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Florida Grand Opera’s Young Artists Program

(Courtesy of Florida Grand Opera)

The Things We Do for Love

A production of an opera that has not been seen in nearly 40 years. This is what Florida Grand Opera has as its season’s final presentation. Thaïs demands a strong soprano with glamorous presence (for this production there will be two playing the title character) and a solid baritone who has the formidable challenge of making a rather dour fellow maintain our interest. But, in addition, are significant roles; and charting the course of the performers playing them, offers a window into a world about which few of us know. These are members of Florida Grand Opera’s Young Artist Program who are now making the leap to the main stage, three of them in their Florida Grand Opera debut.

Soprano Riley Svatos who is playing the slave Crobyle and covering (understudying) the lead role of Thaïs happily discovers, “With this experience, I think I found that my voice really is best suited for the French repertory. It just feels so comfortable. I am studying Manon now. I am so hoping that these operas again find a significant place in the standard repertory.” Her contagious enthusiasm is a necessary asset to help her in this extremely competitive career. “I don’t know what I am doing after this season ends. I have no plans. My goal is to be able to make a living by singing. I don’t care where.” This sort of fearlessness and humility is something most people lose very early in life, but it will carry Riley much further than setting unrealistic goals too soon.

Mezzo soprano Caitlin McKechney “Like so many mezzos, my dream role is Carmen.” McKechney makes her Florida Grand Opera debut as Ms. Svatos’s partner Myrtale: this opera’s Mercedes/Frasquita team. In February, she had the opportunity to play Inez in a Young Artist production of Andy Vores’ new opera, No Exit based on the Jean-Paul Sartre's play. “It’s great music. But it isn’t the sort of thing most people would want to hear casually on their iPods. It is an opera set in Hell; the music brilliantly reflects that mood. It was thrilling to be a part of it.” Caitlin observes a myth often perceived about vocal equipment, “My voice is kind of in the middle in terms of weight and color. I am not a large person; my hero Giulietta Simionato, was diminutive in stature but also had decent sized voice. I am still working to figure out what my true repertoire will be, but I try not to limit myself.”

The personalities of this group are as varied as are the repertoire that Florida Grand Opera chose for this season and next. “While everyone has their specific reasons for being drawn to this art form, for me it is about the process of being part of the creation, “Being in the Young Artist Program gives you the challenge of mastering your assignments here while preparing for things that are going to be coming up in the future. To stay connected in this business you must discipline yourself to manage your time.” In additional to a small role in Thaïs, Carlton is also covering the male lead role, Athanaël.

“When I started out I never thought that it would be opera. We didn’t listen to much of that when I was growing up. I remember hearing lots of Frank Sinatra among my parents’ music; this was my idea of the singer I wanted to become,” says Adam Lau who can barely contain his enthusiasm about the path he has chosen. “At this point, I have been in more operas than I have actually seen.” Lau’s powerful bass has given him the chance at big roles like The Speaker in Die Zauberflöte and Colline in La bohème. “People have said that off stage I appear taller; because probably with my voice type I end up playing a lot of hunched-over old men.” And with Thaïs he adds another, Palémon, pious leader of an order of monks.

“Like every singer with a large instrument, my voice is still developing and everyone has different opinions about what repertoire is appropriate for me at the moment,” says mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis. “Marilyn Horne told me in a master class that I was one of the few young American voices that is able to sing the big repertoire beside the current influx of spectacular Russian voices. ” She added, “I have a large instrument and to scale it down for roles that require a smaller size is very exhausting and can be destructive.” She believes her voice will be best for the big Verdi-Wagner roles and her dream is to someday sing Dalila from Saint-Saëns' Samson et Dalila. Her FGO debut role is Albine, abbess of the convent where Thaïs spends her last days. She returns to the Young Artist Program next season and will concentrate on roles suitable to her darker voiced timbre. “The roles not only have to suit one’s voice, they also must suit one’s temperament. I connect most with the larger than life femmes fatales, villainesses, and women at the edge of despair, which is fortunate because that is most likely what I will be singing for the rest of my life.”

Try to pigeonhole the direction of any up and coming singer and you will be astonished to find they rarely share similar paths. “I started out as an engineering student,” says tenor Martin Nusspaumer. “I was from a very small town in Uruguay and when I went away to school, I found out about opera.” Martin made his Florida Grand Opera debut in 2011 as the Saboyano in Luisa Fernanda only entering the company’s Young Artist Program last year. This season he had the substantial role of Ismaele in Nabucco and with this Thaïs production takes on the large role of Nicias. “We have a really fine director in Renaud Doucet and he made me find shades in this character that do not at first seem so obvious. But there is no question that they are there.”

This season, the Young Artists performed over 100 musical events in addition to works on the main stage. You will often find them performing concerts and short operas in schools in Miami-Dade county or singing in such unusual places as the Miami International Airport. “We had 600 applicants for this season’s Young Artist program and auditioned 300 of those,” says Julie Maykowski, Head of the Young Artist Program. Only 11 were chosen. “Each season we see more and more companies going out of business, yet schools are turning out talented singers at a greater rate than ever. It is a tough field to be in right now.” Maykowski has a daunting task. She adds, “The artists in this program have very little idle time.” When they are not studying and taking lessons, they could be in an elementary school performing a children’s opera or, as the case will be this Sunday, at Coral Gables’ historic Biltmore Hotel participating in a concert of art songs.

By being with these young artists you can’t help but realize that you are in the presence of huge minds with tremendous hope. Not only are they engaging when telling of their experiences, they are equally eager to learn of singers of other eras and of operas they not yet have heard of. They are sincerely grateful that something you have told them might give them even further opportunity to stretch their awareness. “There is just so much to find out about,” says Lau. And think how much more history these singers have had to absorb than the greats who came before them. All that you need to become one is discipline, guts, determination, passion, sacrifice, talent… and considerable luck.

Thais opens in Miami at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts on Saturday, May 3 at 7:00 p.m. Additional performances will be given May 4 at 2:00 p.m. and May 6 and 10 at 8:00 p.m. The production then moves to Fort Lauderdale at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts with performances on May 15 and 17 at 7:30 p.m.

Jeff Haller



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