Climbing opera's ladder: Selective resident program offers well-rounded foundation

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You're a 23-year-old doctoral candidate in behavioral neuroscience at the University of Connecticut.

You've grown up in a family of scientists, and it's a career decision you feel comfortable with, except sometimes you think you need a break and maybe should take some voice lessons "just for fun."

So what happens?

Pittsburgh Opera resident artists talk about their career choice

The Pittsburgh Opera resdent artists discuss life as opera singers. (Video by Kalea Hall; 01/23/2013)

You chuck the doctorate to become an opera singer, of course.

That's exactly what happened to Samantha Korbey, 29, a talented mezzo-soprano who is a member of the Pittsburgh Opera's resident artists program, where gifted singers come to start their professional careers.

"I took to it like a fish to water," she said of those first months with a voice teacher. She'd always liked to sing, but it left her tired. Now, though, she was suddenly discovering how to do it right.

"It felt so good, the way the music started coming through me. All of a sudden, I felt I needed to do this."

Ms. Korbey spoke during rehearsals for "Il Matrimonio Segreto," or "The Secret Marriage," a light, amusing 18th-century opera buffa by Domenico Cimarosa, which will be performed by the resident artists at Pittsburgh School for the Creative and Performing Arts theater, starting Thursday and running through Feb. 3.

This production is, perhaps, the high point for the eight artists now in the program, who get plenty of parts in the Pittsburgh Opera's main stage productions featuring world-renowned singers.

But "The Secret Marriage" is their show, their time to shine, their time to show their stuff.

But please don't call them "young" artists, said Christopher Hahn, the Pittsburgh Opera's general manager, who cringes at that word.

"The word 'young' implies inexperienced, unprofessional. You get, 'Why are you using students in these productions?' " he said.

He much prefers the word "resident," because, after all, these students will be in Pittsburgh for two years and will be pretty much living at the opera's headquarters in the Strip District, being coached, rehearsed and prepared for a life singing opera.

Consider it a winnowing process, or, perhaps more bluntly, a time when these (young) people learn whether or not they have the stamina, ambition and ability to handle a career that might not mean stardom but that will mean traveling, scrambling, auditioning, planning -- and lots of rejection.

"It's not for everybody," said Ms. Korbey, noting that her teachers always told her, "If you can envision yourself doing anything else, do it."

If anything, rejection fuels some of these artists. Juan Jose DeLeon remembers being told by his middle school choir teacher in Dallas that he was tone deaf and that no one would ever be able to teach him how to sing.

"So I decided to prove her wrong," said Mr. DeLeon, who just won the Metropolitan Opera National Council district competition in Buffalo, N.Y.

His co-star in "The Secret Marriage," Meredith Lustig, 26, won third place, "which is thrilling," she said. "It just gives me the incentive to try harder next time."

The struggling artist

It's never an easy time to be an opera singer -- opera companies have always struggled in this country, and never more so than now. Still, more young people are majoring in voice for reasons that may have as much to do with "American Idol" as Donizetti, undeterred by the obstacles presented by a music career.

And in a weak economy and few job opportunities, more young people may just be opting to follow their bliss, regardless of job security.

"I was blessed to have a supportive family who wanted to see me happy," Ms. Lustig said.

At a time when many companies are scaling back the number of big productions they mount each year, the infrastructure for opera isn't large enough to support the glut of singers out there.

There is an upside, say opera industry experts: More niche opera companies are popping up than ever before, and audiences have shown themselves to be eager to see opera performances if they're affordable.

But Grand Opera -- with its big sets, casts and orchestras -- remains labor-intensive and expensive to produce, requiring highly skilled people at every level, said Marc Scorca, head of Opera America, a service and advocacy organization based in New York.

Unlike automobile or refrigerator manufacturers, "We can't achieve efficiencies through technological improvements," he said. "You can't have a robot up there singing."

In Europe, particularly Germany, where there are more than 100 opera companies -- three in Berlin alone -- opera is part of the culture, and good young singers can find plenty of job opportunities as junior members of a company.

No such opera culture exists in the United States. Singers are mostly freelance, scrambling for work on a month-by-month basis. But since the late 1950s, resident artist programs have sought to fill the void. Today there are 64 training programs in the U.S. for singers. Of those, five are independent training programs while the other 59 are associated with an opera company.

Some companies use only its resident artists for community outreach -- appearing at schools, libraries, fundraisers and other worthy public relations and educational ventures -- often for very little pay, while not actually permitted to tackle big roles on stage.

"They're often called the resident artists outreach slave labor program," joked Mr. Hahn, who once headed one of the most prestigious resident programs in the world, at the San Francisco Opera. Since its founding in the late 1950s, San Francisco's program has helped launch such singers as Anna Netrebko, Deborah Voigt and Thomas Hampson.

When Mr. Hahn was there, "I did try to ensure the singers got real roles to sing, not just be part of the scenery."

At Pittsburgh Opera, resident artists receive a stipend for the eight months they're in the program. Pittsburgh Opera raises money through individual, corporate and foundation sponsorships to cover a large portion of the expenses of the program.

'Core of our mission'

Pittsburgh's program has launched some stars of its own in several decades of existence, including Marianne Cornetti, who has sung in all the world's major opera houses

The resident artists program "is the core of our mission, central to what the Pittsburgh Opera is all about," Mr. Hahn said.

It not only gives valuable stage time to highly trained singers who are just starting their careers, but also provides the opera company with a steady, cost-efficient source of talent for the four or five big productions they put on each year.

The program is highly selective -- about 350 audition, and seven singers were chosen for the current season -- plus an eighth, Stephanie Havey, as resident artist stage director.

While the Pittsburgh Opera has to compete with other programs to get the singers it wants, it also has to say no to many aspiring sopranos and tenors, "but I think there is a certain amount of pragmatism from the singers. Later in the process, after call backs, the tension rises and the final choices are often made as a result of a complicated series of tradeoffs. For singers who have set their sights on our program, rejection is obviously quite difficult," Mr. Hahn said.

"There are a lot of really talented singers out there, and it's a very competitive world," said Kyle Oliver, 27, of Dallas, comparing it to Major League Baseball. "It's kind of similar, the way you develop. Just as an 18-year-old isn't going to slide up and go to the majors, even the most phenomenal singer isn't going to be ready for the Met stage at 21."

Mr. Oliver is in his second season.

"They kind of throw you into the fire," he said. "It's a big step coming from graduate school to a professional opera house and learning to thrive in this environment, where no one is holding your hand, where you have to be prepared, ready to go on."

"Where else," asked Mr. Hahn, "could a Meredith Lustig perform a role in our main production of 'Rigoletto,' then perform the can-can at the New Year's Eve gala at the Carnegie Music Hall, where she also sang an aria from 'Der Rosenkavalier' and then perform as the heroine for 'The Secret Marriage,' followed a few weeks later by a full evening of cabaret?"

Where else, indeed?

But, yes, they need to be onstage, because for opera singers, the maturing process takes place in their 20s, while the actual career begins to take off -- or not -- when the voice ripens in their 30s and 40s.

Ms. Korbey started relatively late -- at 23, and at 29, she worries she is behind her peers, even though she's doing what she loves.

"I'm not in this to be famous, I'm in this to perform," she said flatly. Indeed, there are a glut of mezzo-sopranos out there vying for roles in which "we are rarely the namesake of the opera, rarely the stars."

"It's a nomadic existence, and it's important to have a home base. Right now, that's Pittsburgh."

"It takes a lot of courage in this economy for artists to keep pursuing their art," added Ms. Lustig, noting that while her friends are marrying and buying houses and starting families, she is singing. "There are these milestones passing me by, but the thrill of being on stage is indefinable, there's this closeness to something truly amazing. So I don't worry so much about what I'm going to eat."

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Mackenzie Carpenter: or 412-263-1949. First Published January 23, 2013 5:00 AM


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