Program Spotlight: Mary Ragland YAP

The Mary Ragland Emerging Artist Program at Nashville Opera is one of the prominent YAPs in the United States. From hundreds of applicants, four singers, a soprano, mezzo, tenor, and a baritone, bass-baritone, or bass are selected to spend a five-month residency with Nashville Opera where they get a varied performance experience. The artists perform leading roles in a statewide tour of an opera geared towards elementary students. This year, Nashville Opera’s tour is John Davies’ adaptation of The Three Little Pigs which retells the classic story using music from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, The Magic Flute, and Don Giovanni. Additionally, this season’s Emerging Artists participate in “Opera out Loud,” a 30-minute program that introduces opera to audiences ranging from middle school to adult. This year’s Emerging Artists will complete their time with Nashville Opera singing supporting roles in the company’s mainstage production of The Magic Flute. When not performing, the members of the Mary Ragland Emerging Program participate in masterclasses on acting, movement, voice, and the business side of opera.

The Mary Ragland Emerging Artist Program was named in honor of Juilliard-trained soprano, Mary Cortner Ragland, who, along with a circle of her friends and Nashville Symphony’s Maestro, Michael Cherry, founded Nashville Opera officially known as the Nashville Opera Association. Upon the arrival of John and Carol Hoomes in 1995, the company has grown to a three million dollar a year budget which supports four mainstage operas a year, their education tour, and their many community events. The Emerging Artist Program was established allowing the company to hire talented singers from around the country with the name Mary Ragland Emerging Artists (MREA) adopted in 1999. 

A typical day for a Mary Ragland Emerging Artist starts with getting up around 7:00am, getting dressed and, in conjunction with the other singers/housemates, making their way to the Nashville Opera Center where they hop into a van and head to an elementary school. Upon arrival, the singers make their way to that day’s performance space (usually a “gymicafetorium”) where they assemble the set, do a soundcheck, then get into costume and await the fresh young faces that will no doubt be excited, engaged, and sometimes, unaware of the fact that the singer can, indeed, hear them when they yell at them for making a choice they wouldn’t. After the performance, the singers will introduce themselves, then open the floor up for a “question and answer” session that might devolve into the students simply stating facts and needing to be reminded that a question starts with who, what, when, where, why, or how. As soon as things are wrapped up, the artists get back into the van where they will grab lunch on route to the next performance. The second show is repeat of the first (but maybe this time, little Luther isn’t screaming about the Wolf being outside the Pigs’ door.) 

While touring, the artists spend their down time preparing their roles for the upcoming mainstage opera, rehearsing music they’ll be singing at community events, and/or managing other aspects of their careers such as securing auditions, planning travel, or studying music for their next performances with other opera companies. Once the tour ends, the Emerging Artists move to the mainstage production and will have the opportunity to sing supporting roles, cover larger ones, work with visiting artists, and sing promotional concerts.

While many regional opera companies place the same type of demands on their artists, Nashville Opera stands out for its commitment to their Emerging Artists well-being. “We really try to make our program mindful and protective of our singers’ health, and not overwork them, while still providing our singers with great artistic opportunities for performance experiences to put on their resume.” says Hannah Marcoe, Nashville Opera’s education manager. “If any of our singers get sick, we have local covers on standby that can fill in so that our MREAs can rest appropriately. The MREA singers always tell us how much they appreciate that aspect of the program which is different from what they have experienced elsewhere.”

The emerging artists also hone their performance skills as they sing for a wide-ranging audience. A typical day could include singing for a rural elementary audience, followed by a city senior facility to a group of donors for a major fundraiser. The emerging artists learn to connect with diverse group of people while also developing their networking skills.

Nashville Opera’s Mary Ragland Emerging Artist Program has been home to many artists who have gone on to have wonderful careers. Recent MREAs include Kaylee Nichols, a participant in 2020 who recently returned to Nashville Opera as Mrs. Nolan in The Medium and was a 2023 Apprentice Artist at Santa Fe Opera, where she also made her debut as the Kitchen Girl in Rusalka; Contralto Emily Triebold (2022) who has appeared with Opera Saratoga and Pensacola Opera and was recently a member of the Glimmerglass Opera Young Artist Program where she was responsible for the roles of The Old Lady (Candide) and the Sorceress (Rinaldo). Soprano Ivy Zhou (2022) recently returned to Nashville Opera as Ming in Bryon Au Young’s Stuck Elevator, joined Opera Columbus as Tisbe in La Cenerentola, and she sings Gretel in Eugene Opera’s Hansel and Gretel in 2024; Spencer Reichman (2020) was Schaunard in Nashville Opera’s recent production of La bohème. The baritone made his Santa Fe Opera debut this past summer as the Huntsman in Rusalka as a member of their Apprentice Artist Program; and Christian Leon Patterson (MREA 2022) played the role of Colin in Atlanta Opera’s L’amant anonyme in 2023.

Between the busy schedule, the balance of being a professional artist while continuing to learn, and the opportunity to connect with a multitude of audiences in the city of Nashville and its surrounding suburbs, artists in the Mary Ragland Emerging Artist Program are special people. Hannah shares that the ideal singer “should be someone who shows up every day of the job with a positive attitude and who is willing to show initiative to take full advantage of the opportunities that lie ahead.” She continues, “Someone who arrives every day on time and who is also thoroughly prepared for the roles they have been given.” This type of artist shows Nashville Opera that the singer is ready to take the next step in their career. It’s not uncommon for Nashville to bring singers back in a mainstage role the future, a sure sign that the artist is one they want to work with again.

The Mary Ragland Emerging Artist Program is an excellent place for developing singers to gain valuable experience in performance, networking, and learning the ins and outs of time management when it comes to a professional career. But deeper than that, they serve as ambassadors for Nashville Opera. At many of their performances they are often the first encounter many people have with a live operatic experience. In many ways, MREAs not only represent Nashville Opera, but opera itself.

Eric McKeever

Eric McKeever is a New York-based opera singer whose 2022–23 season includes performances with Opera Columbus, On Site Opera, Opera Delaware, the Penn Square Music Festival, and the Casals Festival of Puerto Rico. He is also a passionate arts educator having worked as a teaching artist for the Met Opera Guild and served as the manager of education programs for Kentucky Opera. He holds a Master of Music degree in Vocal Performance from The Ohio State University and obtained his bachelor’s degree in Vocal Performance from Capital University.