If you stuck a pin in a timeline demarcating the 78-year history of the Curtis Institute of Music, right about the point coinciding with the summer of 1976, you might hit upon Katherine Ciesinski’s graduation. This very successful mezzo-soprano received a professional degree at Curtis during a special window of opportunity in which the Opera Training Program, now defunct, was breaking new ground in operatic training.
Ciesinski went into the program with a Master in Music from Temple University and came out three years later with a finely tuned instrument, performance credits in more than twelve operas (including a debut with the Opera Company of Philadelphia), awards from two major national competitions, and absolute confidence that she would make it in her chosen profession.
“This was a post-graduate program intended to fill the gap between what you would get in an undergraduate or graduate degree, and what you would need to embark on a career,” says Ciesinski. “Great apprentice programs that now exist had not yet been established, and there was a void. Max Rudolph and Rudolf Serkin decided to fill that in by creating a program that would build skills in auditioning, performing, repertoire … things crucial to being viable in the professional arena. They knew what they were doing, and they knew how to do it.”
By the time she auditioned for the Opera Training Program at 22, Ciesinski had received very little training in opera and theatre. But she had talent and an almost obsessive drive to achieve. Once she decided that performance was her path, nothing could stop her from following it. “The singers who were most renowned and who got hired were operatically based in repertoire,” she says. “I realized that I needed to know more about this art form if I was going to be a professional singer.”
Curtis had everything she was looking for in a school—international renown, teachers with excellent reputations and student singers, full scholarships—and it was right down the road. Feeling that it would provide her with the skills, information and experience she needed, she prepared her arias and plunged into the competitive fray. In the end, she was one of the chosen few. This was the beginning of a performance whirlwind unlike anything else she had ever experienced. “We jumped right in and did operas, six or seven a year,” she says. “I was immediately put into The Rake’s Progress. We coached and took lessons all day long, did movement training, took fencing. There were 15 to 20 of us in the program and we did it all.”
Being a born overachiever and perfectionist, Ciesinski was in heaven. She loved the total inundation and working with professionals who were living the life she aspired to. Along with Rudolph and Serkin, director Dino Yannopoulos, musical coach Christofer Macatsoris, and voice teacher Margaret Harshaw were prominent figures in the program. Each had a special gift to share with their vocal wards. Yannopoulos, says Ciesinski, was a genius at teaching young performers to act by filling every moment of a role with meaningful activity. And Harshaw served as voice teacher for everyone in the program. “She was unbelievably gifted,” she explains. “It was a constant evolutionary process with our instruments continually being created. Margaret was a tremendous partner in the process for all of us. And though we all had the same teacher, all of the singers sounded like themselves.”
As with the current Vocal Studies program, Opera Training Program productions were chosen to highlight and develop the particular abilities of students already enrolled. As a result, Ciesinski found herself performing a broad and varied repertoire that included Mozart, Wagner, Britten, Puccini and others. She also had the chance to perform with Opera Company of Philadelphia while still a student, first in a minor role and later in a title role as a replacement. And there was much more in the performance arena. She and her cohorts did opera scenes and arias in public schools through the Young Audiences program, baroque concert work, solos in oratorios and church jobs, and recitals.
“It was very rigorous and productive,” she says, “and the payoff was that we all worked. By the time I finished the program, I had won two national competitions. Within one year of graduating, I had won two international competitions, and I made my international debut the summer after graduation.”
Beyond providing excellent training and performance opportunities, Curtis opened other doors for Ciesinski. They facilitated auditions for competitions. She got her first manager through a Curtis connection. And because the Institute had a direct line to the Marlboro Music Festival, she was invited there to perform while still a student. “The experience totally changed my life,” she says. “It validated and elevated me in a way that I’m still humbled by. I got to make a recording and work with musicians of the highest level.”
As if all of this were not enough, having the Curtis pedigree provided Ciesinski with something else of inestimable value: respect in the musical community. The degree, she says, represents a higher level of musicianship and a seriousness of purpose.
Though the Opera Training Program of which Ciesinski was a part was terminated not long after her graduation—purportedly for being disproportionately costly—the Institute continues to provide excellent vocal studies training for singers. (See the article at left: “Spotlight on the Curtis Institute of Music: A High Note in Vocal Training”.) Still, the current program seems a pale reflection of the powerhouse that preceded it.
“It was a wonderful window that lasted around ten years. What one learns from that is, if you see your window, you’d better go through it. The right combination of teachers and performance might not always be there. Find it and you will thrive.”
And thrive she has. Ciesinski’s career to date spans twenty-six years and is still going strong. In June of 2002, she portrayed Kostelnicka in Long Beach Opera’s production of Jenufa. In the same summer, she performed in Summer and Smoke in Central City, Colorado, and in a concert version of Pelléas and Mélisande at the Festival at Round Top in Texas. And this September she is singing in the season opener of Andrea Chénier at the Met. All of this is in addition to a full professorship at University of Houston, where she serves as Chair of the Voice Area at the Moores School of Music. For Ciesinski, life is full. “I’m still viable and expanding my repertoire,” she says. “For a mezzo, that’s a great thing because as we get older we grow into meatier, more dramatic parts.”
Because the Opera Training Program was entirely focused on performance and provided intense concentration on developing her instrument, Ciesinski came out of it with a foundation upon which to build a solid career. She feels that what she learned and experienced at Curtis has contributed immensely to her current success as a performer and educator. “Curtis furnished me with the tools for my trade and my art,” she says. “It met me on every front I needed to be met on and moved me into orbit. I will always be grateful for that.”