Catching Up

Hear ye! Hear ye! The long-awaited end of my blogging hiatus has come! I’m sure all of you were despondent and inconsolable over the past few months…

…but fear not! I return to the blogosphere bearing good news. Over the past few months, I’ve been busy—as have many of my peers—with not only the daily duties of degree work, but also with a sometimes seemingly interminable series of auditions. From as early as August through to March (and even later in some instances), young operatic hopefuls trek collectively to New York City (or another major metropolis) to sing their arias for the “powers that be”—a 5-to-10-minute sales pitch that nearly every singer must make as he or she begins professional development and career building. Now that the dust (or most of it) has cleared, I can happily report that this audition season was an extremely rewarding one for me.

Through all the stress and the worry, I was fortunate enough to be accepted into the Glimmerglass Festival this summer, a young artist training program where I will have the opportunity to work with some of the profession’s best and brightest and get invaluable advice and guidance as I leave the “ivory tower” and enter the “real world.” Speaking of real world, I was also lucky enough to be accepted into Minnesota Opera’s resident artist program; I will join the company for their 2014-15 season, singing small roles and covering some of opera’s finest professional singers. I managed to win a little money along the way, too (never hurts), receiving encouragement awards and financial prizes from both the George London Foundation and the Mid-Atlantic region of the Metropolitan Opera National Council auditions.

And my last few months have not just been filled with auditions and acceptance letters—I also had some extremely valuable performance experiences, both at WCC and with professional companies. Two, in particular, stand out. First, I had the immense honor of singing in Gotham Chamber Opera’s January production of Charpentier’s rarely heard Baroque gem, La descente d’Orphée aux enfers, performed at St. Paul’s Chapel in New York City; conducted by the company’s artistic director, Neal Goren; and featuring the very fine harpsichord chops of one William Hobbs, director of the WCC opera theater department! A beautiful, intimate piece built with a cornucopia of colors and textures, this opera was an eye-opener for me musically and professionally, giving me the opportunity to see what it’s like to actually work in the industry. I had some truly exceptional colleagues in the production, and I have not stopped thinking about this experience since we closed the show.

The other performance experience I had—also in January—was a production of Donizetti’s La fille du régiment, performed here at WCC under the auspices of the CoOPERAtive Program, one of WCC’s summer programs co-directed by voice professors Laura Brooks Rice and Christopher Arneson. Conducted by Anthony Manoli, a tremendous vocal coach, and directed by David Paul, who is directing our spring opera production currently (more on that later), the production featured WCC and CoOPERAtive students—past and present—in a variety of roles. It was wonderful to put together a show with some of my closest friends and peers, and the work we did in just a week (!) makes me extremely proud and honored to have been a part of that venture.

All of this—my auditions, my shows, my opportunities on the horizon—would never have been possible without the support I have received from countless faculty, staff, and students here at WCC. I never stopped noticing how comfortable I was—how focused, how prepared—when I stepped onto a stage or into an audition room. The skills and lessons I have learned and received at WCC have made me a better singer, a better artist and musician, and a better person. I look ahead, past my impending graduation date, not with trepidation, but with exhilaration—because I know I will (fingers crossed!) receive my graduate degree from a truly exceptional educational institution. And this is just MY story! So many of my peers have experienced similarly rewarding successes and accomplishments in just the past few months alone. WCC boasts a truly impressive roster of smart, hardworking, talented students and teachers—and I am humbled every day to be a part of such a vibrant, caring community.

So…there’s my shameless plug, for myself and for the school. And NOW…here’s my shameless plug for the opera theater department at WCC—small, but mighty!

Several months ago, I had the pleasure of attending the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Britten’s operatic masterpiece, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with one of the school’s finest vocal coaches (and a dear friend), Susan Ashbaker. As some of you may remember, this opera was the school’s fall production last year. Ms. Ashbaker knew quite a few members of the cast, having coached them when they were in school, and because of this, I had the opportunity to go backstage and meet several of them (including the man who sang Bottom, English bass Matthew Rose). All were exceptional, and it is one of the best shows I’ve seen, in all aspects of the production.

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Here I am as Bottom in last year’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

 

But I couldn’t help thinking for much of the night…they’ve got NOTHING on us! Seriously, I was reminded how entertaining and magical WCC’s production of this piece was—and this speaks, more than anything, to the outstanding caliber of work done by our opera theater department. Run almost single-handedly by William Hobbs—professor, conductor, coach, and all-around marvelous musician—the opera theater department has presented a varied slate of shows during Professor Hobbs’ tenure, ranging from Handel’s Alcina to Mozart’s Così fan tutte to Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann to the Britten mentioned above. Providing students with invaluable stage experience and camaraderie in music making, the opera theater department is a jewel in the WCC crown, continually growing and mounting ever-more-daring productions.

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I played the villains in last season’s production of The Tales of Hoffmann.

This semester—in just over a week!—WCC will be presenting Tchaikovsky’s one-act masterpiece, Iolanta. Featuring an orchestration by Prof. Hobbs himself, the show is led by David Paul—a favorite guest director of the school—who boasts an impressive résumé of professional accomplishments and an insightful, captivating artistic vision. To work under the guidance of these two gentlemen (in case you haven’t guessed, I’m in the show) is a privilege, a never-ending learning experience that is simply staggering. The cast of the show highlights the depth of talent we have at this school, and I can say enthusiastically that this has been a rewarding and enjoyable experience.

So: if you are in Princeton on the evenings of April 3, 4, or 5 and are looking for some fine music—the good ol’ Westminster Playhouse is where you want to be! More information on our production of Iolanta can be found on the WCC website here: http://www.rider.edu/wcc/events/westminster-opera-theatre-iolanta.

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LAST, but by no means least, I must extend a very heartfelt and excited congratulations to one of my closest friends and colleagues, Rexford Tester, a tenor and fellow second-year graduate student here at WCC. On Sunday afternoon, “RJ” (as he’s known to all here at school) advanced to the Finals round of the Metropolitan Opera National Council auditions, one of the most prestigious vocal competitions in the world. RJ will be competing in the finals this Sunday, March 30, at 3 pm, singing on the Met stage with orchestra! RJ is one of WCC’s finest ambassadors, and I could not be happier for him—it is well-deserved recognition! Good luck in the finals, buddy!

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Until next time, friends…come and see one of the many performances going on at WCC all the time. You will not be disappointed!

 

 

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Audition Season!

Well, it’s everyone’s favorite season—and not just because everything from your coffee to your cardigan is pumpkin spiced. No, it’s audition season, and so far this year, mine has been non-stop. I am rapidly becoming more familiar with the many highways and byways of the greater New York and Philadelphia areas, and, more importantly, I’m gaining some invaluable experience singing for men and women “in the business.” But what’s most significant is how prepared and comfortable I’ve felt so far this season, and that is a direct result of some of the wonderful skills I’ve acquired while at Westminster. In particular, there are two classes here expressly tailored to professional development that are highlights of the academic curriculum: “The Singing Actor” and “Opera Auditions: Preparations and Techniques.” Related and independent, both courses offer various doors through which students might approach and improve upon everything from their presentation skills to their “package.” Both courses are incidentally taught by my teacher, Professor Laura Brooks Rice, which gives my studio colleagues and me yet another safe and supportive forum to try new things and receive feedback.

One of the best features of the courses is that they can be taken multiple times. I am currently enrolled in the auditions course for the second time, and this is primarily because world-renowned artists and industry professionals visit this class to offer their thoughts and criticisms. Of course, at the end of the day, we’re a results-oriented culture: so I can attest to the fact that these classes get results! At the most basic level, all participants come out with a firmer command of their repertoire, greater self-confidence, and more concrete ideas of their strengths and how to market themselves when auditioning.

In some select instances, as well, the work in the class can lead directly to work in the “real world.” For example, I sang for Neal Goren of Gotham Chamber Opera last year when he was a guest of the auditions class, and that “mock audition” led to a real audition for his company—and a contract for one of his productions this season. I also know that my colleague and friend, Brian Mextorf, who was hired by operamission in New York for their recent production of Antinous and Hadrian, would cite the work he’s done in these classes as a factor in his hiring—and his resounding success in the production! And just last week, another of my close peers and classmates, Rexford Tester, was offered a contract to cover Ernesto in Santa Fe Opera’s production of Don Pasquale as an apprentice this summer (congratulations, RJ!). It goes without saying that Westminster offers students a plethora of varied and valuable performance experiences, but I think it is worth taking note of how equally skilled we are at the “nitty-gritty” work that, ultimately, makes a big difference between a “yes” and a “no.”

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Members of the Opera Auditions Class posed with teacher and vocal consultant Gerald Martin Moore (third from the left) after each of us sang for him in mock auditions. (I’m the last one on the right.)

 

Next week: the opera program! Before it gets too far from the event, though, I want to quickly congratulate our director of the opera program, William Hobbs, on a breathtaking recital a few weeks ago. Professor Hobbs is a master of many, many things—but I think it was a real treat for everyone there to see his absolutely superb and inspiring musicality and skill on the piano.

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Introducing Gerard Michael D’Emilio

Hello readers! My name is Gerard Michael D’Emilio, and I am a second-year graduate student majoring in Voice Performance and Pedagogy here at Westminster. I figure it’s probably good to start my blogging adventure with my answer to the big question: why Westminster? I did my undergraduate work at Oberlin College, where I was a Voice Performance and Politics double major. I really enjoyed my time there, and I wanted to continue my studies at a school that offered the strengths of Oberlin—great teaching and rigorous academics—while improving on its weaknesses. I found that at Westminster. The faculty is simply extraordinary. I found a wonderful voice teacher, Laura Brooks Rice, as well as fantastic coaches, such as Susan Ashbaker and J.J. Penna—all of whom constantly challenge me in countless ways to improve my musicianship and my expressive capabilities. Outside of the voice studio, my coursework has kept me engaged and interested in a wide variety of musical topics, and these academic expectations are something that I greatly value in both my life and my own journey of vocal development.

But perhaps most importantly, Westminster offers a terrifically well-rounded educational experience that produces graduates who are both excellent at their specialties and are all-around skilled and polished musicians. I knew that coming to Westminster would be a continuation of the high standard demanded by Oberlin, and it has certainly been that—and more! Above all else, Westminster is nurturing, a safe space to try new things and explore possibilities, to succeed and to fail—all the while knowing that there are ample resources for guidance and reassurance. My hope is that, by describing my ongoing journey, I can give you a first-hand account of how wonderful this school is, and why it should be on everyone’s application list.

Last week, the Westminster Symphonic Choir performed with The Philadelphia Orchestra under the baton of Yannick Nézet-Séguin—an honor whose magnitude is forgotten sometimes, I think, by the ever-increasing occurrence of this collaboration. I had the privilege of performing with the Symphonic Choir last year, in my first year as a grad student. Westminster Choir College—as the name suggests—is known, both historically and currently, for its choral program. But its solo vocal opportunities are just as remarkable and worth taking note of. As someone who aspires to be a successful opera singer, such opportunities matter a great deal to me—and one of the wonderful aspects of Westminster is that nearly every musical experience, whether explicitly solo or choral, can inform and enhance any student’s specific musical goals and passions. I want to highlight two such experiences, both with the Symphonic Choir, that directly impacted my solo singing.

The first was our performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony last year at Carnegie Hall. By being 20 feet from Daniel Barenboim, I was afforded the chance to watch and learn from one of the world’s foremost conductors, a chance I may never have received at any other school. Even more engaging for me, however, was standing directly behind a vocal idol of mine, bass René Pape. Hearing his voice pour out and observing every aspect of his musicianship and technique that closely was an eye-opening master class for me, a revelatory encounter that I never would have had from the audience.

My second experience was a blend of solo and choral singing. The Symphonic Choir performed Bach’s Matthäus-Passion last year with Maestro Nézet-Séguin in Philadelphia, and I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to sing Pilatus in the piece, one of the small solo roles. Not only did I make my Kimmel Center “debut,” but I also got to personally work with one of the world’s most gifted conductors. It was invaluable orchestral experience for me, and it directly contributed to my confidence and security on the operatic and concert stage.

Philadelphia performance. I'm on the right with the purple fabric draped over my shoulder.

Philadelphia performance. I’m on the right with the purple fabric draped over my shoulder.

These, of course, are just some of my pertinent experiences, but I think they are worth describing, especially because they were in a choral setting. Many of my “operatic” colleagues either misunderstand Westminster’s mission or are unaware of the opportunities offered by the school. Though the choral department is strong at this school, it is merely one part of a much greater whole. As a grad student hoping to sing opera professionally, it is the many attributes of this whole that I hope to elucidate. In addition to my Symphonic experiences last year, I sang two principal roles with the opera theater department; participated in master classes with such industry professionals as Shenyang (bass-baritone), Lenore Rosenberg (Metropolitan Opera), and Neal Goren (Gotham Chamber Opera); and performed as part of Westminster’s Art Song Festival—just to mention a few. My first year of grad work was a wonderful experience, and I’m looking forward to documenting my second year, which I know will be even better!

So…until next time!

–Gerard Michael D’Emilio

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