College Roundup : A Glimpse Inside Texas’ Top Music Programs

Maybe it’s because Texas is the second largest state in the Union, but the Lone Star State has turned out some of America’s brightest operatic and vocal talents, rivaled (one could argue) only by New York. However, the land area and, by default, large number of colleges and metro areas cannot be the only explanation for Texas’ popularity among musicians, particularly when it comes to higher education. While a young state, Texas has asserted itself as one of the most musical in the country and impresses its sonic traditions upon the younger generations across all genres, from country to choral. According to the College Board’s website, out of the state’s 97 colleges and universities (or one college for roughly every 2,700 square miles), 56 schools offer a music major in some way, shape, or form.

“Texas in general, I think, has a very strong church choral tradition,” says Corpus Christi-born soprano Laura Claycomb, offering another explanation. “Church is huge here. Church choir—you just do it. It’s a big part of the church experience. That comes over into your high school choral stuff, because Texas State Choir is a huge deal. And because it’s a huge state, you get a ton of fodder for studies of music.”

Claycomb, a graduate of Southern Methodist University, is one of the many renowned singers who has struck gold in New York, Europe, and beyond by first mining her talents in Texas (a point often overlooked in subsequent artist profiles, especially if a Texas undergraduate education is followed by a master’s degree from a top East Coast conservatory). Apart from killer barbecue and the occasional Lone Star birthright, however, there must be something that draws the likes of Bruce Ford, Denyce Graves, Kim Josephson, and Darren Keith Woods to the University of Houston’s Moores School of Music; or Jill Grove, Sarah Hibbard, Brian Joyce, and Paul Hartfield to Stephen F. Austin State University. We delve into four universities to find out what makes them tick.

Southern Methodist University: An MM with a YAP

Like Claycomb, mezzo Beth Clayton and the late, great bass Craig Timberlake, are alumni of Southern Methodist University, a Dallas-adjacent private school that offers easy access to the city’s AT&T Performing Arts Center, which includes the Dallas Opera’s recently opened Winspear Opera House as well as the Meyerson Symphony Center.

Like most of the state’s colleges, SMU is a liberal arts school with a strong music department as part of the Meadows School of the Arts. As such, students receive not only a full breadth of educational opportunities but also training to rival many conservatories. “SMU’s voice department isn’t large but, therefore, it offers personal attention to each singer,” says adjunct faculty member and vocal coach Martha Gerhart. Moreover, SMU makes good use of its neighboring arts organizations and has teamed up with the Dallas Opera for the Emerging Artists Outreach Program, which gives SMU’s graduate students the opportunity to perform with one of the nation’s leading opera companies.

“The program’s changing quite a bit this coming year [2011-2012]; it’s going to be even more exciting and involving,” says Meadows professor and program founder Virginia Dupuy, who likens Emerging Artists to Houston Grand Opera’s Studio program in that students are simultaneously learning and working in a professional opera company. The major difference: in SMU’s program, the students are still in school. “Learning roles for [Dallas Opera] at the same time they’re learning arias for auditions or specific programs that summer is also an extremely good experience,” adds Dupuy of the multitasking element. “It’s a brush with the real world.”

University of Texas–Austin: Sustaining the Present with an Eye to the Future

SMU is not the only college to offer a strong vocal training program. On the public side, the University of Texas–Austin boasts the Butler School of Music, a training ground that has produced such notable alumna as Mary Dunleavy, who studied there in 1988 under Mignon Dunn.

Typical of many Texans with a financial stake in the arts, the Butler School of Music’s namesake donors take a pride in the university they support that extends beyond their considerable donations over the past 25 years. Retired ENT specialist Dr. Ernest Butler and his wife Sarah’s donations to the school skyrocketed in the spring of 2008 thanks to a $55 million endowment (the second largest donation given to a music school after Yale) which has helped to foster a faculty of over 100 and a student body of over 750. But it’s their constant presence in the audience and, on special occasions, in the audition room, that creates a solid sense of ownership and pride in the program.

Such an endowment has also fostered a lively production schedule for students, which faculty member Richard Masters believes to be one of the main draws for students. Given three productions a year plus scene programs, Butler is also able to be adventurous with the repertoire it hands to its students. Amid a healthy balance of standard rep in shows like Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore and Mozart’s Così fan tutte, Butler offers a steady stream of contemporary operas for students to explore. “Last year [February 2011] we just did Daniel Catán’s Rappaccini’s Daughter,” says Masters. “It got a lot of interest from the press; a lot of schools wouldn’t get that exposure to new music, but we have that here. There’s a good mix of repertoire.”

The sheer number of productions in and of itself can be a rarity. “It’s a different shape than most schools where you do mostly song recitals and, if you’re lucky, you get a role here and there,” adds Masters. Moreover, Butler hosts a summer program functioning as a preview into the academic and professional worlds of music for both high school and undergraduate students. Seminars are offered on practice and preparation. Students participate in ensembles and are able to sample the system before committing. Masters likens this to throwing a swimmer in the deep end—a necessity that ultimately eases the shock as singers enter college and master’s programs.

Like Dallas, Austin is also a cultural nexus, offering singers opportunities beyond campus life. In addition to Austin Lyric Opera (which, like Butler, offers a tantalizing mix of beloved standards and adventurous contemporary works), the city is also the seat of South by Southwest. An annual festival held in the spring for the past two decades, SXSW is primarily a music festival that has since established film and interactive branches. It’s a hotspot for artists, industry insiders, and journalists—and, while classical music is hardly a focus, it can be a valuable experience to savvy singers with a few hundred dollars to drop on the admission price.

Rice University: Shepherding the New Classes of Vocal Stars

Bass-baritone Michael Sumuel can credit in part his landing into the Houston Grand Opera Studio program with an early exposure to the company via Richard Bado. The director of the opera studies program is also HGO’s chorus master and, thanks to the connection, Sumuel covered HGO’s production of Billy Budd in 2008. (The Houston Chronicle called it “one of the best sung performances the company has presented in many years” and praised in particular “the work of the men of the Houston Grand Opera Chorus.”)

Sumuel had several options for graduate studies after completing his undergrad work at Georgia’s Columbus State University, including the standards of Juilliard, Eastman, and Curtis. When his teacher at Columbus suggested Rice, he was initially “shocked” knowing the school for its solid academics but not its musical prestige. However, Sumuel chose Rice for “the same holistic community” he had found in Georgia.

Rice’s Shepherd School of Music offers both vocal and operatic training, accepting into the latter program less than 40 students per year and allowing for a fiercely individualized learning environment under Bado. Stage experience is also a given. “With two fully staged productions each year, we have so many opportunities here to get up on the stage and perform,” graduate student Brent Ryan said in a news story for Shepherd’s website. “That experience is invaluable. A singer can practice and practice, but some of the greatest learning happens on the stage.”

In the same piece, staff conductor Cristian Măcelaru added, “It’s a one-of-a-kind program. Every student gets the opportunity and chance to feel like an important individual. Because of the way the faculty interacts and collaborates, it keeps the school together as a family in a way that doesn’t have anything destructive in it.”

University of North Texas: A “Wild Conservatory” in a Liberal Arts World

When tenor Richard Croft first came to Denton—a city situated midway between Dallas and the Oklahoma border—to teach at the University of North Texas (the training ground for sopranos Patricia Racette, Takesha Meshé Kizart, and Emily Pulley), he was floored to discover the sheer amount of live music coming out of the school’s halls early one weekday morning. “There’s all this kind of stuff swirling around on this one block of this campus,” he says. “It’s pretty extraordinary.” UNT’s College of Music boasts one of the top jazz programs in the country along with a dedicated opera program that features the likes of Croft alongside specialists such as mezzo-sopranos Jennifer Lane and Linda Di Fiore on the faculty, forming what Croft describes as a “constellation” of faculty members each with their own specific experiences and expertise.

“The college functions as a wild conservatory,” explains Croft, who touches on the number of disciplines offered at UNT. Lane brings her early music knowledge to the table, Croft offers his own specialization to tenors pursuing roles in the Mozart and Gluck repertoires, and Di Fiore’s opera students have gone on to YAPs at the Metropolitan Opera and Houston Grand Opera. Mezzo-soprano Catherine Martin, featured in the Summer 2011 CS cover story, studied under Di Fiore after being hand picked by the singer and professor in Texas’s All-State choir competition and she notes that the amount of stage experience she received even as an undergraduate outshone some of the graduate-level opera programs.

One of the biggest boasts of UNT, however, is the open atmosphere among faculty and students. Croft, who even teaches one of his colleagues on staff, describes the situation as something of a “barter” between instructors. If another teacher is stumped by a vocal challenge with a student, Croft is happy to take the student into coaching for a time. “I don’t think that happens in a lot of places,” he says. “I think people guard their studios. But here, people say ‘I’ve got this tenor. He’s working on Belmonte. Can you see him?’ There’s a really good progress in that way.”

Olivia Giovetti

Olivia Giovetti has written and hosted for WQXR and its sister station, Q2 Music. In addition to Classical Singer, she also contributes frequently to Time Out New York, Gramophone, Playbill, and more.