Opera Houses Make Room for Relative Youngsters

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 31, 2009

Micaela Oeste, a soprano, pulled out her cellphone and took a call. She was standing onstage, an orchestra was playing, Plácido Domingo was conducting. No, this wasn't a shocking lack of manners on the part of the 27-year-old singer: Oeste was simply performing an aria from Gian Carlo Menotti's "The Telephone," in which the soprano lead is continually interrupted by a ringing phone, as part of a concert Sunday at Strathmore featuring the 10 singers of the Washington National Opera's Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program.

The program, established in 2002, is a fairly recent addition to a network of professional training opportunities for singers that has developed across the country. Nearly every opera house in the United States now has some form of young-artist program. Forty years ago, this network didn't exist: Young singers were left to sink or swim, and usually went to Europe to gain professional experience. Today, 64 companies in the United States have training programs, using between four and 40 singers each, according to a spokeswoman for Opera America.

Although the apprenticeship programs were developed to keep talent from fleeing the country, they have also helped create an increasingly closed circle in the opera world. In effect, entries on a résumé can come to be as important as that elusive, unteachable quantity: artistic excellence. And some critics believe the programs have produced a rather bland crop of performers.

"You almost find no big operatic personalities coming out of young-artist programs," says Neil Funkhouser, a manager in New York. "They're all sort of the same," he adds. "They sing well, they sing with a sort of expressivity, but it's not really expressive singing connected to the text or to the character."

Young opera singers have an uncertain life. Even the most successful have little hope of steady year-round employment. "Each contract is six weeks and five performances," says Laura Canning, the new head of the Houston Grand Opera's opera studio, one of the four top programs in the country. Even for an established artist, it takes a lot of contracts to earn a living, and piecing together a steady income is a bit of a jigsaw puzzle. After leaving school, Oeste had a year before starting in Washington during which she took part in a competition in Germany and did three short apprentice programs at Opera Santa Barbara, the Chicago Opera Theater and Opera Tampa. But that wasn't enough to keep her afloat: In between, she did temp work to pay her bills.

And although singers in the past assumed full careers in their early 20s -- Rosa Ponselle made her Met debut at 21 with Verdi's Leonora; Astrid Varnay at 23 with Sieglinde and, a few days later, Brunnhilde -- the conventional wisdom today is that not every young artist is ready to take on the grueling challenge of traveling from city to city, singing big roles full-time.

"There's this whole singer purgatory," says Emily Albrink, 28, another soprano in the Domingo-Cafritz program. "This whole time where you're waiting for your voice to get better and develop and get bigger and you're trying to figure out what you're supposed to be singing. So it's nice to fill up that time instead of waiting tables and not having enough money to pay coaches and teachers. I mean, this -- " she gestures to indicate the sessions the WNO provides -- "would cost a fortune."

Part of the reason singers today need extra attention is that much conservatory training is inadequate. One voice lesson a week and a few classes in diction and sight reading do not a singer make. "I'm sometimes just at a loss," says Karen Ashley, who runs the Domingo-Thornton program in Los Angeles, "because I'm still helping them undo other problems. Rather than taking them and helping them fly, you're helping them mend their wing."

Also largely absent in today's opera world are the big-name conductors who routinely used to spend weeks working with young singers to prepare them for big roles. Today's peripatetic performing and travel schedules seldom allow anyone to invest this kind of time. Even Domingo, passionately involved in his young-artist programs in Washington and Los Angeles, is an intermittent presence for the young singers he supports. "You always have to be ready," says Nathan Herfindahl, another Domingo-Cafritz participant. "You never know when he's going to fly in."

But should houses really be in the business of training their own artists? One risk is that objectivity goes out the window; once you have gotten involved in the progress of these promising young people, it is difficult to make objective decisions about whether they are really right for a given main-stage part. "Of course the public deserves the best," Domingo says, but he is also avuncularly partisan about "his" young singers' early forays into WNO productions. "They start in August," he says, "and in September they are the first time onstage. It is logical that they are [still] growing."

For the participants, the lure of a program is obvious: You are paid an annual stipend, with full benefits including health insurance. At union houses, all singers must also be paid for performances, above and beyond the $28,000-$40,000 a year that the larger programs offer them. (Washington pays $25,200.) Not every company can spend as much, particularly in ever dire economic times; Virginia Opera has just been forced to drop its weekly stipend from $425 to $375.

Most aspiring singers aren't actually very picky about what each program has to offer -- particularly when it comes to the leaders in Houston, San Francisco, Chicago and at the Metropolitan, with Washington and Domingo's other program in Los Angeles close behind. "We apply to everything," says Oeste. Most programs are fiercely competitive, with 400 to 800 applications every year. What applicants really want from them are stage experience and professional connections.

"By the time they leave, most of them have management," says Gianna Rolandi, the soprano who now heads the Chicago Lyric Opera's studio program. Donna Wolverton, an artists' manager who represents a number of young singers, says she would "unequivocally" prefer to hear the audition of a singer who had been through a young-artist program than one who hadn't.

Opera houses, of course, aren't purely altruistic: There has to be something in it for them, particularly as purse strings tighten. (The Domingo-Cafritz program has an annual budget of about $500,000, about half that of the programs in Chicago or San Francisco.) A frequent criticism of smaller programs is that companies exploit singers by using them as cheap labor in small roles and in the chorus. This charge isn't true at the bigger houses, since they have to pay union wages, but certainly the young-artist programs are increasingly fulfilling an ensemble function at houses such as San Francisco and Chicago.

"It really does have a lot to do with what we need on the stage," says Chicago's Rolandi. "That's the only way now that the expense can be justified. As much as everybody wants to help young singers, it does come down to money in the long run."

Young artists are also useful in the increasingly essential roles of education and outreach. Most of the smaller programs involve community performances, sending young artists into schools and nursing homes. And even in Washington, Michelle Krisel, head of the Domingo-Cafritz program, says, "I see them as being a great tool for audience development."

The question is whether, with all of the music and information and activity the young artists are asked to absorb and deliver, they are consistently being held to standards of excellence. Opera careers seem increasingly to be portrayed as endurance tests, and the young-artist programs are set up accordingly; San Francisco's prestigious summer Merola Program is referred to, says Sheri Greenawald, the soprano who oversees the opera house's training arm, as "boot camp." In helping singers survive this difficult life, there can be an emphasis on support rather than the kind of withering criticism that can make music training so unpleasant. But there is such a thing as too much support.

"We're so tough on them," Krisel says. "If I'm not brutal with them, they'll be crushed when [critics] are." But when Domingo, in a break from his own rehearsal at the Met in New York, waxes eloquent about the strengths of individual program participants, what you really hear is an emphasis on generosity and support. This generosity sometimes overrides even the standard audition process: Jesus Hernandez, a tenor in his first year with the program, got Domingo's attention by going backstage after a concert in his Army uniform -- he was in active service at the time -- and telling him of his secret dream to become a singer. Hernandez has a lovely stage presence, but, understandably, a lot of catching up to do in the vocal department.

Given the investment of time and resources from all concerned, one can ask if the results are worth it. Certainly a number of notable young singers who are making a name for themselves have come through the upper echelon of young-artist programs: Joyce DiDonato from Houston, Barbara Quintiliani from Houston and Washington, Joseph Kaiser and Nicole Cabell from Chicago, and the list goes on.

"The fact is," says the manager Wolverton, "extraordinary singers will surface, somehow they will be identified, and they will be nurtured, snapped up by various of the programs."

The program directors don't claim to be able to teach greatness. All you can do, Rolandi says, is "point them in the right direction."

The effort is laudable. And talented artists know how to make the most of their opportunities. What is less clear is whether a program is a necessary component of a young artist's career. The alternatives, of course, are limited. As houses cast young artists from their own programs in small roles, there are fewer and fewer opportunities for other young professionals to be cast at all. The network of programs that began as a response to failures in the system is increasingly becoming an end in itself.

"Some people are trying to get in who don't need one," says Ashley. "But they don't know any other way to get exposure."

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