Every year there’s an opera performance in Tacoma that’s unfamiliar to most of us. It features unknown artists, works we’ve maybe never heard of. It’s not in the Pantages or Rialto. But if you’re interested in up-and-coming singers, or just interesting opera, it’s worth a look: It’s the annual Young Artist Showcase by Tacoma Opera, staged in Theatre on the Square. This year the works are Haydn’s “The Budding Soprano,” telling the story of a diva-in-training, and Chabrier’s “An Incomplete Education,” a hilarious situation where a pair of newly-weds realize that they’ve never been told – er – what comes next.
Just as interesting as the operas are the artists themselves. Young Artist programs in big cities (Seattle, New York) are paid programs that are one step away from launching your operatic career. You have to have a big CV to win a place in them. TO’s program, however, is unique – it’s a respected company, but the program caters to just-out-of-college singers, who are still finding their path to what’s been called the second most difficult career after neurosurgery.
I chatted to three of TO’s Young Artists before a rehearsal last week: Oliver Donaldson, a 2008 Willamette University grad; Katie O’Grady, who’ll graduate from Pacific Lutheran University this May; and Breanna Edwards, who’s still studying at Seattle Pacific University. They all agreed that given the choice of career path, most young opera singers would do masters and even doctoral degrees while waiting for their voices to mature, and that TO’s Young Artist program is giving them incredibly valuable performing experience on the way.
“It gives you roles, both principal and chorus,” says Edwards, who’s also sung minor roles on TO’s main stage. Those roles don’t just teach you music, they build your CV. “And you’re working with professional conductor and other singers, which is so important. It’s a test of your vocal stamina.”
Donaldson points out that even though the Haydn and Chabrier are “total gems,” they are unknown, even in the opera world, mostly because (says TO director Kathryn Smith) they only require three or four singers and one act. But for that reason, says Donaldson, the singers “get to play several characters and learn a lot of different acting and styles.”
“Jumping out in the real world can be harsh,” says O’Grady. “Tacoma Opera’s Young Artist program is something that’s really special. They accept people just getting started.”