The ASU School of Music in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts and Arizona Opera have developed a study cover program that provides graduate students with hands-on experience in a professional opera company and access to the world-class singers who perform on its stage.
The program was initiated in 2009 by Scott Altman, general director of Arizona Opera. Although many cooperative programs exist between opera companies and universities for music graduate students, none are as comprehensive or afford students such exposure to what it takes to make it in this highly competitive business, according to ASU music professor Dale Dreyfoos.
“I don’t know of any other opera company that has this kind of program for students at this stage of their careers,” said Dreyfoos, who helps select students to audition for study cover roles in Arizona Opera productions and is one of several School of Music faculty members who coaches students once they are cast in a company production. “Opera companies have resident artist programs for young singers but to actually have a company where students are learning roles and sitting in on rehearsals, this is rare.”
Lori Fisher, director of education for Arizona Opera, compares the program to a more familiar sports analogy. “It’s like a college football player who gets to spend time with a pro team and go to all the practices and then sit on the bench during the game with the head set on and hear the coaches call the plays,” she said. “They see exactly what that world looks like and how much discipline is required. Not even chorus members get this kind of exposure. The study cover students see how these world class singers develop the character with the director and the conductor just as a member of the cast does.”
For soprano Rhea Miller, Doctor of Musical Arts in Voice Performance student, the experience has meant absorbing how two professional opera singers – Lisette Oropesa, a rising star who has been a regular at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City and Stacy Tappan, an international opera singer – interpreted one of the legendary roles of opera, Lucia in "Lucia di Lammermoor." Miller was one of four ASU graduate students selected for study cover roles in the first three productions of Arizona Opera’s 2012–13 season along with Stefan Gordon, Doctor of Musical Arts in Voice Performance student, Asleif Willmer, Master of Music in Music Theatre and Opera Performance student and Kristin Roney, who graduated in December 2012 with a Master of Music in Performance (Music Theatre Performance, Opera). In April, current Master of Music in Performance (Music Theatre Performance, Opera) students Miriam Schildkret, Joyce Yin, Philip Morgan and Jessica Tisdale join Miller and Gordon as study covers for Arizona Opera’s production of Mozart’s "Marriage of Figaro" from April 5-7 in Phoenix and April 13-14 in Tucson. Miller has been cast as the study cover for Susanna, one of the largest and longest roles in opera repertoire.
“I have my own interpretation of Lucia,” said Miller, who sang the role for the Celestial Opera Company in California. “But I liked what Oropesa was doing and I thought, ‘I can take that interpretation into mine.’” She has had similar experiences watching Sari Gruber and Joelle Harvey who each sing the role of Susanna. “The role is definitely massive and a different kind of singing than Lucia. Mozart is very precise and doesn’t have a lot of rubato,” Miller said. “Susanna is lighter and more playful and her music is not as vocally taxing, but then she never leaves the stage.”
The study cover program requires ASU singers to fully memorize the role and be prepared to perform it. However, during the usual three-week, six-hour-a-day-rehearsal period it is unlikely that they would be asked to perform since the company has professional understudies to cover principal roles. But it’s this level of preparedness, in addition to the singers’ high caliber of talent, which impresses Fisher and Ryan Taylor, director of artistic administration for Arizona Opera. “The students are well-rounded. They have good fundamentals because of the school’s rigorous program. It’s hard to also get acting in there and ASU students have that too,” Fisher said.
The ASU Lyric Opera Theatre program provides students with the platform to develop their dramatic skills but its demands are only a prologue to the exacting world of professional opera where the audience can pay more than $100 a seat to hear the closest thing to perfection that these professionals can deliver. “You can smell the difference,” said Miller, describing rehearsing for a Lyric Opera Theatre production and the Arizona Opera. “You can feel it in the air. It’s electric. You’ve got to be on your game. Even what you wear to rehearsal is important.”
Kristin Roney’s game was tested when two weeks into rehearsal for the opera’s recent production of "Romeo et Juliette" she was asked to cover for the singer playing Stephano: “I had the tools to do it but I wasn’t in the Lyric Opera Theatre basement, I was in the Arizona Opera and I said to myself, ‘You’ve done this. Show them what you’ve got.’” It is not uncommon for mezzo sopranos, such as Roney, to sing young male opera roles or “pants” roles. Roney hopes to sing these roles professionally. “If you can’t show up and deliver, there are a million other people who can. It’s what’s required and what is expected,” Roney said.
She went home that night and “pranced around the living room” rehearsing the blocking the director had just begun teaching the cast and trying the musical suggestions the conductor gave her. The next day, she sang the role. “You’re always told to be prepared because the moments you are asked to show up aren’t always the moments you choose.”
It’s that kind of professional advice, camaraderie and networking that Carole FitzPatrick, associate professor in the School of Music, believes are invaluable assets of the study cover program which gives ASU students an edge in this competitive business. “The idea that you have to really be ready to go on stage and perform, nothing drives that home until you are standing in rehearsal of a professional opera house three weeks before the curtain goes up and you are asked to perform,” said FitzPatrick, who has performed more than 50 major roles in German opera houses in her career. “They are interacting with people who are actually doing the role, whom they can approach and say, ‘tell me your path’ and to a person the artists have been so generous with their time.”
The students also can add these roles to their resumes, something that not only helps them meet their degree requirements, but that also sends an important message to would-be employers. “It validates that this person is worthy of being hired,” Dreyfoos said. “They have received experience working with a professional opera company.”
ASU School of Music alumna Daveda Karanas echoes the importance of a study cover role for young singers whose voices don’t reach maturity until they’re in their 30s. Karanas is living the professional life to which Miller and Roney aspire. She’s making her living doing what she loves, singing opera professionally. In Karanas’ case that has meant covering the role of Cassandre in "Les Troyens" with one of the world’s premiere companies, The Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Although Karanas graduated with a Master of Music in Music Theatre and Opera Performance before the study cover program began, she said the program is essential. “Having a study cover present allows the rehearsal schedule to go on as planned and keeps things moving in a forward motion,” she explained. “Some of my favorite operatic moments that I got to witness happened in a rehearsal where I was sitting quietly watching from the corner of the room.”
Ryan Taylor, director of artistic administration for Arizona Opera, credits the ASU School of Music faculty for the program’s success. “It’s quite an accomplished group. We have talent here,” he said. “For Arizona Opera, the study cover program allows us to instill a great love of the art form for the next generation.” In addition, the program is not only a stepping stone for young singers but it also provides a strong bench from which the company can draw new talent.
When Kristin Roney reflects on her experience she credits the study cover program with fueling her confidence and strengthening her resume. She eventually wants to follow in her mentor Carole FitzPatrick’s path and sing with an opera house in Germany. “I learned much more about how to handle myself in that kind of situation,” Roney said of the study cover program. “Singing is a huge mind game. You learn how to compose yourself under pressure and how to let go and be yourself in this kind of situation where everyone is watching you sing. You get to stand up with world-class singers and just do it. That is very rare.”