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.
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