70 Stellar Seasons : Celebrating Indiana University Opera Theater

L'etoileFor many people, the town of Bloomington, Indiana immediately evokes memories of Breaking Away—the hit 1979 film about an underdog Bloomington townie who goes pedal to pedal with collegiate cyclists in the annual Little 500—the largest collegiate bike race in the United States. For others, Bloomington is a trivia answer about the birthplace of singer-songwriter Hoagy Carmichael of “Stardust” and “Georgia on My Mind” fame.

Of course, for singers seriously considering classical vocal studies, voice teachers, or anyone involved in opera-dom at large, Bloomington is synonymous with Indiana University’s legendary opera theater and voice program.

In recent years, the Indiana University (IU) School of Music was renamed the Jacobs School of Music (JSoM) in recognition of a generous gift from IU graduates Barbara and David Jacobs. First known as the IU School of Music, Dean Wilfred C. Bain began his tenure there by answering the university president’s charge to transform the school and make it the focus of international attention and renown.

Answer the call he did, as did his wife. Chronicled in great detail in Opera for All Seasons: 60 Years of Indiana University Opera Theater (Indiana University Press), Mrs. Bain helped to recruit orchestra members and choristers at the local grocery store for the company’s first opera, The Tales of Hoffmann, in 1948.

From then on, the JSoM has continued to seek out and attract not only the highest level of international teaching and performance talent among its faculty, but also the most competitive vocal and artistic talent in the United States and worldwide—a talent pool including remarkable student aspirants as well as directors, conductors, coaches, and designers performing at the top of their respective disciplines in the field. This is due in large part to the school’s Opera and Ballet Theater, which will celebrate its 70th anniversary during the 2018–19 season.

In 2008, the Opera and Ballet Theater celebrated a substantial technological and artistic hallmark by presenting its first worldwide live stream of the company’s current production of La bohème—a production premiere at the time that could give the Met’s Zeffirelli production a scenic run for its money.

The live streams of the company’s six annual operatic productions are now easy to take for granted, given the school’s user-friendly website that connects grandparents and viewers worldwide with student singers and world class productions. This tech component also serves as an ongoing reminder of the JSoM’s transformative leadership that has continued to grow, cultivate, and nurture students and faculty alike, from those initial grocery store “auditions” to the productions of the present day which will be on impressive and innovative display in their 70th anniversary season.

The Opera and Ballet Theater’s 2018–19 season further cements the company’s commitment to technological and musical innovation—both onstage and musically—with The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs project is providing our staff opportunity to work with cutting-edge technology, including video mapping,” says head trustee of the company, Dean Gwyn Richards, who adds that the production “provides our students with the chance to experience the dynamic environment of a new work, interacting with both the composer and librettist.”

With a score by Mason Bates and libretto by Mark Campbell, IU will present the opera’s collegiate premiere with a new coproduction shared by Santa Fe Opera, Seattle Opera, and San Francisco Opera. Another first that is bound to be the subject of discussion among the cast, creative team, and audiences will be the use of amplification.

“We’ll have to have amplification because of the way the music’s written,” Professor Mary Ann Hart, chair of the Department of Voice, explains. “That’s an interesting change, because usually we’re acoustic here. It’s going to be a new thing. That’s always exciting, and it’s the first thing out of the box in the season, so it’s going to hit the audience right between the eyes!”

Virginia-born baritone Jeremy Weiss, a current master’s student in voice at the JSoM, will take on the role of Steve Jobs. Previous roles at IU include Garibaldo in Rodelinda and Action in West Side Story, so this title role will certainly present a first for the baritone, who hopes to bring new musical life to the iconic Jobs. “One thing that energizes me about ‘Steve Jobs’ is its thematic focus on the important contemporary issues of our time,” Weiss says, “specifically the influence of technology on our spiritual lives and our ability to be present in the world around us.

“I am thrilled to be a part of ‘Steve Jobs’ because it is exactly what a new opera should be—relevant works about themes and characters that contemporary audiences care about, with emotionally riveting music,” Weiss continues. “I am also beyond excited to work with the amazing artistic and production team part of this new coproduction!”

Mezzo-soprano and doctoral student Courtney Jameson will sing the role of Laurene Powell Jobs—philanthropist, executive, richest woman in the technology industry, and Jobs’ widow. “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs is so new, it is hard to completely prepare,” Jameson says. “We don’t know the characters and music as well as a Mozart or Puccini opera—but that’s what makes it so exciting as a student. Now we have the opportunity to create and explore the opera with no outside influences. We become part of the creative process instead of only following artistic traditions.

“I am so excited that IU is able to partner with three professional companies in presenting a new work,” she continues. “I love that we get to prepare a modern and intriguing story with the help of some of the best companies in the U.S.”

This type of collaboration is a central and ongoing gem of the school’s Opera and Ballet Theater. Collaborating with directors, conductors, and designers from all over the United States and abroad sets IU apart from most conservatory and university music programs. Each of its six annual opera productions calls upon the experience and wisdom of opera’s top talent—ranging from new innovators making their respective impressive and notable marks from house to house, to veteran curative artists who’ve shaped the operatic art form for decades.

“We’ve always done such a wide variety of things,” Hart says. “There have always been new operas. It seems like we’re doing more collaborating with other entities, which is exciting—having the production teams come.”

Hart remembers IU’s production of Menotti’s The Last Savage in the 2014–15 season. “That was from Santa Fe, and the team came along from Santa Fe. The good thing about bringing a lot of different teams in and different conductors is that students can’t rely [on the fact] that they know [the person] in charge. You have to adapt and you have to listen and learn the style of the person who’s conducting or directing. And some are probably easier to work with than others, and some operas are just easier to put together than others. So I consider that real-world experience—which is what everybody wants.

Additional productions in the anniversary season include a holiday remount of Hansel and Gretel, which will travel to Indianapolis, providing IU singers the opportunity to perform at Clowes Memorial Hall—a stage graced by the likes of Maya Angelou, Itzhak Perlman, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Elton John. There’s also a new production of Handel’s Giulio Cesare, Donizetti’s perennial pleaser The Elixir of Love, as well as Poulenc’s powerful The Dialogues of the Carmelites in a production directed by star director and musical theater/opera innovator Francesca Zambello.

JSoM performer diploma (PD) mezzo-soprano Gretchen Krupp will sing the role of Mère Marie. “‘Dialogues’ is a hard score with many moving parts,” Krupp says. “Staging the last scene can be particularly difficult. But we have a great artistic team, and I’m confident it’ll be an amazing final product.”

And speaking of final products, IU’s 70th anniversary season will conclude with Leonard Bernstein’s Mass. Last season, IU presented Bernstein’s iconic West Side Story, and the upcoming Mass will serve as a celebratory culmination of his centenary. “This is the third time IU has produced the Mass,” Richards notes, “and each production is a reminder of the stylistic breadth of Leonard Bernstein and the demands it places on the performers.” Musical luminary Constantine Kitsopoulos will conduct the production and Candace Evans will stage this normally unstaged work.

A top-notch collegiate opera program requires a top-notch voice program, which is exactly what the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music has. IU’s list of celebrated and internationally acclaimed voice teachers is too long to list in full here, but it has included Sylvia McNair, Giorgio Tozzi, Carol Vaness, and Martina Arroyo, to name just a few. The school’s voice faculty continues to include and recruit industry experts in art song, opera, oratorio, diction, and vocal pedagogy.

The voice program offerings range from baccalaureate to post-graduate degrees. And the school recently introduced its “new Collaborative Piano Program, codirected by professors Kevin Murphy and Anne Epperson, [which] has been designed as an educational experience mutually beneficial to the vocal and instrumental students and their collaborative piano partners,” Dean Richards says.

The program’s co-creator Murphy enjoys a multifaceted career as a performer, opera administrator, and a collaborative pianist to many of the world’s top singers—including his wife, celebrated Metropolitan Opera soprano Heidi Grant Murphy, who also serves on the voice faculty. “Becoming a collaborative pianist or accompanist (accompanist isn’t a pejorative—I’ve been a proud accompanist to many great artists!) was something I started as a student at the Jacobs School of Music in the 80s, when I was a piano performance major,” says Murphy. “At that time, there wasn’t a degree program or specific mentoring for this vocation.

“Thankfully, Dean Richards was able to find a way to finally establish a long-awaited collaborative piano program, and Epperson and I work together with faculty colleagues to develop skills and nurture the collaborative talents of pianists working toward PD, MM, and DM degrees, with vocal, instrumental, and—unique to our program—a balanced emphasis,” Murphy continues. “I’m thrilled we can bolster our opera program by teaching young pianists to become great rehearsal pianists, coaches, and conductors, laying the foundation for professional opportunities after school. As the IU Opera Theater produces more opera than many houses in North America, we provide a practical and professional level environment for pianists who will eventually end up working with singers as a career. And our singers are already benefitting from having more experienced and talented pianists and coaches to work with.”

In addition to this new critical resource for student singers, pianists, and instrumentalists alike, the JSoM has also added a graduate certificate in vocology to its fully integrated menu of degree opportunities. Coursework toward the certificate is aimed at uniting voice science with practical application.

“Vocology is more about habilitation of the voice—making the voice work—helping people to use their voices in all kinds of ways,” Hart says. Led by Brian Gill, this program focuses on related teaching methods, goal-oriented repertoire strategies for singers, and science of the voice—and it also includes an annual summer pedagogy intensive, “Know Your Voice.”

“We designed it so that it can actually be a doctoral minor,” Hart continues. “They can graduate with a doctorate, a DM, and a certificate of vocology. Lots of DMs are doing that because it’s another calling card to get a good teaching job. Some of the courses overlap, so they count for both a doctoral credit in the pedagogy curriculum and towards the certificate.”

Additional program highlights include a degree opportunity unique to IU, the bachelor of science in music and an outside field (BSOF) degree. It is audition-based and allows student singers to pursue serious vocal studies while cultivating other academic interests in the humanities and soft/hard sciences. New this fall, the JSoM will offer Yoga for Singers, taught by Professor Katherine Jolly, who also teaches the undergraduate opera workshop.

Opera workshops are offered regularly at IU and they comprise a critical laboratory experience for singers. The graduate workshops are taught and staged by Metropolitan Opera stars Vaness and Grant Murphy, who provide students with coveted performance and training opportunities at the highest level.

At the heart of all of these diverse program opportunities are the students and their teachers. The JSoM’s student population and alumni continue to become Metropolitan Opera grand finalists and winners and Cardiff Singer of the World competition victors (most recently, mezzo-soprano alumna Jamie Barton). Guiding them are a group of award-winning, internationally recognized performers and teachers of voice, repertoire, diction, and pedagogy who share in the same goal: to train, nurture, and inspire the next generations of singers and teachers. Congratulations to the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music Opera and Ballet Theater and Voice Department—here’s to the next 70 years and beyond!

Peter Thoresen

Dr. Peter Thoresen is an award-winning voice teacher, countertenor, and music director. His students appear regularly on Broadway (Almost Famous, Beetlejuice, Dear Evan Hansen, Hamilton, Moulin Rouge! and more), in national tours, and on TV and film. He works internationally as a voice teacher, conductor, and music director in the Middle East and Southeast Asia with the Association of American Voices. He is an adjunct voice faculty member at Pace University and maintains a thriving private studio in New York City; he also serves as music director with Broadway Star Project. Thoresen has served on the voice faculties of Interlochen Summer Arts Camp, Musical Theater College Auditions (MTCA), and Broadway Kids Auditions (BKA) and holds a DM in voice from the IU Jacobs School of Music where he served as a visiting faculty member. He teaches a popular online vocal pedagogy course for new voice teachers and performs throughout the U.S. and abroad. To learn more, visit peterthoresen.com, @peter.thoresen (Insta), and @DrPetesTweets (Twitter).