Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Atlanta Opera High School Opera Institute: Planting the Seeds for an Opera Career

Guest Blogger: Kaitlyn Johnson

I am a rising junior vocal performance major at Rice University, and very proud alumna of the 2011 High School Opera Institute (HSOI).  Our end-of-year performance remains one of my all-time favorite moments in my vocal career, and I’m extremely excited to perform in the program again as an alumna this Sunday, June 9th. While the performance represents an exciting and entertaining culmination to the program, the High School Opera Institute offers so much to aspiring young singers throughout the year.   I want to share my fabulous experience with the program, and how it has proven to be an invaluable resource in preparing me for collegiate opera studies.  The HSOI provides a rare opportunity for young vocal students—an inside look into what working for a professional opera company is like, helping to determine if they want to pursue singing as a career.

For students like me who found a love and passion for classical singing in opera while in high school, there aren’t many places to explore our talent and determine if opera could be a true career possibility.  Fortunately for metro Atlanta students, The Atlanta Opera offers the High School Opera Institute, organized by director of community engagement Emmalee Iden Hackshaw and led by opera chorus master and vocal coach extraordinaire Walter Huff.  While weekly voice lessons with private teachers help singers acquire and solidify the technique needed to sing demanding repertoire and roles, the HSOI fills a performance void that is missing for high school students interested in opera.  School and community theatre productions offer some performance opportunities, but the directors seldom have an ear for opera and underappreciate the talents of many young singers.  Walter Huff is extremely knowledgeable and highly revered in vocal programs and opera companies throughout the world, so we know his advice and comments will help to hone our craft. Through the HSOI, high school students have the rare opportunity to rehearse all the components of opera—technique, diction, and emotion all combined into one art.   Fellow alumna Anne Stillwagon, currently a vocal performance major at Oberlin Conservatory says, “There are no other programs in Atlanta that give any comparable training,” and adds that the program is especially valuable because it lasts a full school year, rather than the majority of summer programs that are offered to high school students for only four to six weeks.  Current participant Mary Katherine Henry agrees, “I studied at Brevard for three weeks last summer, and the High School Opera Institute is great because it offers continued training throughout the year.”

The audition process for admittance into the HSOI is very similar to auditions for vocal programs at universities and conservatories around the country.  The formal audition is especially worthwhile for seniors, who get a glimpse into the auditions that will fill their winter.  I offered the same repertoire for my HSOI audition as I did when auditioning for college programs and having that prior experience definitely boosted my confidence.  One of the first HSOI classes is an audition workshop complete with advice about wardrobe, appropriate repertoire choices, and a crash course on the merits of college vs. conservatory.  The real-world application of the HSOI prepares you to pursue opera at the next stage, and instills the level of preparation that collegiate vocal programs and professional companies expect of singers.

HSOI singers are assigned their repertoires for the final program around October, and expected to learn their music in a few weeks, be memorized shortly thereafter, and ready to stage.  Likewise at Rice, I am preparing to sing in an opera workshop performance next semester, and we are to know and memorize all of our music before school begins in August.  In a few weeks, I will attend the Aspen Music Festival with all pieces prepared and ready to coach and/or perform.  The HSOI instilled the expected standards of learning music and preparedness that is present throughout the opera world.  The program is also very beneficial because of the major incorporation of ensemble pieces. In scenes with multiple singers everyone depends on each other to know their part, or the process is extremely slowed down.  You never want to be the singer who is unsure of their note, word, or rhythm, and my HSOI scenes helped me realize that each singer must put in intense individual work before an ensemble can truly come together.  In addition, HSOI students are invited to the final dress rehearsals of each of the season’s operas. The opportunity to hear and see professional productions can be as important to young singers’ growth as voice lessons and coachings.  Rice voice majors also attend the final dress rehearsals of all shows at Houston Grand Opera, so it was beneficial to be exposed to these productions before starting a vocal performance degree.    

One of the most enjoyable aspects of being an HSOI student is meeting the other talented students from the Atlanta area.  A common talent and love for classical singing tie you together, and I always look forward to an event where I will see other alumni.  The singing world is extremely small, so it’s always fun to say I know HSOI singers at schools such as Manhattan School of Music, Oberlin, and Boston University.  I’m sure I will eventually run into them at summer programs and graduate school auditions, and it’s great to make peer connections while still in high school, when aspiring opera singers can be a rarity.  While the students are great, the amazing faculty is the cornerstone of the program that accounts for the success of so many students.  “Working with Walter Huff and Beverly Blouin is an incredible experience,” remarks Mary Katherine Henry.   Personally, Beverly Blouin really helped me to focus on dramatic intention and deliver a great performance.  She is truly a phenomenal dramatic coach.  I showed marked acting improvement and confidence by the final performance, and I am very grateful to Mrs. Blouin for her help.  Walter Huff is reason enough to apply to the program.  His repertoire choices and unparalleled musical knowledge guide singers to the next level, and he is a great resource from everything to opinions about particular college programs and voice teachers to questions about pronunciation.  He is an exceptionally kind man and a fabulous connection for any singer. Anne is especially appreciative of Walter’s guidance and connections as she attends Oberlin, his alma mater.  She says that every professor or musician she meets there seems to know his name, and knowing him has helped to open doors at school.

The High School Opera Institute definitely enhanced my passion for singing and confirmed I wanted to pursue an operatic career.  I am eternally grateful for the training I received from amazing faculty, and the experience to see what working for an opera company is really like, while still in high school.  I grew so much both musically and dramatically, learned proper audition and rehearsal protocol, and was introduced to the best young singers that Atlanta has to offer.  Most of the former HSOI students have become voice majors, and I’m sure I speak for all of us when I say that the training, resources, and faculty of the High School Opera Institute have greatly contributed to our successes.

Whether you are a die-hard opera fan or unfamiliar with the differences between Mozart and Menotti, I urge you to come to the final performance at Morningside Presbyterian this Sunday, June 9 at 4:00 p.m. to see the exciting and entertaining culmination of a year’s work.  There’s a great chance that you will be hearing stars of the next generation of opera—and certainly one of the last opportunities you will have to see them perform for free! 

To learn more about the Atlanta Opera's High School Opera Institute, please click HERE.  Be sure to Tweet with us during the performance on Sunday, June 9 at 4:00 p.m. using #HSOI.

Kaitlyn and Walter Huff working together during the final dress rehearsal of the Atlanta Opera's 2011 High School Opera Institute.

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