To give you all a bigger picture of what studying in the USA can lead to, this week I reached out to a few of my friends who live in and now call America home. Bryan is an Assistant Conductor at The Metropolitan Opera, Siman is a Counter-Tenor who last month made his Carnegie Hall debut, and Alasdair is well-known to most of you back in Perth! All three moved here as international students pursuing further education in music, and now their careers are taking-off. Enjoy their stories, and remember, there is no ‘one way’ to have a career in opera!
Name: Bryan Wagorn
From: Ottawa, Canada
Where & what you studied in USA:
Mannes College of Music, Masters of Piano Performance.
Manhattan School of Music, Doctorate in Piano Performance
Next professional engagement(s):
Manon Lescaut, Simon Boccanegra, Die Entführung aus dem Serail at The Met;
Carnegie Hall recital with Carol Wincenc for the Naumburg Foundation;
Le Nozze di Figaro at Glyndebourne.
Why did you choose to study in the USA?
I came to New York to study with Jacob Lateiner at Mannes. He was a very special teacher and musician and I wanted to learn from him. The city is full of wonderful musicians and singers and I wanted to be in a place where I had many opportunities to collaborate. I also wanted to be able to take advantage of the city’s cultural offerings: concerts, museums, restaurants, theaters.
What led you from studying piano to being an Assistant Conductor at The Met?
My formal training was in solo piano performance. The repertoire is incredible and I love performing solo. My earliest collaborative playing was accompanying choirs and singers at a very young age. By the time I was in high school I was regularly playing with singers and instrumentalists, and learning the repertoire and skills needed. It was a natural fit and I loved the added element of expression which is not present in solo playing. I had to listen differently, and every person with whom I played created a unique feeling and connection which was special to that partnership. There are many pieces, songs, or arias which I associate closely with specific people with whom I’ve played them. It’s just like how foods, smells, or words can be connected with places, people, or life experiences.
At Mannes there was a very strong voice department and I played in voice lessons and for recitals. There was so much to learn and I was really excited and inspired by it. After a few years in the city, Brian Zeger suggested that I audition for the Met’s Lindemann Program. I had heard Ken Noda give a masterclass at Mannes and I knew it would an important experience to join the program and work with him, the singers, and conductors. I passed the audition and joined, and it turned out to be one of the greatest experiences of my life.
I can’t imagine a training program which offers more opportunities to singers and pianists. Being around the greatest coaches, singers, instrumentalists and conductors, and having a fantastic support staff and administrative body I was able to fill in gaps in my knowledge about language, style, repertoire, and most of all, gained an ever deeper love of our art.
After my time in the program, I was extremely fortunate to join the music staff as an assistant conductor. Every day on the job I learn something, and I try to use my knowledge and training to help in anyway I can. Our art form is several hundred years old, and our artistic decisions and judgement are informed by all those years of collected experience which are handed down to us by our teachers, musicians, performers, and the composers themselves. There is something almost spiritual about feeling ourselves to be a part of that.
What is it like being assistant conductor to Maestro Levine? What are some lessons you’ve learnt from him?
There are many specific musical things I learned from him which have transformed the way I play and coach. His knowledge of voices, dramatic pacing, musical structure, orchestration, and language is so profound that every rehearsal or coaching he gives leaves me feeling that I’ve arrived at the composer’s truest intention. He is able to present the fundamental content of a piece in such a way that allows for the performer’s personality and gifts to be present in full. His optimism, devotion to the art form, and constant work to keep making things better are an inspiration.
Name: Siman Chung
From: Busan, South Korea
(Special shout-out to Siman for writing such great responses in his 2nd language!)
Where & what you studied in USA:
Mannes College of Music, Bachelor of Music
Currently studying Professional Studies at Mannes
Why did you choose to study in the USA?
My voice teacher in Korea suggested that I study in Manhattan because he said there are great voice teachers and coaches in the city. And, I think it is true!
What tools have you gained from your time at Mannes that have allowed you to transition into the professional world of opera?
I have to say, Mannes has an amazing vocal program for young singers. First, in my case, I had amazing vocal training. Amy Burton, who has been my teacher since I started college, has always helped me to sing easily and musically. Moreover, her Italian, German and French diction are impeccable! She gives me so much diction advice which is very important for young singers. Second, Mannes Opera Program is amazing. The program offers so many classes with great coaches for singers, who assist in preparing their future roles. It also offers great master classes, which gives young singers a chance to get to know, and work with the people who are in the professional field. Mannes Opera Program is run like a Young Artist Program, and because of this we all have a chance to know what is professional opera company like. I think these experiences are very valuable for young singers.
You have recently been taken on by Ken Benson Artists. What have you found to be the advantages of having management?
My manager, Ken Benson, has arranged many auditions for me, with major opera houses in the United States. He goes the extra mile, and always comes for my audition to support me and give feedback, which helps me so much to prepare for next auditions. I feel so grateful to have him as my manager.
Name: Alasdair Kent
City & country you’re from: Perth, Australia
Where & what you studied in the USA:
Resident Artist at The Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia, PA
Next professional engagement(s):
A recital of opera arias and duets for Seattle Opera;
Junior & Charlie, Cold Mountain for Opera Philadelphia;
Ritornello, L’opera seria for Wolf Trap Opera.
Why did you choose to study in the USA?
I remember it being a two-fold decision. First, after finishing studies at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts and the University of WA, I questioned whether or not I was ready, wanted to, and could afford to study overseas. Initially, my answer to this question was actually a no! I didn’t want to study somewhere overseas until I thought I was skilled enough to be one of the better singers there, to be able to better take advantage of what would be very expensive opportunities. Because of my involvement in the Lisa Gasteen National Opera School, I was offered a place in the Masters program at the Queensland Conservatorium, so rather than moving overseas, I moved to Brisbane. The program there is fantastic, truly, but after six months there and my second year at LGNOS, I had decided that I was both ready and wanted to audition for schools overseas. LGNOS also gave me a couple of fantastic connections in the US, two coaches to whom I am eternally indebted. At this point, I sat down and wrote out the three things that I wanted to find overseas: a teacher who would have specific information relevant to my voice type; a place that offered as much coaching as possible, and; a place where I could possibly perform two or three leading roles in the following two years.
All through my studies, I had been thinking about the steps afterwards, about leaving Australia. I remember being inspired by the biggest talents that were leaving WAAPA as I was starting, many of whom pursued further study in the UK. Indeed, it seemed to me at the time that most young Australian singers who went overseas for further study went to the UK. I looked into a lot of those schools, their programs, their faculty, their current students and recent graduates, how many performance opportunities they offered in fully-staged opera with orchestra and what kind of repertoire they would frequently program. Additionally, during the many late nights that I’d spent on YouTube listening to opera and discovering arias and singers that I hadn’t heard before, I’d discovered a few younger singers who seemed to be starting important careers. So, I tried to find out where they had studied and looked into their schools too. There are a lot of great music schools in the world, and not all of them are in the UK or the US- I found out information about schools and programs in Germany, Italy, France and Russia too. I considered whether I wanted to try out for Young Artist programs at companies or just schools, trying to figure out which was going to suit me better but also which was more likely to materialise given my level of skill and experience. Out of the singing that I heard from the young singers graduating from these programs, I liked best the young Russian and American singers, or singers who had been through that training. The language barrier being a little more than I was willing to overcome, I gravitated towards the US. I also chose to continue studying at a school because I knew that I wasn’t going to get the chance to perform leading roles in a Young Artist program, something that was particularly important to me musically.
Practical matters play into it just as much though, after all, I wouldn’t be in the US if I had not gotten a place. But I will say, I knew what I wanted to achieve and for what reasons, and I felt like I had comprehensively assessed the options. I think it was Eisenhower who said that, “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” I always think of that whenever I’m required to write a study plan that asks “where I see myself in five years,” because I don’t think there’s a young singer on the planet who knows where they’ll be in five years!!!
You’re now in your third year at AVA and are starting to work with companies across the US. What are some of the steps you’ve taken (or are taking!) to transition from studying to working?
It’s funny the way we think of it, transitioning from one to the other. On the one hand, you’re a professional the day you’ve done your first gig, and on the other hand, we are all students as long as we live. As far as young singers go, I’m definitely right in those “in between” years. My big roles are either at AVA or in paid summer programs for young artists, and in the professional world I’ve sung small roles or recitals and covered large roles, so far at level 1 companies. Offers for work are coming in more consistently, sure, but I’m still a long way off being booked five years in advance! Long story short, I think the best thing any singer can do to transition from student to professional is by first becoming that professional (e.g. knowing your music, being able to sing it, expressing what the composer put on the page and into the character and hopefully saying something individual along the way). Sounds simple, right, but that’s what separates those great, individual artists from the crowd, that they take their job to the nth degree. That’s definitely what I find inspiring about seeing great performances. And things seem to have a natural way of snowballing when the talent is fully-formed. That’s not to say that it doesn’t take work, sending emails, auditioning, applying for competitions and summer programs, getting management interested, getting companies interested, building relationships with directors, conductors and other colleagues, (and let’s not even get into the issues of taxes and visas!), but again, success in those endeavours comes after the foundation is laid. You can’t sell a house that hasn’t been built yet!
I’m not at a point where I want to say, “These are the steps I took.” But maybe what I can offer is what I see making the difference between modest success and huge success in the singers around me and ahead of me, so to speak. I guess you could say these are my mantras, what I’m working towards. What I have noticed more than anything else by being here in the States is just how many young singers there are, and just how many of them are absolutely world-class talents. It’s not enough to just have a great voice, or just be a great actor, or just look great, increasingly young singers have to tick as many of the boxes as possible. That is now seen as “just part of the job.”
SO, The Young Singers Making the Biggest Success Right Now All Seem To:
- Be self-motivated, very organised in the way they run their business, willing to make sacrifices and work hard every day, and really very busy;
- Put their signature on their work in such a way that what you really enjoy about what they do is all about them and who they are as an individual;
- Have solid techniques that they figured out for themselves, so that they can do all the hair-raising tricky stuff that operatic literature requires (and that audiences love!) but more importantly, so that they’re free to give dramatically insightful and physically complete performances every time they sing without having to worry too often about consciously making the singing beautiful;
- Be so proficient in languages that they’re free to actually express the words onstage instead of merely pronounce them correctly;
- Have figured out how to give a great audition 96 times out of 100, singing the repertoire that not only represents them best but that they can bring to life maybe better than anyone else, taking the panel on a full dramatic journey and showing that they’re a good colleague, a great artist and an interesting human being all in eight minutes;
- Have built the foundation of their career by making smart choices, saying no to “opportunities” that weren’t going to put them in a position they wanted to be in further down the track and creating the opportunities that would do that, or building their skills towards better opportunities in the future;
- Have built their team of management, coaches and teacher/s who help them steer the ship that is an operatic career in full sail, whether that’s note-bashing, tweaking elements of vocalism or simply making sure they eat and sleep on schedule!;
- Have, eventually, either found the market (i.e. Australia OR the US OR the UK OR Italy OR Germany/Austria/Switzerland etc.) that they are the best fit for OR have built appeal in more than one market and found a way to balance their engagements to maintain that appeal;
- Have specialised in some way, making themselves known for being The Young Soprano Who Sings Gilda, Juliette, Lucia and Pamina Everywhere Really, Really Well, or The Young Mezzo-Soprano Who Sings New Music, Handel and Some Rossini Better Than Anyone Else, for example;
- Take care of their appearance, keep their weight regular and always go that one step further with their dress;
- Be like a general leading an army, learning from the wisdom of their advisors but ultimately making their own decisions….. And on that note, I have a couple of rehearsals, a singing lesson and an audition coming up, so it’s back to the practice room for me!
So, there you have it! One more to go, so make sure you keep an eye out for it next Wednesday!