Guest post: baritone Zachary Johnson ’17MM ’18MMA, on performing Opera Scenes

Baritone Zachary Johnson

On a chilly day in February 2015, I walked into Doris Yarick-Cross’ office for my audition interview. Nervous, and very excited, I answered a series of well-thought-out questions about my education, musicianship, and hopes for the future. I remember the interview well, but there will always be one question that sticks out to me: “Can you learn and memorize music quickly?” I answered, sang my audition, and later accepted my position and moved to New Haven the following September. Within the first week of school I was given a large envelope of music for my first production at Yale: Opera Scenes. I was to perform four different roles, in four different opera scenes — two in Italian, one in German, and one in English. I had just over a month to learn the repertoire, work with coaches, and sing the music from memory. I had my work cut out for me, but I thought back to that interview question and knew that this is what is expected from a singer in this program, and I was not going back down.

“Così fan tutte,” 2017

Opera scenes are an incredibly useful venture for singers, especially young singers intending to pursue a career in opera. While teaching us how to learn multiple styles of music in multiple languages at once, they also help us develop the skill of switching gears emotionally, mentally, and physically as we jump from character to character. I can remember transforming from an eccentric, dancing butler to a slow, dim-witted carpenter all in one night. What is unique about the Yale Opera is that the scenes programs are fully costumed and staged, so each snippet of these incredible operas can stand alone and tell their own stories. We get to work with incredibly talented vocal coaches that help us achieve a deeper understanding of the music and text so we are fully prepared to step on stage and bring these stories to life. Strengthening the ability to jump from character to character and language to language is an extremely useful skill for all opera singers, and Opera Scenes is one of the best programs for that. Following our scenes program in the fall, we perform a complete, fully staged production at the Shubert Theatre. The work chosen is usually one we performed a scene from the previous semester, which is an incredibly useful feature of the Yale Opera program. While developing the skill of balancing multiple roles is important, diving into an entire role and being able to understand the growth and trajectory of a single character is equally as vital for a young singer. the Yale Opera provides its singers with opportunities for both, and you will finish this program with a quicker mind, a thicker resume, and the skills you will absolutely need to balance the multifaceted workload of a professional opera singer.

“Don Quichotte,” 2016

In my third year here at the Yale School of Music, I still think back to that interview. I think back to that question. I will admit, in February 2015, that my answer lacked confidence. I was unsure if I possessed what it takes to be an opera singer. If you were to ask me the same question today, another chilly day, in November 2017, I would smile, think back on the incredible amount of opportunities I have been given in this program to develop as a singer, a musician, and a human being, and give you the most confident “Yes.”

LEARN MORE ABOUT THE NOV. 3 & 4 FALL OPERA SCENES PROGRAMS

Published November 2, 2017
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Yale Opera prepares for Fall Opera Scenes programs

Richard Cross, left, and Doris Yarick-Cross

Shortly after arriving at the Yale School of Music to study in the Yale Opera program, ascendant vocalists are handed an envelope containing the repertoire they’re expected to learn and memorize for the Fall Opera Scenes performances. This year, those concerts take place on November 3 and November 4 and feature excerpts from classic and contemporary operas.

The repertoire is chosen by faculty soprano and Yale Opera Artistic Director Doris Yarick-Cross and YSM faculty bass-baritone Richard Cross with each student’s development in mind. That approach, Yarick-Cross said, is “how we can best get them ready for their future. We choose the roles that we feel will give them the best opportunity to progress.

“What we try to do is give them the tools to be professionals,” Yarick-Cross said. “Our students get hired because they’re prepared.”

And that means going beyond the vocal parts, “to break through inhibitions,” Cross said. “To become a convincing character on stage” isn’t just about singing and acting, he said. “It’s also internalizing the repertoire” — “to get them into the habit of meeting the demands” that will be placed on them throughout their careers, Yarick-Cross added.

As much as the repertoire for the Fall Opera Scenes programs is chosen with pedagogy in mind, the Yale Opera audience is also part of the programming equation. While “La Bohème is perfect for young singers,” Cross said, pointing out that the characters in that opera are themselves young, it’s long been an audience favorite, too.

Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, based on Sister Helen Prejean’s 1993 book of the same title, has been appreciated by audiences since its premiere in 2000 at the San Francisco Opera. The New Haven audience, Yarick-Cross said, will be “overwhelmed by the Heggie.” Likewise, she said, the first act of Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos will appeal to local concertgoers. “I think they will really like it,” Yarick-Cross said. “It will be new to most of them. There’s a lot going on” and “There is some wonderful singing.”

On Friday and Saturday, November 3 and November 4, the Yale Opera presents performances of scenes from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte and Don Giovanni, Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, Massenet’s Cendrillon, Puccini’s La Bohème, Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel, Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia, and Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos

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Published October 26, 2017
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YSM now accepting applications for fall 2018 enrollment

Violinist Wynton Grant ’17MM. Photo by Matt Fried

The School of Music is now accepting applications for enrollment in fall 2018. “We have openings in all areas, including the tuba and harpsichord studios and the orchestral conducting program,” Donna Yoo, YSM’s director of admissions and alumni affairs, said. “It is unusual for us to have available spaces across all programs, and we are looking forward to welcoming new students to all areas of study.”

The Admissions Office anticipates interest in the School’s revamped B.A./M.M. program, which is now open to applications from high-school seniors. The program, Yoo said, “should appeal to students who are interested in pursuing both academic and musical excellence at an Ivy League institution.”

The School will announce available fellowship opportunities in December. These would include openings in the string quartet fellowship program and the recently launched collaborative piano program. Applications for the Morse Postgraduate Teaching Artist Fellowship will also be accepted starting in December.

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Published September 15, 2017
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Convocation 2017 defines YSM as place for “Music Among Friends”

School of Music Dean Robert Blocker often describes music as “the currency of hope” and has long championed the School’s commitment to inclusivity and diversity. That commitment was reiterated emphatically on Thursday night in his 2017 Convocation speech, “Music Among Friends,” in which he celebrated “courage, inclusivity and diversity, connectedness, tolerance and respect, and compassion.” Upon its founding, he said, “the School of Music opened wide its doors and heart to all those who brought their gifts of talent and intellectual curiosity to campus.” Today, Blocker pointed out, the School stands in solidarity with those whose place in our community hangs in the balance.

“All of us bring anxieties, concerns, and even fears about the human condition to this room tonight,” he told new and returning students, faculty, staff, alumni, and guests, “for we live in a time in which human dignity and indeed humanity are being assaulted throughout the world. Nothing, I think, is as incomprehensible and unimaginable as the vengeful rescindment of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, known as DACA. Now, these young people we call Dreamers live with fear rather than hope. This action touches our community profoundly because we are witnesses to the deep grief and stressful uncertainty these Dreamers and their families suddenly face. I do believe reasonable and compassionate leaders among us hear and feel the anguished cries of Dreamers and that they, with our encouragement and support, will find a way to keep their American dream alive.”

Connecting YSM’s values to its mission, Blocker said, “music teaches us that every voice is distinct and important, that each is necessary for harmony, and that is precisely why we know that our combined voices will help repair our troubled world.”

Following University Provost Benjamin Polak’s installation of the incoming class, whose members come from five continents, 25 countries, 26 states, and 58 institutions, Convocation attendees sang Schubert’s An die Musik (with Franz von Schober’s text, as translated by YSM faculty bass-baritone Richard Cross), as is School tradition. Blocker then delivered his remarks before introducing the faculty, alumni, and current students who performed as part of the ceremony.

Violinist Daniel S. Lee ’06MM ’08AD, a newly appointed faculty member in early music whose ensemble, The Sebastians, is in residence at the Yale Collection of Musical Instruments, performed Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber’s Sonata No. 3 in F major, C. 140 (from Sonatae, violino solo) with faculty harpsichordist Arthur Haas. Bass-baritone Dashon Burton ’11MM sang “Grosser Herr, o starker König,” from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, and “Mache dich, mein Herze rein,” from the St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244, with pianist David Fung ’11MM ’13MMA ’17DMA. And violinist Sirena Huang ’19AD performed Tchaikovsky’s Valse-Scherzo, Op. 34, with pianist Lam Wong ’18MM.

The performances added punctuation to Blocker’s remarks, which concluded with him telling members of the incoming class that “here at YSM, you will experience fully the gift that is ‘Music Among Friends,’ and encouraging all in attendance, referencing a favorite story about Robert Louis Stevenson, to “take hope, and make holes in the dark with the beauty and light of your music.”

Photos by Harold Shapiro

Published September 8, 2017
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A Chelsea Manning-WikiLeaks Opera, Seen in a New Light

Ted Hearne

Ted Hearne

The New York Times | By Zachary Woolfe

When you make art about current events, there’s a catch: Events change.

The SourceTed Hearne’s slippery, stunning opera about Chelsea Manning and WikiLeaks, had its premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2014. The year before, Ms. Manning had been sentenced to 35 years in prison for leaking secret material on the Iraq war and other American military and diplomatic activities. Many on the left viewed WikiLeaks with wary sympathy for publishing her revelations.

Since then, of course, WikiLeaks has become a liberal pariah for publishing hacked emails belonging to Hillary Clinton’s political advisers. And Ms. Manning, who transitioned from male to female in prison, will be freed in May since her sentence was commuted by President Obama just before he left office.

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Published February 22, 2017
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Yale Opera presents “Così fan tutte” at Shubert Theater for 3 shows

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Chas Rader-Shieber. Photo by Bridget Elliot

New Haven Register | By Joe Amarante

If you’re not taking advantage of the best entertainment options Yale University has to offer, it’s on you. Yale Opera, for example, does a sterling job, and the next opportunity to see a polished production comes Feb. 17-19 at the Shubert Theatre.

Così fan tutte offers not only Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s impeccable music (the overture should be very familiar) but also comedy and, as classicfm.com puts it, “a satirical tale of love that takes a cynical swipe at men and women.”

Chas Rader-Shieber, the veteran opera stage director handling the two-act production for the first time since the mid-2000s, said while he’s done unconventional things with certain operas before, there’s no reason to mess with this one.

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Published February 13, 2017
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Paweł Konik reaches finals of “Le Grand Prix de l’Opéra”

Paweł Konik | Photo by Anna Płóciennik

Paweł Konik | Photo by Anna Płóciennik

Earlier this month, bass-baritone Paweł Konik reached the final round of “Le Grand Prix de l’Opéra,” the International Voice Competition organized by the Bucharest National Opera. Konik earned a special Excellency Prize, presented by the Russian Embassy, for his interpretation of “Aleko’s Cavatina” from Rachmaninoff’s Aleko. He also performed “Vedro mentr’io sospiro” from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro and “O du mein holder Abendstern” from Wagner’s Tannhäuser.

Konik, a native of Poland, is a member of the Yale Opera program, where he studies with Doris Yarick-Cross and Richard Cross. Konik also worked on his competition repertoire with YSM faculty members Douglas Dickson, Timothy Shaindlin, and Kyle Swann. During the 2015-2016 concert season, Konik appeared in Yale Opera productions of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Massenet’s Don Quichotte. Prior to coming to Yale, Konik attended the Karol Szymanowski Academy of Music in Katowice. MORE

Published August 24, 2016
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In memoriam: Phyllis Curtin, soprano

Phyllis Curtin

Phyllis Curtin

Renowned American soprano Phyllis Curtin passed away on Sunday, June 5 at age 94. From 1974 to 1983, she taught voice at the Yale School of Music, overseeing the opera program. Curtin also served as Master (now Head of College) of Branford College from 1979 to 1983. Curtin was the first female Master of Branford College.

During her career on the stage in the 1950s and 60s, Curtin performed for the New York City Opera, as well as in many world-renowned opera houses such as the Metropolitan Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Vienna State Opera, Covent Garden, and La Scala. Her repertoire included Verdi’s Violetta and Alice Ford, Strauss’ Salome, as well as Mozart’s heroines, for which she received much praise. The New York Times recently asserted that, “Ms. Curtin was noted for the purity of her voice, the sensitivity of her musical phrasing and the crystalline perfection of her diction.” MORE

Published June 11, 2016
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[ students & alumni ]

YSM Alumnus An-lun Huang’s opera premieres in Beijing

An-lun Huang's "Yue Fei"

An-lun Huang’s “Yue Fei”

Alumnus An-lun Huang ’86 MM will premiere his new opera Yue Fei at the National Grand Theatre in Beijing on June 7-8 , 2016. Sponsored by the National Arts Fund of China, Yue Fei is a combination of the Chinese tradition and Western operatic style, especially Wagnerian, is a large-formed symphonic grand opera in the patriotic theme.

It was one of the first batches of the projects funded by the China National Arts Fund in 2014, and also won the sponsorships of the”12.5 Tianjin University Innovation Team Training Plan” and the Tianjin Municipal Government Funding. Yue Fei is produced by Xu Changjun, the dean of the Tianjin Conservatory of Music and Ma Mei, the director of Vocal Department. Conductor Zheng Xiaoying serves as the artistic director, while playwright Xu Qingdong wrote the script in collaboration with the composer. The director is Chen Xinyi, with the more than 300 performers by the teachers, students, youth choir and symphony orchestra of this one of the leading music institutes in China.

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Published May 13, 2016
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[ students & alumni ]

Brian Vu named a winner in the 2016 Lotte Lenya competition

vu_brianBrian Vu ’14 MM, ’15 AD was awarded the top prize in the 2016 Lotte Lenya Competition sponsored by the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music. The win earned Vu a cash prize of $15,000, and was one of nine awards distributed for the competition which totaled $79,000.

Vu impressed the judges with a carefully thought-out program including “O Carlo, ascolta” from Don Carlo; “Bowler Hat” from Pacific Overtures; “West Wind” from One Touch of Venus; and “Where is the Life that Late I Led?” from Kiss Me Kate. The judges remarked that he displayed “…refreshing flair and vocal prowess.”

Earlier this year, Vu was named a Grand Finalist in this year’s Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, one of the most prestigious vocal competitions in the country, and will appear as the Kurt Weill/Lotte Lenya Young Artist at the Glimmerglass Festival this summer.

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Published April 29, 2016
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