Ambition. Amor. Seduction. Betrayal. For CU’s opera singers, it’s all in a semester’s work. For some, it’ll be a life.
Meagan Mahlberg (Mus’08,MA’11) knew bliss would come, and almost precisely when.
It was late fall and the 28-year-old soprano was preparing for her role in CU-Boulder’s spring production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte. Group rehearsals had barely begun. Orchestral accompaniment was months away. But she’d done her homework and sensed already that her second-act aria would deliver a drawn-out moment of pure transcendence as scores of musicians reached full throttle and she drew out a high note in a hall seating thousands.
“She’s essentially asking for forgiveness from her fiancé, maybe from God, maybe from herself,” Mahlberg says of her character, Fiordiligi, a young lover losing a battle against temptation. “She’s already realized she’s going to betray.”
Dramatic, athletic, fantastic and, above all, musical, opera induces the immersive state of total engagement that drives Mahlberg. One of four singers enrolled in the College of Music’s professional certificate program in opera and solo vocal performance, she’s already performed in more than a dozen fully-staged productions, including professional work in Boulder and New York.
“I am trying to make a life out of this,” she says.
That’s not an easy thing to do.
Keith Miller (Art ex’97), a former CU and professional football player who reinvented himself as an opera singer and has performed at the Metropolitan Opera, puts it this way on his website: “A million-to-one to make it in professional football, two-million-to-one to succeed in opera.”
Despite long odds, CU alumni voices sound in opera halls near and far. Mezzo-soprano Megan Marino (MMus’08), soprano Christie Hageman (MMus’10) and tenor John Lindsey (MMus’11) all perform with major U.S. opera companies. Bass-baritone Ashraf Sewailam (Mus’94,DMA’08) has been called a “standout” by The New York Times. Soprano Cynthia Lawrence (MMus’87) — a bona fide star who performs at famous opera houses around the world — appeared with Italian tenor Luciano Pavoratti more than 70 times.
There’s no foolproof recipe for an opera career, of course. University training, talent agents and vocal contest victories are common ingredients. Many of CU’s current aspirants hope to join a major opera company’s young artist program, basically in-house troupes of early-career singers.
Competition is fierce. Singers apply to audition, which amounts to auditioning to audition. After the initial winnowing there can still be hundreds of singers vying for fewer than a dozen slots. The tryouts are brief and no-nonsense. In October Max Hosmer (MMus’14), a tenor from California cast as Ferrando in CU’s Così, flew to New York for an eight-minute tryout.
Even success — a junior spot in a professional company — is just a start. Singers in young artist programs get short-term contracts and typically undertake duties far from the spotlight, as community ambassadors for the opera, for example. But there’s also the possibility of small roles and chorus appearances, and the incalculable benefit of being an insider.
Says Hosmer, “You never know when you might get a call — ‘We need a Ferrando tomorrow!’”
Training professional opera singers is one aim of the College of Music and the Eklund Family Opera Program, which helps support three campus productions each year. A broader goal, says program director Leigh Holman, is to provide music students with meaningful exposure to a major category of theater music. Many students will become teachers; to be good ones, she says, they need to know opera.
For the professional aspirants in the Così cast, performing big roles in famous operas is vital currency in the job market. Opera companies want more than talent; they want singers intimate with specific roles in a small pool of popular operas that includes Così fan tutte.
“Management will like to see that you’ve done the role before,” says Holman, a mezzo-soprano who sang professionally and directed Opera Colorado’s young artist program before joining the CU music faculty in 2007. “It gives them confidence the singer has the goods to pull it off.”
CU’s professional performance program offers young singers the extra benefit of helping them expand their repertoires as they await developments that can’t be rushed: The human voice doesn’t fully mature until the early 30s, in some cases later.
That’s one reason why Così is a college favorite: It’s meant for young voices.
Mozart Meets Monroe
Mozart wrote Così, a comedy about love and fidelity, late in his short life — he died in 1791 at age 35, the year after the opera’s debut. It became a fixture in the international opera cannon just before World War II, according to Nicholas Carthy, the music professor who conducts CU’s opera orchestras.
A veteran of the Salzburg Festival, in Mozart’s hometown, Carthy calls Così “the ultimate ensemble opera,” because all six characters figure prominently in the action and “everybody gets to play with everyone else.” It ends ambiguously, leaving a modernist whisper of doubt about the central tension’s resolution. Then there’s the music, he says — “the most sublime… that Mozart ever wrote.”
Until March, CU had last performed Così in 2004, in a traditional production set in the 18th century. Think velvet and white stockings. Holman, who directed the latest show, set the action in 1959, in a suave Rat Pack milieu intended to serve as a 20th-century analog to the risqué 18th-century original. For inspiration, she encouraged the cast to watch Pillow Talk, the Doris Day-Rock Hudson film, and How to Marry a Millionaire, which starred Marilyn Monroe.
The opera’s plot revolves around a scheme by two young men, Ferrando (Hosmer and Michael Hoffman) and Guglielmo (James Held and Frank Fainer) to test the fidelity of their lovers, the sisters Fiordiligi (Mahlberg and Rebecca Kidnie) and Dorabella (Rebecca Robinson and Megan Schirado).
Prompted by Don Alfonso (doctoral student Luke Williams), an old man who doubts woman’s capacity for fidelity, Ferrando and Guglielmo falsely report that they’ve been called to war. As the sisters rue the situation, the men return in disguise and try to seduce the other’s girlfriend. A spunky maid, Despina (Nadya Hill and Sara Yoder), stokes the girls’ latent interest.
CU has tended to stage operas in their original time and setting. But in the spirit of fun and to broaden opera’s appeal, professional companies today often opt for anachronistic productions — The Marriage of Figaro set in a Trump Tower, for instance, or Rigoletto in Al Capone’s Chicago. Holman, enchanted by the popular culture of the 1950s, decided 2015 was as good a time as any to try a Sinatra-era Così.
The approach can disappoint traditionalists, she says, but it can also win new fans for an old art form that is, at core, a play with live music.
“When you set it close to the present day, it becomes more tangible and more relatable,” says Mahlberg. “It demonstrates that the stories that take place in opera take place anywhere, anytime.”
An opera is a massively collaborative undertaking involving scores of faculty, students and staff, including the director, conductor, stage manager, voice coaches, set and costume designers, singers, 46-person orchestra and many others. Holman says producing three operas a year is like “planning three daughters’ weddings.”
“It’s theater and music, orchestras, language, costumes, acting all mixed together,” she says. “It’s big.”
In the latest Così, all but one role was double-cast — two singers for each character — mainly to provide more students with experience. This had the extra benefit of ensuring the show could go on in case of unforeseen events. Only the role of Don Alfonso, the philosopher-instigator, was performed by a lone singer, Williams. The role requires a deep voice — he’s a bass-baritone — which can be hard to find. The scarcity works out in his favor: “Someone always needs a bass.”
Singers do a lot of early work alone or in small groups and are expected to have memorized their lines and learned their songs before they begin rehearsing the action. Hosmer uses flashcards. Williams translates into English all the dialogue his character hears (as well as what he says). Many sing in the shower, though not always opera.
All the singers have studied foreign languages, typically Italian, German or French, perhaps Russian, too, another opera favorite. They analyze the story’s historical context and the origins of the text (libretto). They know respiratory anatomy, the subtleties of larynx, vocal cords and windpipe.
“In the process of doing what’s necessary to pull off the opera,” says Mahlberg, who designed and sewed her favorite audition dress, “you find that you’ve learned so much about everything else.”
Separately, the orchestra rehearses the score. There are tens of thousands of individual notes to play in Così and countless instrumental combinations to coordinate. The first violinist’s portions run to 90 pages.
“On young hands, it can be very wearing,” says Carthy, who conducted professional Così productions at Salzburg. “It really is a tribute to the people in the orchestra that they can do it.”
Before the Macky Auditorium curtain rose on March 13 for the first of three public performances, the singers and the full orchestra had rehearsed together about half a dozen times.
Except for the professional certificate students, performing in operas at CU is extracurricular work. Life off stage goes on.
Some singers take classes, or teach them, or both. Many in the cast have part-time jobs, often as singers. Mahlberg, Williams and others perform on Sundays in a church choir. Hill, a master’s student, sings in her father’s Grammy-nominated jazz band and plays violin as a substitute in the Boulder Philharmonic. She also keeps up with an interest in computer programming. Hosmer had gigs lined up with the Colorado Repertory Singers and a role in an April production of Verdi’s Tosca at the Townsend Opera in Modesto, Calif., his hometown.
Over Thanksgiving break, on a Cape Cod beach, Williams proposed (successfully) to girlfriend and fellow opera singer Siena Forest, a resident artist with Minnesota Opera. Carthy went a step further — during the December break, he got married, in Vienna.
And, of course, the singers audition.
At 6:30 one October morning, Hosmer awoke in the New York borough of Queens to begin warming his voice for a 10:30 tryout in Manhattan. Through Airbnb he’d rented a room in the apartment of two sisters. They were still home. He’d warned them of the ritual to come.
Hosmer began with a few minutes of humming and lip trills, then moved on to a series of exercises emphasizing vowels and consonants. He warmed the middle of his voice, then ranged low and high.
Afterward, he stepped into a dark charcoal, pinstripe Jos. Bank suit and hopped a Manhattan-bound Q train. He put ear buds in and zoned out.
In a sixth-floor hallway at Chelsea Studios, a rehearsal space, he took a seat on a folding chair and awaited his turn.
A door opened. He heard his own name.
It was a 48-hour trip. These were his eight minutes.
Photography by Glenn Asakawa