From Competition Winner to German Opera : Matthew Swensen

Swensen with Elizabeth Reiter in Oper Frankfurt’s The Merry Widow.

My first introduction to Classical Singer was in 2008 when I traveled with my parents to the convention in San Francisco. I was only 14 years old, not quite old enough to compete in their vocal competition. Even though I was still pretty young, I knew that I wanted to pursue music of some kind, especially considering I was born right into it. My operatic knowledge was quite strong because my mother and father were both singers and had recently become teachers, but I had yet to decide if this was the path for me. People often asked me if I felt pressured into becoming a singer. I wasn’t. I inherited a cherished gift and I had a joyous devotion to all sorts of musical genres like film music and jazz. The thing I knew for sure was that it was inevitable that my life’s work would be rooted in music.

That convention day I remember walking into the college expo in the grand ballroom and thinking; something’s about to begin here. It was packed with young singers not much older than I was and there was an unusual buzz around the room that was nothing I had ever previously experienced. It was almost as if everyone was recognizable to me. Growing up I likened the chance of meeting opera enthusiasts my own age to receiving good grades on my math homework: both were highly unlikely. But that weekend I was in for a delightful surprise. I later collected every pamphlet from the expo and went upstairs to our hotel room and read through everything. I knew right then and there that I wanted to be a singer.

Fast forward to 2011: I competed in the high school division of the competition in Los Angeles and received third place. During each round, I was able to receive feedback from teachers and professional singers and some of those conversations I still cherish today. Meeting other high schoolers in the master classes and walking around with them made the atmosphere feel more like a community rather than a competition. We talked about our favorite singers, operas we loved and our favorite song composers. I found that each year that I attended, more faces were familiar. Many of the singers I met during the competition ended up as classmates and we are friends to this day.  Samantha Hankey, who was the high school second place winner in my year became a classmate of mine at the Juilliard School. We were both there for our master’s degrees and sang together in quite a few productions. She’s now begun a wonderful career that surely makes our alma mater very proud.


Advertisement (article continues below):

 


After beginning my undergraduate degree at the Eastman School of Music, I used my prize money to attend an Italian immersion language and singing program called Si Parla Si Canta created by Benton Hess. I spent 4 weeks there learning Italian with some students who had been with me at the convention. I competed only once but I went to the convention many times. There, I was able to listen to singers in the upper levels (college and emerging professionals) where I discovered a vast amount of new repertoire. Each year more opportunities were added: classes on how to audition, Alexander Technique, learning to breathe (always a challenge), training the male voice (which was phenomenal, I say with some bias) or classes on German Lied. There were also talks given by artist managers on career building, what to do /not to do, website design and YAPs.

Swensen with Nicolette Mavroleon in Jonathan Dove’s FLIGHT.

Today, it’s just me and the music. After Juilliard I started off in the young artist programs at Wolftrap and Opera Theatre of St. Louis. I then moved to Europe to begin my career. I am now in the Ensemble of Oper Frankfurt here in Germany, where I just made my debut singing Tamino in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. I knew upon leaving school I wouldn’t have much of a conservatory safety net to rely on, so I’ve put together a very small team of trusted people who I can rely on to help me work vocally and career wise in the right direction. What I absorbed from Classical Singer has played a key role in my success today. It’s become a cornerstone in my foundation, like a devoted relative who’s helped guide me along the way. I have learned to manage my own career as sort of the CEO but also find that I work tremendously hard to be a better singer, especially the day after a big success. A career in the arts is not only beautiful but a meaningful challenge to our conscience and a call to become a people with greater empathy. What began as a budding dream in a San Francisco convention hall has now turned into the beginnings of a privileged and exciting career, one that I will forever cherish and use to serve.

 

A big thank you to Matthew Swensen and his kind words. We hope the event continues to be a positive influence to young singers and we wish all the best to Matthew and his parents. For more information about the 2020 CS Music Convention and Competition: CLICK HERE

 

CS Music Staff

CS Music is THE community for singers, teachers, and pianists. CS began in 1986 with the first issue of The New York Opera Newsletter and later to the award-winning magazine Classical Singer. Since 2003 CS has expanded to included articles, audition listings, and events for both classical and musical theatre singers worldwide! Free online articles and listings are available at www.csmusic.net.