The future of opera is here: as part of the Aspen Music Festival and School’s VocalARTS program


Almost two years after its first announcement, the revamped Aspen Music Festival opera program is live with legendary soprano Renée Fleming and conductor Patrick Summers at the helm and 15 of the world’s most promising opera students in his first class of scholarship holders.

In progress since the end of June, the young singers of the program are turning to the public this weekend with the performance on Saturday evening of an abstract of “The Magic Flute” at the Benedict musical tent.

Some of these fellows have completed as many as three postgraduate training programs and all have risen to the top of an extremely competitive field as young singers. The co-directors quietly feared that some might have “study fatigue” at this stage of their training, as they are about to launch a professional career. But Fleming and Summers were delighted to find that the curiosity and teaching ability of this diverse international group of students matched their talent.

“They were really open-minded and ready to grow and learn more skills,” Fleming said this week on a rainy afternoon, taking refuge in the empty Benedict musical tent.

Fleming herself is one of Aspen’s most famous alumni, beginning her career here with performances in “Transformations” and “The Marriage of Figaro” in 1982 and 1983. Aspen led to Juilliard and a monumental career. on the world’s greatest opera stages, pop crossovers, a Super Bowl concert, a Grammy, a National Medal of Arts and the nickname “People’s Diva”.

Spending an entire summer in Aspen for the first time in those early days responds to a ‘escape fantasy’ she often turned to when her career got stressful, and allows her to focus on giving back to the next generation. interpreters. Devoting himself to teaching had been rewarding, Fleming said.

“I have been teaching master classes for many, many years, but this is a different animal,” she said. “I’m really having a blast.”

Fleming has made an effort to get up very early to hike every day – hitting the Ute Trail and other favorites – but she, Summers, and the student days are filled with music and training.

In the morning there is coaching and individual singing lessons, in the afternoon there are opera rehearsals for “The Magic Flute”. Students also prepared for the program’s opera stage masterclasses (taking place on Saturday mornings at the Wheeler, these are must-see events for festival devotees and a gem of the annual program that is often on site. ‘casual fan gap’ radar). Students will also perform an abbreviated interpretation of Handel’s “Rodelinda” during the festival’s closing weekend on August 21.

“It’s a lot of music,” Summers noted of the creative challenges given to VocalARTS students. “We threw a lot of paint on the canvas this summer. These singers work extremely hard.

Fleming and Summers, Music Director of the Houston Grand Opera, have been chosen to lead the VocalARTS program to prepare young musicians for the intense and rapidly changing world of opera. The mastery of music and theater is a matter of course for musicians who have reached the level of these students. With elements of art like language, style and scenic movement, VocalARTS aims to prepare them for the age of social media as public figures and for the unique challenges of the classical music world of the 21st century.

“When we started (as students) there was no website,” Summers said with a laugh. “Now singers have to do it early in their careers on their own – to build a profile and understand who they are and what they have to say.”

New elements of the opera program, in addition to the high-level artistic training the school has provided since Fleming’s time as a student of Edward Berkeley, are plenary sessions aimed at off-stage skills. . Fleming and Summers and guest speakers who are experts in their fields discuss topics ranging from Baroque ornamentation and musical literature to sessions on racial equity and discrimination. The program includes things like managing your taxes, website development, and hearing practices.

“It’s complicated and it’s a heavy burden on the skill set that this life requires,” Fleming said.

Once a week, the group also got together to compose a poem collectively, putting an idea into verse. The practice of poetry aims to create community among students and to help them become, in Summers’ words, “a complete artist.”

Announced in the summer of 2019, the Aspen Opera Theater and VocalARTS program was scheduled to launch in 2020, when the in-person season was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Fleming and Summers hosted virtual programs and a live masterclass that were among the highlights of the virtual pandemic season.

The 2021 version of VocalARTS is still scaled down due to ongoing COVID-19 protocols. The class is limited to the 15 students named Renee Fleming Artists, although full classes in the coming summers are expected to admit around 50 additional opera students (overall this summer the music school student numbers have been reduced to 270 against 600 typical).

Summers said he relished the individual attention this boutique size class brought. But he and Fleming are eager to be in the future with larger classes and the opportunity to produce full operas with sets, launch new educational initiatives and include elements of the program, like vocal jazz, which have been reduced for this season.

The smaller 2021 render allowed directors to plan thoughtfully how they will develop in the years to come.

“We reflect a lot with each other every day about what we want to improve and keep and do more for next year,” Summers said. “We are learning this first year.

Making a 90 minute “Magic Flute” with no set, without the snake and animals, and all the grandeur of a large-scale production, perhaps allowed the students to focus on the music itself and perhaps to focus on the music itself. focus more on learning Mozart’s vocal style. , a world in itself. They cut the dialogue (Fleming will provide narration to advance the plot) and forgo elaborate sets and staging in the name of public health precautions. So the actors focus on their characters and content, and the audience will focus on the performers – well deserved as most have gone 15 months of the pandemic without facing the audience at all.

“This allows one to focus on the artists themselves,” Summers said, “on music and their relationship to words and music and Mozart.”

When Fleming was a student here, she also embraced the mountain lifestyle and time spent in the woods.

“When I was here, I cycled to Maroon Bells every day,” she said. “I was a fanatic biker.”

She and Summers are hoping that VocalARTS students could embrace the mountains and its inspirations as well. It can inspire creative daring, they reasoned, as well as a fuller understanding of centuries of nature-inspired music.

“When young musicians discover their art, it’s a journey in itself,” Summers said. “When you find that in a place that is so naturally beautiful, there is a connection to nature that you are creating forever.”

Fleming is also on stage this weekend, performing Maria Schneider’s “Winter Morning Walks” on Friday with the Aspen Chamber Symphony. She’s been a guest soloist here for decades, of course, but performing in a summer of teaching is a new experience.

“I think teaching will influence performance for me,” Fleming said. “You’re reconnected with the fundamentals and principles of singing in a way that it’s easy to walk away from when you’ve been there years and years. So I think it’s going to be great – I mean, these young singers will be there (in the audience). I’m going to be very nervous, I think, because I have to do what I preach.

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