On to the Next Century : The Lyric Opera Center for American Artists

The Lyric Opera Center for American Artists has evolved from somewhat confused beginnings to become one of the country’s preeminent and most effective young artist programs. When what was then the Lyric Opera School began in the early 1970s, apprentices were required to sing in the chorus, and their training was spotty. Today, the LOCAA has an unwieldy name but a fine track record for producing polished young singers ready to begin significant careers.

Most ensemble members spend two years in the program. There are two parts–a preseason training program, with language instruction, coachings, and performance opportunities in LOCAA productions; and participation in the mainstage Lyric Opera of Chicago season in minor roles and understudy work. Members have the opportunity to audition for and be heard by many of the business’s most important people.

“What the singer gets is exposure,” says LOC general director Bill Mason, “to perform on the highest level, working with the best people in the business–people like Bryn Terfel, Renée Fleming, or Denyce Graves. They work with wonderful conductors and get a sense of what it’s like to sing at this level. I tell our singers they should spend all the time they can down here just watching, because the things they will pick up here by osmosis will stand them in good stead.”

“We’re trying to make the program the best in the world–the most singer-friendly,” says Richard Pearlman, the LOCAA’s director since 1994. Pearlman praises his predecessors for making the LOCAA one of the country’s outstanding apprentice programs. “I think the program will go wherever opera leads us in the next century.”

Pearlman says he’s interested only in people with first-class voices–“If you don’t have that, you don’t belong on the stage of Lyric Opera”–but that he’s also looking “…at what level of compelling overall theatricality they will be singing. It’s all just show business, and singing well is not enough. My job is to kick them in the butt and make sure they work.”

In each year’s auditions, Pearlman and his colleagues hear over 500 singers. “I think there are many, many people who audition before they inform themselves of what the program is about. To be an ensemble member means being ready to take advantage of the program and its opportunities. We have many people audition who can’t sing ‘Come to Jesus’ in whole notes. I think there are a lot of misconceptions about the whole audition process. People bring in pieces that are slightly above where they are, vocally, with the idea of showing off.

“I’m more interested in a sense of style, in expression, sensitivity, and beauty of tone–the basics. People who come in with backbreaking, bladder-bursting blockbusters are shooting themselves in the foot. Have the confidence to show what you can do. I can hear something like ‘Voi che sapete’ 40 times a day and be fine with it, because it tells me what I need to know.”

Along with vocal readiness, an ensemble candidate should be able to demonstrate that he or she has a good ear for languages. The LOCAA, says Pearlman, “has an effective total immersion language program” that takes up every morning every day for two months, with no English allowed. This represents a big improvement over the haphazard language instruction of the past. Ensemble members get one-on-one instruction in Italian for roles they’ll be singing and practice in “translating librettos so they make sense.”

Jonita Lattimore is now in her second year in the LOCAA. “It’s a wonderful opportunity,” she says, “a great bridge between academia and the ‘real world.’ You get a chance to work on yourself while getting experience with a top-notch company.” Lattimore praises the chances to network with some of the best singers in the business, and the classes that put the finishing touches on a young artist.

“What’s really invaluable is the opportunity to work up close and personal with world-class artists. And there’s no teacher like experience.” A native of Chicago, Lattimore is also pleased to gain recognition of her talents in her hometown’s opera company.

Patricia Risley is entirely enthusiastic in her praise of the LOCAA. A mezzo soprano from Pennsylvania, she was a member of the program from 1995 to 1997, and credits her participation there for putting her where she is now: singing at the Met, in Boston, Vienna, Berlin, Munich, Madrid–and at Lyric Opera–in leading roles like Charlotte, Dorabella, and Donna Elvira. “(LOC) thought I had talent and was good on stage, and they gave me a wonderful opportunity. It was a great experience for me in every way.”

When the originally slated Siebel dropped out of Faust, LOC dropped Risley in. She had a triumph in the role. The company’s legendary general director, the late Ardis Krainik, “…came into my dressing room and said, ‘We are so proud of you!’ They gave me the chance, and I will always be grateful. It’s like being part of a family, and you don’t find that very often.”

While LOC is a nurturing place for ensemble members, says Risley, “They want you to go out and be successful elsewhere, knowing that Lyric Opera will always be your opera home. I made a lot of very good friends there, and I still keep in touch with them. I got to become friends with great artists, people in the office, and people in the chorus. Every time I go back, I see all of these familiar faces. It’s my favorite place to work in the world.

“If it weren’t for Lyric Opera and the apprentice program, I don’t think I’d be where I am today–not at all. I think it’s a great program, and I would recommend it to anyone who’s serious about making a career in opera.”