Druid City Opera Workshop : Unlock Your Potential with Pro Hough

Paul Houghtaling, an associate professor at the University of Alabama (UA), is fondly nicknamed Pro Hough (pronounced “pro ho”) by his students. He is the president-elect of the National Opera Association (NOA) and the director of opera at UA. He began a summer training program on the UA campus in Tuscaloosa called the Druid City Opera Workshop, and it is one of the finest programs for young singers in the country.

There aren’t many programs that introduce young singers to the performance process in a holistic and supportive way, which is why I am particularly impressed with Druid City. Participants in this program perform scenes and learn a host of skills intended to unlock their unique potential. Houghtaling is incredibly energetic and enthusiastic. He inspires creativity and confidence and offers the tools to build technique, character development, collaboration, and presentation.

Among the special offerings are classes with certified stage combat specialist Matthew von Redlich, a member of the Society of American Fight Directors. He describes past participants by remarking, “What a talented and committed group of performers. Not everyone gives stage combat its due diligence, but this ‘bunch of battlers’ was extremely focused and willing to work hard. My appreciation to you all!”

Linda Lister, author of Yoga for Singers: Freeing Your Voice and Spirit through Yoga, looks forward to returning to Druid City every year. She describes it as “a halcyon environment in which to direct and practice yoga, and I love watching Paul ignite and inspire the singers. Besides the comprehensive training in acting and movement combined with private coachings and masterclasses, the invaluable element of DCOW is its daily career and business seminar, a feature not found in many summer programs or even graduate programs.”

In short, Druid City Opera Workshop is a weeklong intensive where singers get the experience needed to get to the next level as performers. I discussed this program in further detail with Professor Houghtaling.

When was the first Druid City Opera Workshop? Any stories about how you created this program?

The first Druid City Opera Workshop was in May of 2010. When I arrived at the University of Alabama in 2007, my colleagues had been wishing for a summer program, and the time was right in the spring of 2010 to create something—a unique program with a focus on training and craft, in addition to performance experience. Years earlier, I studied with John Moriarty as a part of the opera training program of the Boston and New England Conservatories.

I was exposed to a true curriculum of skills—acting, movement, improvisation, makeup, music business, and aria class. Then, I came up through the ranks of American Young Artist Programs, moving from pay-to-sing investments, such as the Minnesota Opera Institute with Wesley Balk, on to the YAPs of Des Moines, Santa Fe, and Central City.

Finally, by the time Druid City was taking shape, I had begun working at other Young Artist Programs as a teacher or director. It was the combination of all of these experiences, both as a young artist and a teacher, which formed the Druid City blueprint.

Where does the name “Druid City” derive from?

Druid City is a 19th-century nickname for the city of Tuscaloosa. My colleague Susan Fleming came up with the name; it was something memorable, we hoped, from a branding perspective.

How many students typically attend each year, and what is their general level of experience?

We accept 22 young artists into the program and we receive between 90 and 120 applications each year. We began with fewer participants, of course, but arrived at 22 as the perfect number for the week, allowing for a lot of individual attention and personalized experiences, yet enough performing personnel to cast a well balanced scenes program.

The faculty feel that we can truly get to know 22 singers through the week and, just as importantly, the singers get to know each other as well. Moreover, bonding and working together as a company, if only for a week, is important and one of the joys of our business.

What are you looking for in the singers you select?

We’re looking for singers who are ready for an intense week. For about half of the group each year, Druid City is their first summer program. Others have done a few programs previously and are looking for a boost to the next level. Druid City has welcomed young singers who have just completed their first year of college right alongside young performers with graduate degrees.

The program is a great equalizer. Everyone comes from different backgrounds, some younger, some more experienced, at varying stages of their educations, and from across the U.S. and Canada. But the common goal of desire to really dig in and work creates a uniquely level platform in which all singers learn and grow together—and learn from each other and with each other.

Can you describe the program experience including duration, tuition, housing, and performance information?

Druid City encompasses eight days of work—including classes, performances, mock auditions, coachings, and rehearsals—culminating in a final showcase of scenes, exhibitions, and skill demonstrations. From the outset, we wanted it to be as affordable as possible and we hope that the 2018 all-inclusive fee of $1,250 is viewed as a reasonable bargain. That cost includes tuition, nine nights of housing, and six weekday lunches.

Each singer is assigned two appropriate scenes in advance and has additional opportunities to be featured in dance numbers, improvisation scenes, stage combat exercises, monologues, and even yoga demonstrations. I believe in transferring the skills worked on in workshop classes directly to the stage.

What are your expectations for singers upon arrival and what kind of coaching/directing will they experience during the program?

Given the short duration of the program, young artists are urged to be well prepared upon arrival in Tuscaloosa, which is to say off-book and ready to sing through their assigned repertoire comfortably, in order to begin making music right away. Staging on some scenes can begin as early as day two, with all scenes ready for staging rehearsals by day three.

Having said that, the faculty is well aware that nerves and those above-mentioned varying experience levels can affect all best intentions, and the Druid City faculty is nurturing and supportive and able to move every artist, and the program, forward. The musical rehearsals and individual coachings focus on musical style, language, and artistry, and the scenes are staged by directors who encourage freedom of expression while challenging the young artists toward their most courageous and communicative characterizations.

What other areas of training will they experience?

The program includes yoga, dance, stage combat, improvisation, acting, and music business classes. The classes happen in the morning—then over lunch, the singers discuss résumés, headshots, networking, websites, recording strategies, social media, and lots of other things. Rehearsals and coachings begin in the afternoon, with a daily masterclass just before the dinner break. Coachings and rehearsals resume in the evening. The latter part of the week includes a mock audition for an invited panel of experts, roundtable discussions, and a free night for bonding and bowling.

When I attended a final night performance a few years ago, the students performed with joy, professionalism, and enthusiasm in the demonstrations of stage combat and improvisation. How do you inspire novices in yoga or acting to present joy in the demonstrations for a live audience?
Thank you for noticing that. I certainly don’t do it alone, that’s for sure. I surround the students with a top-flight faculty, all specialists in their fields who share my idea of teaching and leading with a mix of gratitude for what we get to do with our lives, love and devotion to craft, a practical approach to what’s required for success in our field, and a bit of humor along the way. There’s no self-importance or ego at Druid City, just hard work.

Is Druid City Opera Workshop serving your artistic vision or do you have plans for change/growth, etc.?

I think it is. I hope it is. But it’s not so much about serving my vision as it is serving the young artists and my faculty colleagues who have helped me build the program. I think we’re offering something special. There have been relatively few changes over the last eight years, including in the core faculty, most of whom have been with us from the start.

The major changes have been in the addition of the internship programs for aspiring stage directors and collaborative pianists, both successful ventures which have added depth and increased opportunity to the program. Another new element within the last few years is a set of classes devoted to voice types: soprano class, mezzo class, etc. It was something I always wanted to do, and the young artists have loved it. It’s not a masterclass, and most sessions have involved little or no singing. Rather, it’s a time to gather and talk openly about common issues, unique ups and downs, and to celebrate the specialness of your voice part.

Who will be your collaborating faculty members for the 2018 program?

Druid City will welcome back directors and instructors Linda Lister (UNLV) and Dawn Neely (University of West Georgia), coaches and clinicians Amanda Johnston (University of Mississippi) and Richard Masters (Virginia Tech), and stage combat specialist Matthew von Redlich of Tuscaloosa. Joining us this year for the first time will be director and teacher David Ronis (University of Wisconsin–Madison).

University of Alabama faculty members include coach/pianist Kevin Chance, singers Susan Fleming, Susan Williams, and David Tayloe, dancer/choreographer Stacy Alley, and conductor Blake Richardson.

Anything else you’d like to share about Druid City?

I’m thankful for the huge response that Druid City has received. Druid City continues to inspire young singers to love what they do, to encourage them to embrace the hard work and its rewards, and to reimagine their unlimited potential.

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“With all my heart, thank you! Each of us is coming away a better, more empowered singer and all-around performer. I will never forget Druid City.”
—Bree Nichols, soprano, University of Georgia, DCOW summer 2017

“My experience with the Druid City Opera Workshop was phenomenal. The ‘Business of Singing’ workshops were especially resourceful because learning how to market yourself is one of the most important aspects of being a performer. I will always remember, ‘This is who we are and this is what we do!’”
—Vincent Hale, baritone, Stillman College, DCOW summer 2011

Peter Lake attended the first session of Druid City Opera Workshop in 2010 and has since been awarded prestigious apprentice awards as he has worked his way up the ranks of young artist festivals. He completed a master of music in voice at the University of Southern Mississippi and has been a resident artist with Opera North, the Sherrill Milnes VOICExperience Foundation, Central City Opera, Chautauqua Opera Company, Virginia Opera, Natchez Festival of Music, and Ash Lawn Opera, and he continues to build an exciting career in opera.
Lake shares some thoughts about his training at Druid City Opera Workshop. “The Druid City Opera Workshop was my first step into the world of training and Young Artist Programs. Looking back, I did not even know just how much help it was going to be to me. I received excellent coaching, new scenes added to my repertoire, and information about the business of singing. But what has resonated with me to this day was the sense of empowerment. The staff made us work for excellence and they were so kind that I felt that I had a place in the world of music. I walked away from Druid City ready to tackle new challenges because of the skills I learned and because of the affirmation I received that I could and should be a singer.”
Information and applications for Druid City Opera Workshop can be found at opera.music.ua.edu/opera/druid-city-opera-workshop-2/.

Stage director and bass-baritone Paul Houghtaling has enjoyed success in a variety of repertoire. Currently the director of Opera Theatre at the University of Alabama, additional directing credits include productions for Mobile Opera, Opera on the James, Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre, Natchez Opera, Hubbard Hall Opera Theater, Red River Lyric Opera, Ars Nova, and Anchorage Opera’s Second Stage series. Recent seasons at Alabama included A Little Night Music, Street Scene, Don Giovanni, The Consul, The Merry Widow, Pagliacci, Patience, Così fan tutte, and The Mikado.
In 2015, Houghtaling was the winner of the University of Alabama’s prestigious Morris Lehman Mayer Award for leadership and teaching, the Outstanding Commitment to Teaching Award given by the university’s National Alumni Association, and the Druid Arts Award, an honor given by the local arts council for excellence in arts education. His work with the UA Opera Theatre has won prizes at the National Opera Association’s (NOA) Collegiate Opera Scenes Competition.
Career highlights as a singer include the Philip Glass soundtrack to Godfrey Reggio’s film Naqoyqatsi for Sony, on which he is a featured vocalist; several Carnegie Hall solo appearances with the Cecilia Chorus of New York, American Composers Orchestra, and others; U.S. tours with the Waverly Consort, including Kennedy Center appearances; European tours as Papageno with Teatro Lirico D’Europa; “Opera Buffa: Comedy on Stage” on Lincoln Center’s Meet the Artists series; all of the major works of Bach with ensembles across the country; and his acclaimed Gilbert and Sullivan interpretations with Anchorage Opera, Knoxville Opera, Mississippi Opera, Nashville Opera, Natchez Opera, Opera Saratoga, Colorado Symphony, Gulf Coast Symphony, and others.
Recent seasons include his debut with Opera Birmingham as Dulcamara in The Elixir of Love and the bass soloist in a fully staged performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion with the Helena Symphony. He has created roles in Glass’ The Witches of Venice, recorded for Euphorbia, and Lee Hoiby’s The Tempest with Des Moines Metro Opera.
Houghtaling is president-elect of the National Opera Association. He holds degrees from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, Hunter College of CUNY, The New England Conservatory, and The College of the Holy Cross. Visit paulhoughtalingdirector.com to learn more.

“Druid City Opera Workshop is a positive, nurturing, and fun experience. It challenged me musically and taught me new skills beyond my bachelor’s degree, like stage combat! I established relationships with fellow singers as well as teachers, coaches, and future employers. I especially loved the scenes I participated in. I was able to study Donna Elvira for the sextet in Don Giovanni as well as Mrs. Ford in the letter scene from The Merry Wives of Windsor. The program that we performed was so much fun. I love DCOW!”
—Carol Anne Osborne, soprano, Florida State University, DCOW summer 2016

“Compared to other programs I’ve done, Druid City is unparalleled in terms of the amount of individual attention each participant receives. The scenes were carefully chosen to highlight every singer, and the abundance of masterclasses and coachings provided fantastic opportunities to work with enthusiastic, knowledgeable professionals. The seminars on the business aspects of an operatic career were a wonderful supplement.”
—Rachel Yap, soprano, North Park University, DCOW summer 2013

Christi Amonson

Soprano Christi Amonson’s recent concert engagements include touring China as a soloist with Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra, “Easy to Love” pops concert with the Sacramento Choral Society & Orchestra. Opera News described her sound as “liquid silver” after singing Nannetta with Chautauqua Opera. Amonson earned her DMA in voice and theatre under the tutelage of Grayson Hirst at the University of Arizona, where she has been an instructor. She earned her MM in Voice at the Manhattan School of Music and her BM in Music Education at the University of Idaho. In New York City, she sang with several opera companies and directed choirs for the Metropolitan Opera Guild’s Urban Voices Program. She is currently assistant professor of voice at Troy University.