sure if this is the way I will support myself or gain the glamour and glory of the performing stage, but this was a passion laid out for me very early in my life, that I was able to discover and define. Like I said in your earlier question, to make a decision between two media of music, violin or voice; voice was the way for me to express that longing I had inside. Why wouldn't you want to choose the best instrument that can express how you're feeling through music? Yes, I'd say that this is something that I have to do. If I opted to work 9 to 5, work behind a desk, or work at something that had no relation to music I don't think I would be happy. I don't think that life would have any satisfaction for me. In all my trials of singing and pursuing opera, if that leads me to a status equal to Renée Fleming's, I will be very happy, I'd be so surprised and so happy. But it wouldn't matter because the way I'd look at it wouldn't be by the dollar bills, it would be by the fact that I'd be doing what I love to do.

    MT - I once heard through the grapevine that a currently internationally recognized singer was about to leave opera and sing in another appealing medium. Because there was a certain wall that she had reached, financially and artistically, she was prepared to walk away if she couldn’t break through it. Then, things started to happen for her. This can happen to a well prepared singer at any time. I know of someone who, if not making a good living at this, would find something else to do. One can have a different perspective; there is the issue of quality of life, of relationships, and the stresses that an opera career can provide.

    OL - You are about to stage The Merry Wives of Windsor, and our gifted young man here will be singing. How do you select what operas to perform in your school year?

    MT – The Artistic Director of the Fletcher Institute who conducts the operas is also a tenor. Being trained as a singer and conductor with world-class teachers makes him well suited to his role. Our stage director also sang onstage—another tenor---who studied direction with one formerly of the Met. They select operas based on the personnel they have, rather than selecting an opera and afterward looking for singers to fit the bill. For [Merry Wives for] example, we had a basso, a young baritone, another older, more experienced baritone, one tenor whose voice is versatile, a lighter soprano with an extension, and another who had been auditioning with Alice’s aria frequently. The opera would provide good and attainable goals for all. For Richard to play Falstaff is a little funny, because he is a very handsome man without a big belly. He’s sung a role in Maria Stuarda, he's performed Ferrando in Il Trovatore, and has covered heavier roles elsewhere. This role provides different challenges -- and he gets to try it out without facing New York critics.

    OL - Just North Carolina critics: I'll attend the performance and publish a review. (laughs) Mr. Ollarsaba, tell us about Falstaff in Nicolai's opera.

    RO - This Falstaff, I love working with this one. The very famous Falstaff by Verdi is at the center of the opera, while this Falstaff by Nicolai is more of an addition, it is more after Shakespeare where the plot is more focused on the Merry Wives Ms. Ford and Ms. Page and the unwed who eventually gets married at the very end. I feel that the way Nicolai looked at Falstaff was not necessarily as comic relief, but very much a good source of humor. I don't think that Falstaff is taken completely seriously, he doesn't represent a serious person, he is a personality that is very comfortable in his old ways, he is set in his ways, but he is a catalyst to the entire plot; without him there wouldn't be the story of the Merry Wives.

    Approaching the character like Dr. Taylor said will be a challenge but it will be a very fun challenge. This is a genre that I love so much in my experience doing comedy, and it is something I'm comfortable with and familiar with, but when coming to the Fletcher for the first time, they gave me the opportunity at a lot of the dramatic, something I was not familiar with, so they helped me stretch in that direction, and of course I love the dramatic, and it is something that I will definitely love pursuing in my own future, but I mean who doesn't love comedy?

    Especially the slapstick, there is a wonderful scene when you first see Falstaff and he has to hide because he is trying to woo one of the merry wives and her husband was rushing in, so they hide him in a laundry basket, and of course in different productions the Falstaff may not be so tall and so round, so it may be a little easier to find a way to hide this character, but in my case I'm a very tall person, I am 6'4", and as Dr. Taylor said I don't have many of the attributes that Falstaff has, I'm not an older gentleman and I'm not considered obese, so with the wonderful design and production team that we have they have made me a fat suit to compensate for what I don't have. It will be a challenge and it was very humorous in rehearsals to find a way to hide all of what will be Falstaff in the show. It will be a hoot; it will be so much fun!

    OL - Talking about him not being obese and being quite a handsome young man...

    MT - But he doesn't have such an inflated ego as Falstaff, he knows his place in the universe (laughs).

    OL - ... so, let's talk about looks in opera these days. We had in the past singers like Montserrat Caballé who wasn't a looker but made it because of her spectacular voice. Today we have high definition video and we see a trend for attractive people to be performing these days, and I wonder if this has an impact on the talent pool when people are genetically gifted for the voice but not for the looks. What is your advice to people who don't meet the standards of what passes today for attractiveness in our culture, and may not be hired by opera houses who want to fill their seats?

    MT - There is a great tradition of singing behind us, years and years, wonderful singers, and there are nicknames for several singers of the past; Montserrat Caballé had one, Jessye Norman had one... but these people, their singing was amazing. I have a personal desire that the quality of singing not be lost as directors and managers of opera companies frantically try to ensure they are appealing to all audiences, that all singers will look good on camera. I'd say to them, don't shortchange people who are paying tickets to view your production in the theater. You can intensify broadcast, you can amplify the sound. With technologies that we have these days you can even correct pitch while one is singing. Many of the musicals that are out there are pre-recorded, at least portions of them. I resent it. From the singers who had 5 or 7 shows a week without amplification in 1,200-seat houses, we should take a lesson. Stars can now be created technically. The public today is used to over-amplification, in my estimation, and may need to be educated to listen differently when viewing live opera. I believe they will love what they hear.

    It is a desire of mine that this great art form not be lost. I have a friend who works in Germany who said last year "we have many beautiful women onstage now… like models…they can’t sing.” My teacher Virginia Zeani was beautiful, she was quite something.

    However, she told me at one point, "gain weight, skinny women do not resist on stage" and she was not talking about resisting men (laughs), but about breath resistance, the inhalation, expansion and flexibility. I don't know that even Montserrat Caballé would have a career today. The public is prejudiced. So we educators have to work a little harder to make sure that attractive people can sing (laughs), and caution larger ladies with beautiful voices to lose weight.

    OL - You, Mr. Ollarsaba, what are your thoughts on it?

    RO - Being someone who is quickly approaching that line, hopefully, it's a big concern for myself and my peers, it's definitely a large consideration, it's hard for opera singers, I feel, because the stories and the plots and the characters are very finite unless you're doing a contemporary opera. Say, for movies, films, there is a big tendency for type casting, even in dramas: if you look the part, you get the part. Unfortunately there is an extra layer that goes with singing in opera - you may look the part of an evil villain, but you may be a light lyric tenor. Nature can't help that (laughs) so opera has to be a little flexible, and at one time it was flexible; if you had the voice that fit the music you could sing it, obviously to the great advantage of singers who wouldn't be considered to be the best for the part today.

    It's a big concern for singers who are up and coming and trying to make it into the business, and unfortunately they see that what is being broadcast and publicized is that model beauty. If you can see it in a Gucci catalogue then you should be able to see it on an operatic stage. You're very lucky when the beautiful face goes with the beautiful voice. But it's such a prejudice for the singers who have the ability but not the features for the part. I had this conversation with many people.

    Being the devil's advocate and looking at it from the audience's perspective, if you're watching operas like La Traviata and La Bohème and you have your heroine being the consumptive, the tuberculosis-stricken soprano, it's hard to believe that a 400-pound woman could be suffering from such a disease, and it's unfortunate because she may be able to sing and act the part so beautifully, but people are so driven by what they see, and if they can't believe in it with their eyes nothing else seems to be able to go with it. It's unfortunate that we are going in that direction.

    OL - What about acting? The old style was Stand and Deliver, and now singers are very accomplished actors. In your school you pay lots of attention to acting as well, so what could you tell us about that?

    MT - You have a traditional way of approaching a role, in which you invest in character study beforehand, and develop your craft through the role. You can’t always act the part literally - as Leopold Goldowsky said: "La Traviata is getting ready to sing a high C - you can't cry!" - but you need vocal and physical tools at your disposal which will portray that element. This is standard research: how old is this person, in what time does he live, what is his status in life, how does that affect movement, etc.? And the languages – what are you saying? What are others saying to you?

    Then you go to Germany or elsewhere and you're put into a production that has nothing to do with the traditional intent of the composer or librettist-- how do you tell the story? I think that improvisation becomes important; versatility, and acting styles of all sorts. We once received an email from an alumnus that said, “I have mimed, tumbled, juggled, and danced—I advise you to pick up any skill you can.” Another of our alumni emailed me to say that a director asked him to perform cartwheels onstage. I had no idea he had that talent, as well.

    Styles—as you said, stand and sing---our former oboe teacher had a father who was a comprimario tenor from a bygone era (he sang with Lawrence Tibbett) and in a class he gave here, said in their day they extemporized; directors either weren’t there, or were unimportant. Singers brought everything to the stage. The conductor was more important then. To sing my first Pamina, I had to work a lot, the director was no help. In a recording I saw of Corelli’s singing (in a concert with Virginia Zeani!) he delivered vocal lines to the public, where he was compelling and amazing, then turned away during interludes. He never acted. One of my former teachers saw him live onstage, and corroborated that the man just “straightened his tie and sang.” Pavarotti when he first sang L'Elisir at the Met was very charming, but later he didn’t act. People would still want to see that star, because of that voice.

    OL - What have you being doing to improve your acting?

    RO - There is a great deal of work that goes into character work. It's good to have the reference of the source material. Like in the Merry Wives, it's good to read Shakespeare's play and to watch other versions of the same story like Verdi's, and compare and contrast, and even find elsewhere similar characters like the one you will be portraying. Even if it's an updated production you need to think of the time period when the story was constructed.

    I saw an Elixir at New York City Opera that was done during the Korean war so you have to change things, you can't present as an Italian peasant when it's being presented in the deserts of California at the time of the Korean war, so it changes from production to production and from director to director; especially these days directors have such a big hand in what productions are, that you may have your own ideas but they may have their own ideas and if they conflict, you have to find a happy compromise where both ideas can happen; and more than this, in a way that the art can be expressed to the audience.

    OL - We're getting to the end of our time, and I'd like to completely change the topic to tap on your expertise, Dr. Taylor, because I saw in your résumé that your doctoral dissertation was on the pathology of the voice. We hear about the wobble and the weakening muscles in the case of the ageing singer, but what else can affect a voice, how can singers preserve their voices to make their careers last longer?

    MT - There are people who delve into the science of the voice more heavily than I. I do not profess to know everything.

    I have always had a litany of foods to avoid if I really wanted to sing well, and that hasn’t changed. If you discover that you're someone who has reflux - which I don't - you don't eat three hours before you go to bed, you don't eat spicy food, you avoid chocolate, caffeine, perhaps take medications, many things. Then there are singers who smoke like chimneys, drink anything they want, and manage to sing well. Things that happen as we age - if you have arthritis in some of your joints, chances are you also have it in the joints/cartilages of the jaw and surrounding areas, and that can make for vocal changes. There are questions about that wonderful mucosal wave that lies on top of the vocal folds, and whether it changes, dries faster--will that affect stamina, longevity, ability to vary dynamics?

    I saw a session at a Classical Singer Convention about the aging female voice, where an ENT told of a 72-year-old diva who still sang beautifully. He talked about hormonal changes that occur, and that women could benefit from hormone therapy. Some people however, can't take hormones. His advice is that they should exercise two hours a day. (laughs) I don't have two hours a day! But I think exercise is important. One of our former ENTs from Wake Forest University responded when someone complained of her declining vocal ability, “how much exercise are you getting?” In teaching –posture counts. You may be holding your head at a certain position throughout the day. Long hours at the computer or piano don’t help. Then the evening comes and you try to sing, and this entire apparatus [points to her neck] is stiff. Awareness becomes more crucial.

    OL - Mr. Ollarsaba, do you worry about preserving your voice?

    RO - Yes, I think any young singer can be a little neurotic too about their voices. I have many friends that the one day they were befallen by laryngitis, it's the end of their career, it's the end of the world, because this is so much of what our life is that the slightest thing can send a singer into a frenzy.

    In the short time that I had to mature through singing, you just notice more your education and exposure to what is your voice, what are the muscles and all the anatomy and how little things can change it - the weather can change it, what you eat can change it, what you drink. There are lots of singers who have found better success by swearing off caffeine, by swearing off alcohol, while other singers like Dr. Taylor said can smoke like a chimney and drink like a fish and find success.

    It's definitely something to look at as a younger singer, especially if you're looking into prolonging your career, because with a violin or any given instrument if it breaks you can get a new one - you might have some sentimentality associated with it but you can find another instrument, but when it comes to the voice you're given just this one set of muscles, and until the day when they'll learn how to synthesize these tissues, singers will be very careful, and even if that day comes singers will still be careful, because why would you give away what you've been given?

    OL - How do you approach outreach, in order to keep opera alive?

    MT - I have to thank you for your website, because having people who love the art form and promote it is a crucial element. In addition, you have to reach out to young students. The Fletcher performs 30 outreach performances a year in various schools - usually a 30-minute show of some abbreviated/transformed version of an opera. Many of the students have never heard someone sing without a microphone, and they ask "how do you do that?”

    The final dress rehearsal for Piedmont Opera productions is open to an invited audience for free or at a nominal price, and HS students fill the house. This is a viable art form. We all need to work a little harder. Handel at one point had to close the doors of his Royal College of Music for lack of funds. Now more than ever we need to make sure that we are approachable. We need to make it very relevant to everyday life.

    OL - In a more personal way, how does it feel to have a student like Mr. Barbera who won a major international competition, or students engaged in the Met Auditions? Were you a nervous wreck when they were competing? How closely do you follow their careers once they fly away from under your wings?

    MT – (Laughs) Nervous? More for some than others. Nervous beforehand, because I’m hoping to say the right thing to help before they sing. Nervous during, holding my breath sometimes, not realizing it until they’ve finished singing. For Mr. Barbera, giving him some gentle breath reminders as he arrived early at the Hall before his Met finals; For Mr. Griffey’s opening at the Met of Peter Grimes -- he’d just recovered from a hospital stay while in rehearsals due to a fall that resulted in internal injuries and bruised ribs! ..and it’s the MET… I’m just a gal from Kentucky… warming up a professional who’s been successful for years. I’d better say the right thing. It’s a lot of responsibility.

    I do follow their careers—I go to watch performances when my school schedule allows. Students call or email for tips or health/medical advice. I traveled to St. Louis to see Mr. Barbera perform with Opera Theater St. Louis, and gave lessons to him there before he left for Operalia. I first observed Mr. Griffey’s Grimes at Santa Fe. He has occasionally vocalized over the phone for me before going onstage. I tune in to live streaming when possible. Adam and Kyle [a talented baritone who was the lead in UNCSA’s Oklahoma] text with their latest experiences/successes, as do others. Sometimes students return to work with me. You develop a large second family. I don’t think I’d be successful teaching the volume of students that NY teachers do— I work better with a smaller number, and lessons aren’t live performances—it’s good to see what’s going on there.

    OL – Any final statements?

    RO - Your web site is very informative, and I wish you all the best.

    Comments 7 Comments
    1. AnaMendoza's Avatar
      AnaMendoza -
      Wonderful interview. It was fascinating to me as a non-professional--I can only imagine how valuable it'd be to someone considering vocal training
    1. Schigolch's Avatar
      Schigolch -
      Interesting stuff. Fully agree that obsession with looks, the image-first culture, hidden amplification... are really bad for performing traditional Opera.
    1. Eorrific's Avatar
      Eorrific -
      Very insightful, especially the question about the starting age for singing. Thank you.
    1. Ann Lander (sospiro)'s Avatar
      Ann Lander (sospiro) -
      Absolutely fascinating interview, thank you. And great to learn the thoughts of a young artist on the brink of what I hope is a very successful career.
    1. Festat's Avatar
      Festat -
      This is really fantastic!
      I have always been puzzled about how often singers are hiddenly mic-ed, I hope not much.
    1. HarpsichordConcerto's Avatar
      HarpsichordConcerto -
      Great article. There is much emphasis on acting, not just on singing.
    1. CountessAdele's Avatar
      CountessAdele -
      Invaluable information! Thank you!

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