Young Opera Singers Shine at Wolf Trap

By Rauschart, Lisa | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), July 22, 2000 | Go to article overview

Young Opera Singers Shine at Wolf Trap


Rauschart, Lisa, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Summer opera theaters such as Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, N.Y., and Aspen Opera Theater in Colorado have sparked new interest in recent years in what was once seen as a cold-weather genre.

With productions spanning a range from obscure 18th-century period pieces to cutting-edge modern works, such companies provide an opportunity to hear music rarely performed during the fall season. At the same time, summer opera has become a breeding ground for young singers, a chance for the aspiring artist to work with some of the top names in the business.

But at Wolf Trap Opera Company in Vienna, summer opera has a unique twist: The young singers take on the major roles.

"It's been just an incredible experience for me," says bass-baritone Derrick Parker of Atlanta, who will be playing the philosopher Seneca in the opera company's performance of Claudio Monteverdi's "L'incoronazione di Poppea," or "The Coronation of Poppea." The production continues at the Barns of Wolf Trap tomorrow and Tuesday.

Mr. Parker, 25, is one of 16 singers, ages 24 to 31, who were chosen from 450 applicants from around the country to be in residence at Wolf Trap this summer. He's been auditioning at Wolf Trap for the past three years, while spending time with Glimmerglass Opera and the opera at Chautauqua, N.Y.

"I finally got in," he says happily. "This is really the premier program for young artists."

In addition to the role of Seneca, Mr. Parker will be singing Leporello when the Wolf Trap Opera Company mounts Mozart's "Don Giovanni" on Aug. 17 and 19.

"We're kind of entry-level position for young artists," company director Kim Pensinger Witman says. "But even though we're entry level, the singers have responsibilities for all the roles."

This was not always so. When Wolf Trap began a summer opera program in 1971, young singers sang in support of established artists such as Beverly Sills and Roberta Peters. Few got more than a chance to carry a spear, much less sing an aria.

"It was more like an apprenticeship program," explains Mrs. Witman, who became director three years ago after many years with the company as a coach. "The singers understudied the main parts, or sang small roles."

What became clear was that the majority of the young participants had already had that kind of experience. In response, the Wolf Trap Opera Company gradually narrowed its concentration and winnowed the number of singers admitted to the program.

Now, the company enables young singers to get that first important exposure as headline artists. Singers are limited to a two-year stay with the company. Many stay just one season.

Such concentration on young voices does not come without some cost, however. You are unlikely to hear the familiar 19th-century war horses here. Young singers simply don't have the vocal equipment to sustain a three-hour work by composers such as Giuseppe Verdi or Giacomo Puccini. At times, youthful enthusiasm also can get the better of performers. …

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