During my undergraduate years, I had the honor of being selected for the 40-voice Westminster Choir, then the chorus-in-residence at the Spoleto Festival USA (formerly also known as the Festival of Two Worlds). Those three summers were priceless. Not only was I a member of one of the world’s premier choirs, but I had the unusual opportunity to interact with some of the burgeoning professionals of the time. Our chorus master, Glenn Parker, was a genuinely fun person. He was also a demanding taskmaster who expected no less than our best because on stage we would be conducted by the likes of Cristian Badea and the late Spiros Argiris.
We would also interact with Renée Fleming before she made her Metropolitan Opera debut; the tenor Franco Farina; the bass Victor von Halem and Anthony Laciura, who would become one of the Met’s best-loved character tenors and an acclaimed actor in the television series Boardwalk Empire.
Most importantly, we would work with the festival’s founder, Gian Carlo Menotti, on his own opera, The Saint of Bleecker Street, and in productions of Parsifal and Jenufa. Spoleto did what a summer program should do; inspire, educate and convey what it takes to become an operatic artist of the first water.
A year after my last Spoleto experience, which, among other things, strengthened my grasp of the Italian language, I was accepted as an apprentice and later a fellow at the Aspen Music Festival and School. I played three lead roles during those summers and got to hone my craft through first-rate coaching, masterclasses, and performances under the leadership of Edward Berkeley, Jorge Mester, John DeMain and others. The eminent cellist Lynn Harrell, whose father Mack Harrell was a Metropolitan Opera baritone, exhibited a better legato than most singers. During my third year, a young cellist came to me and said that Mr. Harrell wanted help with phrasing and breathing in the Schumann Concerto. My summer experiences kept getting better!
I was also enrolled in my share of pyramid schemes designed mainly to line the pockets of the organizers, who bribed government officials in small European villages. Fees were usually exorbitant and the instruction, mediocre. And yet, during one such otherwise poor experience, I met a voice teacher outside of the program who would change my vocal life. She gave me tools that continue to serve me as both singer and teacher.
Thirty years ago, when I applied for these programs, the number of singers pursuing opera was small by today’s standards. I often encountered the same singers at auditions in North America and in Europe. Today, it would be a miracle if two singers should encounter each other at more than one audition venue. The field is saturated. Many young singers are not ready.
Saturation at the “aspiring” level creates a demand for more summer training programs. The majority of programs during my formative years were bona fide training programs. Often philanthropies lowered the financial burden on participants. The schemes that are rampant today reflect the desperation of young singers who need to fill their résumés and validate their applications for more reputable programs. It is difficult to convince young singers that it is their well-rounded talents that get them to be seriously considered. And yet it is possible that a young student will meet his or her next mentor even in the context of a predatory program.
The summer experience is still relevant. I advise even my professional clients to find inspiring environments to prepare their next role, whether visiting a coach in some idyllic village or a teacher who lives in an interesting town they have never been to. A good summer program should: 1) place the young artist in a safe, unfamiliar, inspiring environment in which he/she can explore the unexpected; 2) provide a curriculum that challenges all aspects of the student’s craft; 3) offer enough performing experiences to allow students to put new discoveries into practice 4) include a faculty of educators who spend their time helping singers grow.
Too much stress is put on masterclasses with famous singers. Some are good at it, most are not. Teaching is a skill that takes years to develop. Singing and the teaching of singing are different disciplines that require different skill sets. Few people have both at the highest level. A singer may have a great technique and no idea how to communicate to the student how to acquire those skills. A singer may be a great interpreter and have no idea how to convey this insight. While it is cool to hang out with famous people, is it worth thousands of dollars to find out if they can teach?
Not that I am against famous singers. If I find a big name with great teaching skills (such as Joyce DiDonato) I would do everything possible to have this person at my summer academy. On the other hand, it is inspiring to have high-level active performers give concerts and talk about their experiences. I have had lunch, coffee or dinner with top singers, conductors and directors when I was in my twenties. Their insights remain with me today.
We go to summer programs to learn what we need to improve, to uncover another piece of our true selves, to be inspired to go beyond our comfort zones. To the aspiring young singer I say the following: beware of any program that promises to fix all of your problems and pave the way to your big break. That is pure fantasy. If you wish truly to take advantage of the summer program atmosphere, do some research, contact the programs and talk to friends who may have attended. Make sure that you are getting what you expect. Summer programs should get you closer to your dream, not create a mirage of your favourite operatic stage.