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The Operative Factor: How Oberlin Prepares Singers For Success (Continued)

Perfect Balance

Mezzo Marie Lenormand

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!”

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.”

Soprano Lisa Saffer as Lulu

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 have used 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 BA 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

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 theater,” 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 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 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 heading to 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 AD ’04—and incoming student James Shrader ’08 will meet as apprentices this summer in St. Louis.

Stephen Lord, the 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 heads to 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.”

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

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