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The Operative Factor: How Oberlin Prepares Singers For Success

Soprano Alyson Cambridge '02
(photo courtesy of Joedy Cambridge)

Soprano Alyson Cambridge ’02 was one of just four winners of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in April 2003. This prestigious competition has long been a place to spot major new operatic talent, and Cambridge—who at 23 was the youngest winner of the season—was invited to join the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program.

Cambridge is just the most recent example of Oberlin Conservatory voice graduates who’ve embarked on high-profile careers. Carolyn Betty ’99 won the Met audition in 2002. Tenor David Miller ’95 and baritone Daniel Okulitch ’99 sang leading roles in Baz Luhrmann’s production of La Bohème on Broadway. Mezzo Marie Lenormand ’99 was featured in the world premiere of The Little Prince at the Houston Grand Opera.

Other Oberlinians are joining the pantheon of more established divas and divos. Tenor Franco Farina ’78, hon. ’01, sings Verdi and Puccini in the world’s major opera houses. Soprano Lisa Saffer ’82 is at the forefront of contemporary and baroque repertoire. Mezzo Denyce Graves ’85, hon. ’98, reigns as Carmen and Dalilah. Derek Lee Ragin ’80 broke ground as a countertenor in European opera houses years before the Handel revival in Europe and the United States sparked the current popularity of the voice type.

Because singers often mature later than instrumentalists, graduate schools and apprentice programs, rather than undergraduate institutions, usually take credit for producing artists. But Oberlin singers who’ve gone on to operatic careers cite the Conservatory’s teaching style and environment as vital in setting them on their course and equipping them for the challenging life of a professional opera singer.

Oberlin’s quiet location and the presence of the College of Arts and Sciences, along with the Conservatory’s primary focus on undergraduate training, makes the school appealing to many singers.

Tenor Colenton Freeman ’78, for example, chose Oberlin over Juilliard. “I had a sponsor who was willing to pay for everything if I went to Juilliard. But something told me I was not ready to live in New York. I went to Oberlin and fell in love with it,” he says. Freeman, who has been based in Germany since the mid-1980s, says Oberlin gave him “the best musical education I could have possibly gotten.”

Mezzo Denyce Graves
(photo by Philip Bermingham)

Denyce Graves recalls, “The Conservatory was a real haven, full of people passionate about music-making—people just like me. Oberlin is a special place; it’s so removed that it allows you to concentrate on the work you are doing. And it’s a treasure trove—the richness of the College, the lectures, the Artist Recital Series.”

With relatively few graduate students competing with them for roles, Oberlin singers get considerable performing experience. Cambridge says that opportunity is a huge advantage.

“Even though I’m the youngest person in the Met’s Young Artist Program, I already have stage experience,” she says. During her Oberlin years, Cambridge tackled such leading roles as Dido in Dido and Aeneas, Donna Anna in Don Giovanni, and Rosalinda in Fledermaus.

Franco Farina says performing as an undergraduate made him more comfortable in using his voice as an instrument.

“I would often sing every week—master classes and other studio events,” says Farina. “It got me used to singing all the time. You learn so much when you are in the actual act of performing. That feeling, that kind of energy, only takes place while you are performing. The more you do that, the more you learn to adjust your body and your thinking when you are faced with the next experience.”

Baritone Mel Ulrich came to Oberlin in 1991 as an Artist Diploma student and now has a busy career in the United States and Europe. He found that the performance experience increased his confidence. “All the performing, day after day—opera, recital, ensemble groups—really helps you move to next level,” he says.

David Miller had planned a career in musical theater on Broadway, but singing in the chorus of La Bohème during his sophomore year changed his mind.

“I decided that one day, I wanted to be Rodolfo,” he says. “I told Richard Miller, my teacher, who laughed me out of the studio. But I kept at it. At the end of that year, when I took Che gelida manina to him, he said, ‘Okay, you’ve been whining about it all year, go ahead.’ After I sang it, he said, ‘It’s your calling.’”

Push, but not Beyond Capabilities
Oberlin undergraduates perform opera roles under conditions that promote their artistic growth without straining or damaging their young—and still-developing—voices. Associate Professor of Opera Theater Jonathon Field, director of the opera program for the past six years, points out that students work with excellent conductors. In addition, while the operas have their full orchestral complement, the modest size of Hall Auditorium keeps singers from pushing themselves unnecessarily.

Until recently, operas at Oberlin were performed in English, but Field says presenting them in their original languages is better preparation for the professional world. Field mentions another of his real-world preparation policies. “Each semester, before we begin staging our opera scenes program, there’s a memorized sing-through. If a student comes in with a scene not memorized, his or her grade goes down an entire letter.”

Stage experience is only a part of the rigorous training that Oberlin singers receive. Professor of Singing Gerald Crawford, who has headed the Division of Vocal Studies since 1991, attributes students’ success to a combination of very high expectations from the faculty, comprehensive training, and an excellent applicant pool.

“In auditions, we are listening for promise of the instrument, and what it will grow into,” Crawford says. “We ask, ‘What can we do with this voice in four or five years?’”

The size of the program is also a factor. “We have about 100 voice majors at Oberlin,” says Professor of Singing Richard Miller, who has been at the Conservatory since 1964 and was awarded an excellence-in-teaching award in 2002 from the New York Singing Teachers Association. “We are not interested in becoming a graduate mill; we can take only about 25 students into each class.”

That small size helps the division keep tabs on every student. For example, the entire voice faculty listens to every student and monitors their progress during the first four semesters. “If there are problems, we can begin to point them out,” Crawford says. “Individual teachers do not have to stand alone, because they have the weight of the entire department behind their evaluations.”

Professor of Singing Daune Mahy, who has taught Oberlin singers (including Alyson Cambridge) for 22 years, says, “We’re careful about the material we give them, choosing repertoire that’s appropriate for their age and voice type. We try to prepare every singer for a professional career. That means establishing students’ technique and holding them to a high standard in everything—diction, musical standards, phrasing, articulation. Some students go on to graduate school and complain that it’s easier than Oberlin.”

Jonathon Field concurs. “Oberlin believes in the complete musician,” he says. “We’re training capable musicians, not just pretty faces with a voice.”

That training starts with the technical vocal foundation, established in the voice teacher’s studio and built through hours of work in the practice room.

Marie Lenormand says that she found Richard Miller’s physiological approach to singing extremely useful. “You discover how the muscles work so you can use them as efficiently as possible,” she says. “It’s a very systematic approach.”

Tenor Franco Farina
(photo courtesy of the Franco Farina Collection)

Franco Farina says Miller’s system continues to serve him well. “Richard Miller taught me how to think,” Farina says. “That’s very helpful, because when you start running into coaches and conductors, you find that everybody has an idea. When a conductor asks you for something, you know what physical adjustments are necessary. Singing is very personalized. You have to be subjective and individualistic, but objective as to the application of technique.”

Bass Oren Gradus
(photo courtesy
Houston Grand Opera)

For bass Oren Gradus ’97, a personal connection with his teacher, Associate Professor of Singing Lorraine Manz, was a valuable part of his Oberlin experience. “You develop a special relationship with your teacher, and in a college setting, where you’re a young adult, just out of high school, your teacher is someone you can turn to,” he says. “I discussed many things besides music with her, and she was interested in my life.”

Oberlin voice students do not spend all their time building vocal technique, however. The rigorous program requires them to take four semesters of theory and ear training, three semesters of music history, four semesters of piano, one semester each of Italian, French, and German, and diction classes in each of those languages plus English. They must also complete eight semesters of ensemble and 24 hours of liberal arts courses.

The standards are high, but they pay off. Denyce Graves, for one, found the rigor essential.

“I never knew that I didn’t know how to study until I went to Oberlin,” she says. “I learned the skill of studying, the discipline, as well as the level of commitment that was required, from that heavy course load.”

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