Little Patuxent Opera institute molds next generation of performers

For Howard Magazine
A small summer program at Howard Community College is readying the next generation of opera singers.

Sarah Hayashi had long loved Baroque music — the era of Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frederic Handel and Henry Purcell.

She sang with the Peabody Children’s Chorus, took voice lessons at Peabody Preparatory and was studying at the Peabody Institute. But it wasn’t until she enrolled in a summer opera training program at Howard Community College six years ago that she recognized her potential in the genre.

“I didn’t realize how much the repertoire and style fit my voice until I sang Belinda in [Purcell’s] ‘Dido and Aeneas,’ ” says the 24-year-old, who grew up in Ellicott City.

That experience in the intensive niche program, called Little Patuxent Opera Institute, helped lay the foundation for this “baby soprano” to complete bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Peabody, then study and perform in England, where she is completing a master’s in performance at the Royal College of Music before studying at the Wales International Academy of Voice. For vocalists like Hayashi, Little Patuxent Opera Institute offers an initial opportunity to stretch their skills beyond what they do in school and voice classes.

Entering its seventh season this month, the Opera Institute will mold at least 15 more aspiring opera singers — high school and college students handpicked through an audition process — in a three-and-a-half-week program complete with movement and acting training, voice lessons, master classes and final performances.

By performance time “I see growth and maturity; they have a certain element of confidence,” says retired Peabody teacher Ruth Drucker, who teaches a master class for the Little Patuxent Opera Institute. “They move better on the stage.”

Former students and teachers say the Opera Institute’s small size and nurturing environment helps aspiring artists grow. They say the daily one-on-one and noncompetitive atmosphere were just what they needed.

“We give students a chance to do a role,” said voice teacher James Bailey, program manager for the Music Institute. “Audition techniques, how to build a resume, the performances, clothes, make-up, getting up in front of people.”

Instructors say the program was designed initially as a stepping-stone, so that college students could prepare to go from an academic environment to auditioning for further training or performance opportunities. High school students were also seeking opportunities.

All hail from the Baltimore-Washington area, which the Opera Institute mines for participants. Other summer opera programs for students exist locally, but this one has key benefits: Students can live at home, keep costs down and continue lessons while getting fresh perspectives from new teachers — some of whom also work for or sing with area opera companies — and connecting with peers enthused about opera.

For Hayashi, it was the first time she brought “a character to life,” which she called “exhilarating.”

That aspect of a performance is key for modern singers. Greater accessibility to opera — big-screen showings, performances on high-definition television and YouTube — are helping woo new audiences, says Little Patuxent Opera Institute artistic director and voice teacher Lorriana Markovic.

Because the old “park and bark” performance style doesn’t cut it anymore, performers are expected to interpret roles down to facial expressions and small gestures. That means teaching students to perform not only for the back row of the house but for the cameras with “movement that is naturalistic,” she says. “If it’s slow or beautiful, you don’t move like you’re under water.”

Despite opera’s small fan base — in comparison to genres like pop and rap — students in the program are drawn to it because of its drama, enduring melodies and rich voices. They often also perform other types of classical music, modern opera and more popular American musicals.

Drucker doesn’t teach opera. “I really work on the interpretation and communication of words,” she says.

For her, each student prepares one foreign-language song to perform with a piano accompaniment. “You have to bring it to life without all the trappings,” she said. “If the language is really bad, we work on that. If they haven’t shown their feelings, we work on that.”

HCC teacher Deborah Kent focuses breathing technique, posture and carriage.

“One of the things I work on is how to get more resonance, how to be louder without hurting their voice,” she said. “It’s part of my job to protect these voices.”

Many times, instructors tailor their lessons to suit an individual student’s strengths and weaknesses. The same holds for selecting works for student performances. This summer, students will perform an abridged version of Wolfgang Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte” and additional scenes.

And “when they choose scenes, they will choose what is right for the voice,” Drucker says.

Student performances have featured art songs, arias and scenes from foreign-language classics that include “Carmen,” plus more modern fare of short operas, musical theater and the operetta “Candide.”

“The ability to put together a performance and experience that process is very similar to any sort of professional expectation,” says Carl Hengen, 25, of Baltimore, a graduate of the University of Maryland College Park’s music program and Community College of Baltimore County who is now studying for a master’s degree at Michigan State University and performing. “That’s something you just don’t get to experience in a classroom.”

His sister, Patricia, 23, a graduate of the Shenandoah Conservatory, landed a spot in the ensemble in the BSO’s “Hairspray” this month and has performed elsewhere locally.

She attended the Opera Institute twice and recalls some valuable advice: a master class teacher told her, “Don’t be afraid to open your mouth.”

When she did and sang, “You feel yourself fill the space,” she says.

Stage director Braxton Peters, who teaches at the Community College of Baltimore County, says the preparation required of students before and during the program — students receive their assigned material weeks before it starts — can help them in the future.

It certainly has for Sarah Hayashi. In the past year, she’s won one competition and was a finalist in another. She doubts it would have happened “without the experience I had at LPOI.”


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If you go

Little Patuxent Opera Institute performances
July 15 and 16 at 7:30 p.m.
July 17 at 3 p.m.
Smith Theatre at the Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center at Howard Community College
10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia
$22 general admission;$18 for seniors, military and HCC employees; $10 for students

Master classes
Little Patuxent Opera Institute master classes are open the public to watch at no charge. This summer, two master classes will be held in the Horowitz Center’s Monteabaro Recital Hall:

Master class with Ruth Drucker, retired Peabody teacher
June 30, 1 p.m.-4 p.m.

Master class with Ah Hong, Peabody teacher and soprano performer
July 7, 1 p.m.-4 p.m.