Wednesday, July 6, 2022 Jul 6, 2022
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Opera hopefuls get a head start

OPERA’S POPULARITY IS growing. We see this in Dallas: the Dallas Opera recently expanded its fall season and has added a short spring season. Concerts by the likes of Marilyn Horne and Luciano Pava-rotti have been scheduled to whet the appetites of those newly interested in opera.

The Live from the Mettelecasts and the superstar status accorded Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and a few others have done much not only to expand opera’s audience, but also to spark the ambitions of American singers who dream of one day performing at the Metropolitan Opera and with other great operas around the world.

Such dreamers are quickly introduced to reality. Even a magnificent voice is no assurance of finding a job. No one steps from obscurity onto the stage of the Met. As in most professions, opera hopefuls must follow a long path of training and apprenticeships before regular employment-much less stardom-becomes likely.

Teaching aspiring opera singers about the real world is the business of the American Institute of Musical Studies (AIMS), a Dallas-based program that conducts rigorous training sessions every summer in Graz, Austria.

AIMS is the creation of Richard and Nora Owens, two Texans who pursued singing careers in Europe during the Fifties after they graduated from Trinity University in San Antonio.

The Owenses had been told that they had to go to Europe if they wanted to become serious opera singers, but they were armed with little other information about such matters as what kind of repertoire they should develop, whether an agent was essential or how much time and money they should be prepared to spend.

After they both studied in Vienna, Richard sang in a German opera house for three years before returning home to sing and teach.

The Owenses’ interest in creating a training institute was fostered in the late Sixties, says Nora, because “people trying to get started in the business were still making the same mistakes we had made, and there is no reason to perpetuate mistakes. At least make new ones!”

“Colleges aren’t preparing people any better now for building their careers than when I went to college,” Richard says. “It’s not a matter of sacred tradition; it’s a matter of how to get a job. We got into it from the practical angle.”

Richard recites a litany of statistics that underscores the difficulties of breaking into the singing world: “About 19,000 singers graduate each year with degrees from American voice programs,” he says. “They’re looking at a total work field in the United States of 675 people who earn their living as professional singing artists in the serious music field. In any year, turnover produces only about 60 openings in the business. That’s for persons earning $8,000 a year or more. We’re talking starvation level even then. So, theoretically, these 19,000 graduates are competing for 60 jobs.”

Faced with these numbers, AIMS concentrates on helping its students launch their careers in Europe. Although many Americans first think of Italy when they think of opera, the jobs aren’t there. Says Richard, “Italian is a prettier language for singing, Italy’s more fun, and the food is better-but a beginning singer can’t get a job in Italy.”

Nora says that in German-speaking countries, “there are 83 opera houses that play year-round; that means there is more opera going on in Germany every night than in the rest of the world put together.” This volume of production means that the German-speaking opera houses need foreign talent.

“We’re talking about 3,700 singers employed full-time in Germany alone,” says Richard. “That’s almost six times as many as in the United States.”

Graz, AIMS’ European base, offers a good example of Europe’s appeal to serious musicians and singers. With a population of about 260,000 (slightly more than one-fourth the size of Dallas), Graz has an opera with a budget considerably larger than that of the Dallas Opera and presents about 200 performances per season.

The Graz symphony, which consists of the same musicians who play in the opera’s orchestra, presents a season that also dwarfs the offerings of an American city such as Dallas. “The point is,” Richard says, “the arts organization in Europe produces a lot more for the individual artist.”

With such European dominance, should American opera companies and individual singers even try to compete? Can Americans find work in a profession with its traditions and techniques so thoroughly tied to Europe?

Faced with such queries, Richard remains optimistic. “Since we started our school, the business has changed drastically in America. There are many more opera companies than there were 15 years ago. There is a lot more activity in opera, and the level of performing around the country is much better generally.”

Even if you subscribe to this relatively hopeful outlook, why Dallas? Why hasn’t AIMS based itself in a more traditional gateway to Europe, such as New York?

Part of the reason has nothing to do with opera; it happens that Richard Owens was born in Dallas and always has considered it home. “Having been raised in Dallas,” says Owens, “I wanted to work here. I’m a believer in the city, and I just assumed a lot of things could be done here.”

Owens also says that he thought he could raise money here, but adds that he has never found that to be as easy as Dallas’ mythic wealth might lead one to expect.

One Owens project that hasn’t yet reached fruition is the creation of a permanent opera studio for Dallas. The proposed site for this professional facility was the historic Trinity Methodist Church on McKinney Avenue, but they sold it when it was gutted by a fire.

Dallas has yet to be as hospitable to developing artists as it has been to established stars, so AIMS hasn’t been affected much by Dallas’ growing emphasis on the arts. “The arts in Dallas always have been very much weighted towards the grand and impressive,” Richard says, adding that he thinks Dallas rarely lends itself to the homespun, grass-roots programs that nourish aspiring artists.

This top-heaviness in arts organization in cities such as Dallas makes AIMS even more important. There’s no shortage of ambitious performers, but they are continually hard pressed to find knowledgeable evaluations of their talents.

This is where AIMS steps in, Richard says. “The place where we do our work is with the student who has completed his basic studies with a bachelor’s or master’s degree and is now trying to figure out how to get into the business.”

The AIMS evaluations don’t always convey good news. Talents can be overrated, especially by the performers themselves, and expectations can become unrealistical-ly inflated. “Some people,” says Richard, “should be trying to figure how to get out of the business of making their livings by singing, so we advise a lot of people to consider alternative plans.”

For the singer or instrumentalist who’s determined to pursue fame and fortune on European and American stages, AIMS offers a range of classes and briefings. In addition to the summer institute in Graz, AIMS periodically presents seminars in New York with titles such as “The Professional Singer’s Europe” and “The Professional Singer’s New York.” These programs include performance auditions, but they also address topics such as “Management for the Young Artist” and “The Repertoire of German-Speaking Opera Houses and the Fach (specialty) System.” And in addition, The Professional Singer’s Guide, a book by Richard, has recently gone on sale across the country.

The theory underlying all these projects is the Owenses’ belief that just being able to hit high C is not enough to ensure success. Arts enterprises are run as businesses. However distressing this might be to the pure aesthete, the artist must recognize that to succeed, he or she also must be able to master this often cold system.

Artists who accept such facts of professional life are able to use AIMS to great advantage. The Owenses keep track of their program’s graduates, and after the busy fall audition season in Europe, reports from AIMS alumni pour in. “When people who have been through our program report back to us,” says Nora, “they tell us that they know they are ahead of their competitors. Our people are less uptight. They’re better prepared.”

One Dallas singer who has studied with AIMS is Marsha Henderson, who now works as an announcer for WRR Radio and is preparing for her second audition with the Metropolitan Opera.

A Wichita Falls native, Henderson has been in Dallas for five years. During that time she has sung with the Dallas Opera Chorus. After spending last summer with AIMS, she says, “In those eight weeks, I grew twice as much as I would have in a year in Dallas, because I got away from my job and sang every day and spent my time being coached and learning languages. If you’re looking for a job, you have to go to Europe; it gives you a chance to see what you’re aiming for.”

In addition to the training, Henderson says that AIMS provides “an excellent chance to see top recruiters and to meet the people who launch careers.” Because of AIMS’ reputation, says Henderson, the program “brings together musical celebrities, the ones you want to hear you.”

Plato Karayanis, general director of the Dallas Opera, agrees with the value of European training: “There’s nothing like being there. Something rubs off. The tradition, the environment.. you can’t learn that from textbooks.” Karayanis says that several singers who have participated in AIMS have performed with the Dallas Opera. “There is a residual benefit to the Dallas Opera when people who come back to Dallas to sing have been well-trained.”

Assuming that AIMS and other intensive professional training programs will continue to produce a growing reservoir of American singing talent, what comes next?

To a considerable extent, the answer will be determined by the degree to which American interest in opera maintains its current growth pattern and whether that interest stimulates new production companies and even new operas. As Richard Owens says, “We have not yet found an American opera form.”

As opera in America continues to evolve, AIMS will serve as a more frequently used bridge between this country and Europe. Richard and Nora Owens are among those who hope that soon that bridge will not only carry young Americans overseas but will see more two-way traffic, bringing to the United States singers for an expanded American world of opera.

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