Academy of Vocal Arts, Philadelphia: Launchpad for Professional Opera Singers

Academy of Vocal Arts, Philadelphia logo; courtesy of AVA.

Academy of Vocal Arts, Philadelphia logo; courtesy of AVA.

OPERA SINGERS ARE TRAINED, NOT BORN.  Yes, talent matters, but in the field of opera, training is a must.  First of all, singing opera is hard and not natural:  see the OperaGene blog post, “Why Singing Opera Could Be An Olympic Event.”  Professional opinion is that you should not attempt singing opera until you have been properly prepared by qualified teachers; there is a serious risk of damaging your voice.  Once you have trained sufficiently, you must appear in performances, both for the experience and to be seen, to be noticed and receive additional offers.  Regardless of a performer's pathway to the opera stage, training is essential.  Today, in the US the most common pathway from interest/desire to sing opera to appearing on the stage of major opera houses usually involves obtaining a BS in music or one of its sub-disciplines and frequently a master’s degree.  At that point singers have usually appeared in college opera productions and/or recitals, but are not yet prepared for the big leagues of professionally staged opera and its demands.  The candidates still have much to learn and a need for gaining more experience performing before audiences.  Dedication and discipline are required.  During the progression of this career ladder, the competition gets more and more intense.  How might an aspiring young singer get an edge in making this transition?  Most often by competing for resident or young artist training positions with major opera companies or institutes that offer post graduate training in the areas that must be mastered to sing opera professionally.

Helen Corning Warden, founder of AVA; photo courtesy of AVA.

Helen Corning Warden, founder of AVA; photo courtesy of AVA.

One of the most prestigious institutions providing such post graduate training in opera is the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia, PA.  Philadelphia socialite Helen Corning Warden initiated the Academy in 1933 to support opera during the Great Depression, and AVA’s main opera venue, the Helen Corning Warden Theater is named for her.  AVA’s mission is no less than “to be the world’s premier institution for training young artists as international opera soloists.”  Their focus is quite clear.  They are accredited by the National Association of Schools of Music, but they do not give degrees, nor does their coursework transfer to other institutions.  You do not go to AVA to become a teacher, a director, or a composer. You go there as the stepping stone to becoming an opera soloist.  They are especially known for instruction in bel canto style singing.  AVA holds the Giargiari Bel Canto Competition each year.  The success of the program can be highlighted by the names of just a few of the current opera stars who received training at AVA: Michael Adams, Stephen Costello, Joyce DiDonato, Joyce El-Koury, Michael Fabiano, Angela Meade, Ailyn Perez, Corinne Winters; a complete list can be found at here.

The program lasts four years and tuition is free.  AVA also offers fellowships to help with living expenses.  There are typically 28-30 Resident Artists in total from around the world who receive training in voice lessons, acting, movement on stage, languages, audition skills, and daily coaching.  The contacts and networking developed by students during their four years are also invaluable in advancing their careers upon graduation.  These connections can be easily multiplied by close proximity to two other stellar Philadelphia music institutions, the Curtis Institute of Music and Opera Philadelphia.  AVA also support a Young Professionals community.  Importantly, this is a performance-intensive program and trainees are guaranteed to appear in AVA fully-staged opera performances in the large metropolitan area of Philadelphia, productions supported by a full orchestra.  Let’s take a look at the AVA staged operas for the 2016-2017 season:

Rigoletto, Giuseppe Verdi – Nov 5-20

The Demon, Anton Rubinstein – Dec 10-15

Lucia di Lammermoor, Gaetano Donizetti – Feb 25–Mar 14

Die Zauberflote (The Magic Flute) – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Apr 29–May 9

Rigoletto 2016 photo one; courtesy of AVA: The Duke (Marco Cammarota) holds Countess Ceprano (Alejandra Gomez) while Rigoletto (Jared Bybee) looks on. Rigoletto 2016 photo two, courtesy of AVA: La maledizione! Rigoletto (Jared Bybee) holds his daughter Gilda (Vanessa Vasquez).

Many student performers already have advanced music degrees and have been singing in local or regional productions, which ensures high quality for AVA recitals and productions.  AVA also selects its productions with an eye to the voices available among its trainees, and occasionally alumni return to sing roles.  Ticket prices are reasonable, ranging from around $45 to $95 for the various productions.  There are several venues used for the operas, which gives trainees the opportunity to perform in different environments and provides easier access to quality opera to different parts of the city.  The Rigoletto production in November received a strongly positive review from Philadelphia Inquirer music critic, Daniel Patrick Steans.  Note please that Lucia is already close to a sellout!

Demon 2016 logo, courtesy of AVA. Demon 2016 photo one, courtesy of AVA:  JoAna Rusche (Tamara), Ethan Simpson (Demon), Claire de Monteil (Angel Ensemble), Alejandra Gomez (Angel) and Meryl Dominguez (Angel Ensemble). Demon 2017 photo two, courtesy of AVA: Tamara's (JoAna Rusche) soul is saved by The Angels (Claire de Monteil, Alejandra Gomez and Meryl Dominguez).

I have previously written about my experiences making the trek up I-95 to attend opera performances of Opera Philadelphia (Cold Mountain, Breaking the Waves) and have recommended opera mini-vacations to the city.  Now I know another reason to make that jaunt, the opportunity to see and hear opera stars of tomorrow, appearing now at the Academy of Vocal Arts.