Trapping Wolves, Part I

Every singer can trace their career back to where “it all got started”. I have many moments, early on in my singing, that played a huge part in my development. However, it was 25 years ago this summer when my career as a professional opera singer really began. I’d have to say, it wasn’t the first job (as an apprentice at Central City Opera) that really jump started my career. It was the work that came the following year, in 1987, that put me on the operatic career path once and for all. For the first time I was working completely without the restraint (and safety) of being a student and it seemed that finally, there was “no turning back”. What brought all this about? It was an audition for the Wolf Trap Opera Company--and I’m so happy to be able to blog, today, about what this wonderful company means to me.

Perhaps my memories are flowing with a bit more fluidity today since I’m sitting just a few miles from the country’s National Fine Arts Park (The Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts). This city and my career are very tightly entwined and Wolf Trap brought us together. “Tosca”, which I’m currently rehearsing for the Washington National Opera, marks my 30th production (I’ve lost rack of the number of performances) in the Washington area of staged or concert operas. And this is how it began...

It is always hard to get a career rolling. You have spent years in college, music schools, conservatories, doing strange jobs on top of more traditional church jobs, or even teaching. I did all of these. I even was, believe it or not, a “Kelly Girl”. Of course, this was after a run of shows I once did in Wichita where I dressed in drag and played a proper English cook...but that’s another story.

When it became obvious that my days of university study were coming to an end (I already had my bachelor’s and master’s degree), I was happy to hear that my voice was falling into line and becoming at least somewhat marketable. A singing career was never my ultimate goal as a musician. I had always planned on being a teacher. However, with the first few auditions I did, I was strongly encouraged to keep at it by being awarded the earlier mentioned apprenticeship or by winning a competition (that is huge encouragement for a young singer). Word got out, after that apprenticeship at The Central City Opera in Colorado (summer of 1986), that perhaps some folks should keep their eye out for me. When it came time to send out the applications for auditions for the next summer’s apprenticeships or young artist work, there were a few places I had in mind where I’d like to work but I wasn’t sure if I would be granted an audition with those companies. Fortunately, with the good words that had been put out about me, I was able to land a few plum auditions including an audition for the Merola Program (through the San Francisco Opera) and for this place in Vienna,Virginia (a D.C. suburb) that I knew so little about, The Wolf Trap Opera Company.

The Merola audition came first and went very well. I was invited to be a part of that program in the summer of 1987 and tour with them during the following several months in an opera that I really wasn’t thrilled about singing. I saw this as a tough assignment for a young singer just trying to get his vocal act together. I also wasn’t thrilled about riding a bus for the next year and visiting a different city every few nights even if my wife might have been able to come along. Still, I held onto this job possibility but was hoping for something else.

The audition for Wolf Trap was held at The Metropolitan Opera House in List Hall in December of 1986. This is also the hall where the weekly Met Opera Quizzes take place during the weekly radio broadcasts. It’s a bit of a strange hall in that it is built with the seats in a very steep rake. (It’s also a hall that has become very important to me in the last 25 years as we often have “note” sessions there after our main stage rehearsals.). The people you are singing for are actually sitting above you to some extent. Walking down the stairs to get to the singing stage is an adventure all singers fear. You just hope you don’t fall on your face---either while descending into the hall or while you’re singing.

Hearing my audition were Peter Russell and Frank Rizzo from Wolf Trap. Their knowledge of opera, singers, repertoire, and every aspect of this incredible art form is nearly unsurpassed. Of course, I was very nervous but also honored just to get a chance to audition for this great company that has produced SO many fine singers over the years. I started out the audition singing an aria that had already become one of my staples, “Abendlich strahlt der Sonne Auge” from
Das Rheingold. Okay, I was young and perhaps shouldn’t have been singing Wagner so early in my career. But, it was obvious that this was the direction my voice was headed so why not show them what path I was on. Somehow, in the middle of the aria, I could tell that I had the attention of their ears. The feeling of intimidation quickly diminished and I could feel that something was really “clicking” in this audition. When I finished, they asked for a second aria. It’s fairly customary to get to sing two arias in an audition even though you know you might get interrupted during the second aria as time is short (and you might be bombing). However, they let me sing the entire second aria (I think it was “Quand la flamme de l’amour” from Bizet’s La jolie fille de Perth). When I finished this aria, Peter and Frank conversed a bit (actually, quite a bit) and asked for a third aria. Wow--I was thrilled. I’m not sure what I sang next (perhaps one of Olin Blitch’s arias from Susannah). It also went well and I knew we were on a roll. Finally, at the end of the aria, I was pleased and thought, “Gee, that was a pretty good audition for my first time singing inside the halls of The Met.” (I think I’d only stepped foot in the Met once before and that was many years earlier as an audience member with my girlfriend--who is now my wife--another long story.) BUT, they asked for yet another aria. They did mention that perhaps I’d like to first go and get a drink of water. I took them up on this bit of a break and then came back to sing my fourth aria of the afternoon. I have to tell you, it was a lot easier getting back up and down the steep steps at this point in the experience.

I don’t remember what the fourth aria was or even how it went. I just know that I really felt good about that audition. Just a few days after this audition, I heard from Peter that they absolutely wanted me to join the company for the next summer’s season. They offered me lead roles in both
Il Barbiere di Siviglia and Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This was all just great news and I was thrilled. However, there was the decision to be made concerning the fact that the job in San Francisco would lead to almost a full year’s employment where the work at Wolf Trap would only be for a couple of months in the summer. Peter sensed my indecision. Well, that’s when Peter and Frank really got to work and began working on my complete connection with the city of Washington that lasts to this day. Frank was also affiliated with the Washington Opera (before it became known as the Washington National Opera) and put together a package of productions for me in the 1987-1988 season (which would fall on the heels of the Wolf Trap work). These would all be operas that would play in the Kennedy Center and give me great exposure to “real” professional work and with some of the finest artists of the time. My employment would be so steady, and, for the first time, my wife and I would be supported financially by my music career rather than needing to be supplemented so much by her work as a medical or dental assistant. This was a dream that was beginning to come true.

We decided, without not needing to think too long and hard, that the Wolf Trap/Washington National Opera contracts were far more advantageous to me as a young singer and us as a young couple (even though we’d already been married nearly 5 years) and so we happily accepted these offers. I might add, Wolf Trap did ask me to come back for a second audition but I think this was more of a formality since one of the main conductors with the company was not at my first audition. This audition, also, was at The Met but in one of the large rehearsal rooms three stories underground. A representative from The Met sat in on that audition as well and I’m sure it was no coincidence that I received my first contract to work at The Met just a few months later.

There is so much more to tell but it’s already 12:35 a.m. here in Washington. So...tune in very soon for Part 2.