The Opera-tive Factor : How Oberlin Prepares Singers for Success

Soprano Alyson Cambridge, Oberlin Class of ’02, was one of just four winners of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in April 2003. This prestigious competition has long been a place to spot major new operatic talent, and Cambridge—who at 23 was the youngest winner of the season—was invited to join the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program.

Cambridge is just the most recent example of Oberlin Conservatory voice graduates who’ve embarked on high-profile careers. Carolyn Betty, ’99, won the Met audition in 2002. Tenor David Miller, ’95, and baritone Daniel Okulitch, ’99, sang leading roles in Baz Luhrmann’s production of La Bohème, on Broadway. Mezzo Marie Lenormand, ’99, was featured in the world premiere of The Little Prince at the Houston Grand Opera.

Other Oberlinians are joining the pantheon of more established divas and divos. Tenor Franco Farina—class of ’78, with an honorary degree in 2001—sings Verdi and Puccini in the world’s major opera houses. Soprano Lisa Saffer, ’82, is at the forefront of contemporary and Baroque repertoire. Mezzo Denyce Graves, ’85 (and an honorary degree in ’98), reigns as Carmen and Dalilah. Derek Lee Ragin, ’80, broke ground as a countertenor in European opera houses years before the Handel revival in Europe and the United States sparked the current popularity of the voice type.

Because singers often mature later than instrumentalists, graduate schools and apprentice programs, rather than undergraduate institutions, usually take credit for producing artists. But Oberlin singers who’ve gone on to operatic careers cite the Conservatory’s teaching style and environment as vital in setting them on their course and equipping them for the challenging life of a professional opera singer.

Oberlin’s quiet location and the presence of the College of Arts and Sciences, along with the Conservatory’s primary focus on undergraduate training, makes the school appealing to many singers.

Tenor Colenton Freeman, ’78, for example, chose Oberlin over Juilliard.

“I had a sponsor who was willing to pay for everything if I went to Juilliard,” he says. “But something told me I was not ready to live in New York. I went to Oberlin and fell in love with it.” Freeman, who has been based in Germany since the mid-1980s, says Oberlin gave him “the best musical education I could have possibly gotten.”

Denyce Graves recalls, “The Conservatory was a real haven, full of people passionate about music-making—people just like me. Oberlin is a special place; it’s so removed that it allows you to concentrate on the work you are doing. And it’s a treasure trove: the richness of the College, the lectures, the Artist Recital Series.”

With relatively few graduate students competing with them for roles, Oberlin singers get considerable performing experience. Cambridge says that opportunity is a huge advantage.

“Even though I’m the youngest person in the Met’s Young Artist Program, I already have stage experience,” she says. During her Oberlin years, Cambridge tackled such leading roles as Dido in Dido and Aeneas, Donna Anna in Don Giovanni, and Rosalinda in Die Fledermaus.

Franco Farina says performing as an undergraduate made him more comfortable using his voice as an instrument.

“I would often sing every week—master classes and other studio events,” says Farina. “It got me used to singing all the time. You learn so much when you are in the actual act of performing. That feeling, that kind of energy, only takes place while you are performing. The more you do that, the more you learn to adjust your body and your thinking when you are faced with the next experience.”

Baritone Mel Ulrich came to Oberlin in 1991 as an Artist Diploma student, and now has a busy career in the United States and Europe. He found that the performance experience increased his confidence.

“All the performing, day after day—opera, recital, ensemble groups—really helps you move to next level,” he says.

David Miller had planned a career in musical theatre on Broadway, but singing in the chorus of La Bohème during his sophomore year changed his mind.

“I decided that one day, I wanted to be Rodolfo,” he says. “I told Richard Miller, my teacher, who laughed me out of the studio. But I kept at it. At the end of that year, when I took ‘Che gelida manina’ to him, he said, ‘OK, you’ve been whining about it all year, go ahead.’ After I sang it, he said, ‘It’s your calling.’”

Push, but not Beyond Capabilities

Oberlin undergraduates perform opera roles under conditions that promote their artistic growth without straining or damaging their young—and still-developing—voices. Jonathon Field, Associate Professor of Opera Theater and director of the opera program for the past six years, points out that students work with excellent conductors. In addition, while the operas have their full orchestral complement, the modest size of Hall Auditorium keeps singers from pushing themselves unnecessarily.

Until recently, operas at Oberlin were performed in English, but Field says presenting them in their original languages is better preparation for the professional world. Field mentions another of his real-world preparation policies.

“Each semester, before we begin staging our opera scenes program, there’s a memorized sing-through. If a student comes in with a scene not memorized, his or her grade goes down an entire letter.”

Stage experience is only a part of the rigorous training that Oberlin singers receive. Professor of Singing Gerald Crawford, who has headed the Division of Vocal Studies since 1991, attributes students’ success to a combination of very high expectations from the faculty, comprehensive training, and an excellent applicant pool.

“In auditions, we are listening for promise of the instrument, and what it will grow into,” Crawford says. “We ask: ‘What can we do with this voice in four or five years?’”

The size of the program is also a factor.

“We have about 100 voice majors at Oberlin,” says Professor of Singing Richard Miller, who has been at the Conservatory since 1964 and received an Excellence-in-Teaching award in 2002 from the New York Singing Teachers Association. “We are not interested in becoming a graduate mill; we can take only about 25 students into each class.”

That small size helps the division keep tabs on every student. For example, the entire voice faculty listens to every student and monitors his or her progress during the first four semesters.

“If there are problems, we can begin to point them out,” Crawford says. “Individual teachers do not have to stand alone, because they have the weight of the entire department behind their evaluations.”

Professor of Singing Daune Mahy, who has taught Oberlin singers (including Alyson Cambridge) for 22 years, says, “We’re careful about the material we give them, choosing repertoire that’s appropriate for their age and voice type. We try to prepare every singer for a professional career. That means establishing students’ techniques and holding them to a high standard in everything—diction, musical standards, phrasing, and articulation. Some students go on to graduate school—and complain that it’s easier than Oberlin.”

Jonathon Field concurs.

“Oberlin believes in the complete musician,” he says. “We’re training capable musicians, not just pretty faces with a voice.”

That training starts with the technical vocal foundation, established in the voice teacher’s studio and built through hours of work in the practice room.

Marie Lenormand says that she found Richard Miller’s physiological approach to singing extremely useful. “You discover how the muscles work so you can use them as efficiently as possible,” she says. “It’s a very systematic approach.”

Franco Farina says Miller’s system continues to serve him well.

“Richard Miller taught me how to think,” Farina says. “That’s very helpful, because when you start running into coaches and conductors, you find that everybody has an idea. When a conductor asks you for something, you know what physical adjustments are necessary. Singing is very personalized. You have to be subjective and individualistic, but objective as to the application of technique.”

For bass Oren Gradus, ’97, a personal connection with his teacher, Associate Professor of Singing Lorraine Manz, was a valuable part of his Oberlin experience.

“You develop a special relationship with your teacher, and in a college setting—where you’re a young adult, just out of high school—your teacher is someone you can turn to,” he says. “I discussed many things besides music with her, and she was interested in my life.”

Oberlin voice students do not spend all their time building vocal technique, however. The rigorous program requires them to take four semesters of theory and ear training, three semesters of music history, four semesters of piano, one semester each of Italian, French, and German, and diction classes in each of those languages plus English. They must also complete eight semesters of ensemble and 24 hours of liberal arts courses.

The standards are high, but they pay off. Denyce Graves, for one, found the rigor essential.

“I never knew that I didn’t know how to study until I went to Oberlin,” she says. “I learned the skill of studying, the discipline, as well as the level of commitment that was required, from that heavy course load.”

Perfect Balance

Marie Lenormand, who comes from a small village in France, began singing relatively late, at the age of 18. She completed her university work in Spanish literature, earning a master’s degree in Spanish, and was considering starting her doctoral degree when her voice teacher suggested that she try singing seriously. The undergraduate program at Oberlin proved to be the right place.

“I had no training in sight-reading or theory,” she says. “At Oberlin, I was glad to find that there were many people like me—there was a class just for us!”

Soprano Cambridge still has strong feelings about her sequence of music theory courses. “I hated it!” she declares. Nonetheless, she admits it was valuable. “During my first two weeks at the Met, when the coaches were meeting me for first time, they’d give me a new piece and I’d have all the notes, and good diction, even without coaching. James Levine’s assistant said, ‘Alyson, you’re an incredible musician. Where did you do undergraduate work?’ When I told him Oberlin, he said, ‘Oberlin students are so well prepared.’”

Oberlin voice students are also required to take foreign language classes in the College. These courses meet five days a week and prepare students to understand and use the language. For Colenton Freeman, classes in French, German, and Italian sparked a lifelong interest in languages.

“I can’t imagine a voice major not having an emphasis on foreign languages,” he says. “You need to able to sing it, but also to speak it.”
Lenore Rosenberg, ’74, who runs the Young Artist Development Program at the Met, says, “Oberlin gives very good training in musical skills. As a result, graduates know how to teach themselves a role and show up with it learned. Oberlin also does the languages better than most.”

Oberlin also exposes its singers to a wide range of repertoire. Lisa Saffer, who recently sang her dream role, Lulu, at the English National Opera, says that her career focus on contemporary and Baroque music can be traced to her teacher, Helen Hodam, who taught at Oberlin from 1963 to 1984.

“She started everyone singing Handel,” Saffer says. “That’s how I learned to sing. She also felt it was important to do the music of your time, and she found a willing pupil in me.”

Oberlin students also hear a great deal of music. “Miss Hodam was strict about us going to the recitals of everyone in our studio, and others’ studios, too. Listening is one of the most important things you can do to learn about repertoire,” Saffer says.

Oberlin’s more recent vocal graduates use technology to analyze their own singing, as well as that of great artists of the past, at the Otto B. Schoepfle Vocal Arts Center, directed by Richard Miller. Developed as a result of Miller’s interest in interpreting traditional vocal pedagogy, the center lets students see different aspects of singing—such as vowels, resonance, and balance—as graphic representations.

“Many of these techniques were developed for speech, and we have adapted them for singing,” Miller says. “It’s an adjunct—we don’t teach voice this way—but the technology can show students how to stay away from destructive techniques.”

David Miller worked in the lab for four years and used it whenever possible. “Having access to that technology propelled me five or 10 years in my technique,” he says. “It was like getting vocal biofeedback.”

Having It All and Enjoying It

Several singers also took full advantage of the College, graduating from Oberlin with double degrees, while others simply reveled in the multitude of disciplines and the generous resources of the institution.

Alyson Cambridge chose Oberlin because it was the only school of the 13 to which she applied that encouraged her to pursue degrees in both sociology and music.

In addition to his Conservatory degree, Oren Gradus has a bachelor’s in English. “It was arduous, and it took five years, but it did pay off,” he says. “I can discuss things other than music.”

Even those who didn’t tackle a double degree say they found the College an important advantage.

“I wanted a more rounded education, as opposed to a conservatory education,” says baritone Chris Robertson, ’86. “At Oberlin, I met people who were involved in things other than music. It was a much more diverse experience.

Tenor Colenton Freeman adds, “Oberlin’s environment gives you a better perspective of what life is like. At music schools focused solely on performance, students can lose touch with reality.”

Winter-term projects provided important opportunities for these singers. Lisa Saffer spent those January breaks on campus, working on “whatever Miss Hodam thought I needed.” Gradus stayed in town too, “doing opera-related things,” he says. “It was a time when I didn’t have to run to all my classes, and I could just concentrate on singing. I took intensive French one year, opera appreciation another. One year, I did Street Scene.”

One of the most invaluable resources of the Oberlin Conservatory is its library.

“I spent so much time there, listening to the great singers of the past. There is such a wealth of recordings there,” says Chris Robertson. “I left Oberlin knowing a great deal of repertoire, and so much about singing traditions.”

The openness of the Conservatory environment made the difference for Dina Kuznetsova, ’94. Trained as a pianist, she came to Oberlin to try different musical endeavors, especially singing, which would have been impossible in her native Russia, where musicians specialize at a very young age.

With the blessing of her teacher, Professor of Piano Lydia Frumkin, Kuznetsova explored her options.

“I spent most of my days doing vocal accompanying and playing for musical theatre,” she says. When she was accepted into the secondary voice program, she became a voice major and spent her last 18 months at Oberlin as a student of Professor of Singing Marlene Ralis Rosen.

“Marlene is very technical and particular,” Kuznetsova recalls. “She’s very focused on precision, diction, and vowels. She certainly helped me build a technique.” After graduate school and several years in the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Young Artist Program, this former pianist has a burgeoning career that includes Musetta with the San Francisco Opera, Gilda in Toronto and Janácek’s The Cunning Little Vixen in Chicago, as well as Handel and Bel Canto repertoire.

Moving Up the Professional Ladder

It’s clear that Oberlin’s vocal graduates are bound for the professional world. After graduation, some go on to graduate school to hone their skills further. Others enter the profession immediately, often by way of the increasing number of company apprentice programs.

Both Oren Gradus and Marie Lenormand were accepted upon graduation into the prestigious Houston Grand Opera Studio. David Miller joined the Pittsburgh apprentice program immediately after Oberlin as well.

Opera Theatre of St. Louis (OTSL), whose May-through-June season has a major apprentice program for young singers, held its Cleveland-area auditions at Oberlin in December 2003. Two current students—Ferris Allen, ’04, and Arthur Espiritu, associate degree ’04—and incoming student James Shrader, ’08, will meet as apprentices this summer in St. Louis.

Stephen Lord, OTSL music director, is an Oberlin alumnus (Class of 1971), but it is not sentiment that brings him back to Oberlin. Rather it is the talent pool, the preparation, and perhaps most important, the absence of bad vocal habits among Oberlin students.

“We took four Oberlin students last year,” he says. “Students from many other schools are already so riddled with bad attitudes—they don’t want to be in an ensemble, for instance.” The College’s liberal arts environment also gives Oberlin singers an edge, Lord says. “Do they know what an adverb is? How will they interpret text? At Oberlin they have a fighting chance of studying those things.”

As an OTSL apprentice last summer, Alyson Cambridge understudied the title role in Thaïs. She learned the part on her own and got very little rehearsal. “Oberlin really taught me to be a self-sufficient singer and musician. I came close to going on—the soprano had allergy problems—and I was ready.” She is returning to OTSL for the next two seasons in main stage roles.

If Cambridge follows the example of her predecessors, leading roles will soon be on the horizon. After a stint at the Washington National Opera doing Manon Lescaut, with Placido Domingo conducting, Franco Farina is bound for Los Angeles for Il Trovatore, then back to the Met for Aida next season. Chris Robertson made his debut at La Scala last season and returns there this year. Next year in Detroit, Denyce Graves will premiere an opera being written for her by Richard Danielpour and Toni Morrison.

David Miller will be singing the Duke in a new Zeffirelli production of Rigoletto in Parma. Marie Lenormand is looking forward to The Coronation of Poppea at the Cleveland Opera and Andromède in Persée with Opera Atelier in Montreal. Oren Gradus is in his second season at the Met and made his European debut in Marseille with “Figaro.”

Colenton Freeman calls Oberlin “a bit of Utopia.” That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but the Conservatory certainly is an ideal place for singers to learn and grow.

“At 18, we can’t tell what the outcome will be,” says Richard Miller. “We want to give those voices the chance to find their own freedom of sound. We avoid pushing talented young people too far, too fast. On the other hand, we give them a chance.”

For a more comprehensive listing of graduates of Oberlin’s Division of Vocal Studies, please visit

Reprinted with permission from Oberlin Conservatory magazine.
© 2004 Oberlin Conservatory of Music.

Heidi Waleson

Heidi Waleson, a New York-based writer and music critic, is the opera critic for the Wal Street Journal.