Way back in 1957 (the year I was born) a man named John Crosby had a vision that came to fruition — the Santa Fe Opera — giving American singers an opportunity to learn and perform new roles in a setting that allowed ample time to rehearse and prepare each production. At the same time, this young conductor created an Apprentice Program for Singers.The use of the journeyman’s term “apprentice” regarding the study of singing was unique. In 1965 the idea was expanded to include Theater Technicians for intermediate to advanced training. Vocal apprentices receive private coaching in all roles and cover (understudy) assignments, private coaching from renowned people from the business. They also participate in master classes given by visiting artists, conductors and directors. They comprise the opera chorus, sing small roles and understudy leading ones.The Theater Technician program offers instruction and practical experience in stage operations, properties, audio & video, costumes, production/music services, make up and wig construction, stage lighting and scenic art. They work tirelessly round the clock catching cat naps as they can. It would be difficult for Santa Fe Opera to be as successful as it is without them all. Both entities have illustrious alumni, which speaks to the success of the programs.
John Crosby was a lone gun, an impresario almost non-existent in today’s world of corporate entities and organizational behemoths. He started an opera company in the high desert of New Mexico because he loved it there. He ran it until he left this world, and left a legacy that has endured many hurdles including a theater destroyed by fire in 1968. He stuck by his dream. Not only is the opera company going strong and is a destination for opera lovers from all over the world but the Apprentice Program also endures. Someone may correct me but it may have been the first of its kind. Moreover, there is an outreach program called the Pueblo Opera Program which serves three reservations in the state of New Mexico.
This year 40 talented singers are participating after a rigorous national audition process. They will present two programs of opera scenes in the coming weeks. Last week they had a showcase, singing in a type of audition format on stage with piano for many heads of opera companies, artist managers and donors. It has become a much-anticipated annual event.
I am involved with two organizations that award money to young singers: The W.M.Sullivan Foundation and the George London Foundation, so I was there partly on behalf of these two groups and also as moral support for these young people I see everyday in the canteen. As I listened to these auditions I was thinking of how hard it would be for me to start my career if I were that age today. These young singers are better trained in all areas: acting, musicality, foreign languages, vocal technique,. Singing is the king of multitasking. Some of the singers are ready to step out of the young artist programs and into the big world of opera. They are good-looking and communicative. Rest assured that opera of the future is in good hands what with this and many other similar programs now in the USA.
Although I am performing in Santa Fe this summer I have also had a chance to continue working with young singers during a break between performances. I taught classes and lessons at a program in Los Angeles called Songfest at Colburn. Another unique training program, it focuses on the endless wealth of at more than 200 years of song repertoire with collaborative piano (formerly called accompanying which implied a lesser role for the pianist). It was incredibly energizing to see so many singers and pianists delving into the intimate art form of song. Led by another tireless visionary, Rosemary Hyler Ritter started this program in 1996 and it has moved to various college campuses over the years. Now it is at the Colburn School of Music. It has yet to have a permanent home but perhaps this time is a charm for the facilities were wonderful. I had given and recital and a class when the program was in its infancy. Now it has developed into an organization that commissions new American songs and has the top-tier of coaches, singers and composers today teaching there. There is also a focus on programming, connecting with an audience, thinking outside the traditional box of the art song recital. Members of New York City based SONGFUSION were on faculty. Their mission is:
to expand the traditional recital format, creating programs that explore familiar themes from unexpected angles, and collaborating with instrumentalists, dancers, actors and visual artists.
These are two drastically different programs. Santa Fe compensates the apprentices, trains them for the big stage experience. Songfest has a small amount of grant money but the majority of the participants pay to be there to learn from great coaches of this repertoire. Both types of programs are needed: spectacle and intimacy.
I have been a happy camper witnessing the enthusiasm from these young people. This morning I happened to see a link to a podcast on Facebook that made me grin. A group of young people out of Toronto started “Opera Five: Opera That Makes Sense.” I had not heard of them — and no I am not a paid spokesperson nor have I seen their performances — but I love their informational page:
Walk into any opera house and look around. In one word, what do you see? Old? Money? Snobs? Intellect? Elite?
When you think of opera as an art form, do you think of Bugs Bunny in bull horns, or a guy in a speedo selling gum? Maybe you’re thinking of Italian food At Opera Five we believe that opera is all these things, but that it can be so much more. It’s an art form that has unlimited potential, that has inspired artists for centuries, an art form we love and most importantly one that can move any audience, period.
When opera was developed it was meant to combine all art forms and we intend to push that to the limit by combining opera with any and every distinct art form such as dance, photography, visual art, performance art, creative writing and even culinary arts by showcasing new talent in each medium.
Above everything else, the most important element of our vision is you. We want to create the kinds of opera you want to see. We want you to forget everything you think you know about opera and show you something that is pure entertainment in a venue that you feel comfortable in.
The site and, no doubt the group, is young, hip and accessible. Like John Crosby and Rosemary Hyler Ritter and many others not mentioned here, someone had a vision and stuck with it.
I am sure there are even more grassroots groups of which I am just unaware. These young people think outside the box and are spreading a needed enthusiasm for the basic primal art of classical singing that should not be allowed to disappear no matter what the current technological and economic trends show. There is just no replacement for the true, naked and unadulterated human voice, period.
I could choose to be a middle-age singer pining away for the past but I choose to see the possibilities for the future that have one leg firmly planted in the past.
By the way, these young people live among you, are productive members of society yearning to make a living wage, and to contribute in their unique way to our lives. If you meet one of them, please ask questions and learn about what they do. They are the future. The art of the human voice is not going anywhere except forward.
George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “Youth is wasted on the young.” In the realm of classical singing and the future, I beg to differ.