The Rise of American Arias

When opera lovers dream of summer festivals, their minds turn naturally to Old World spots like Verona, Salzburg, Bayreuth, Glyndebourne or St. Petersburg. Yet summer opera abounds in the New World as well. No matter which of America's top tourist spots you visit, high-quality opera is probably nearby. In Cooperstown, New York, opera lovers at Glimmerglass mingle with baseball fans at the Hall of Fame. Purple-streaked Southwestern sunsets serve as the backdrop for the Santa Fe Opera's covered outdoor theater. In Colorado, the Central City Opera performs in the restored opera house of an abandoned mining town. At the Wolf Trap Opera's outdoor venue, just outside the nation's capital in Washington, D.C., patrons bring picnics. Dozens of other cities, from St. Louis to San Francisco, offer similar fare.

Culture snobs, take note: just as California Cabernet now competes head to head with Bordeaux, so the United States is challenging Europe as the world's leading location for training and hearing opera singers--particularly younger ones. Americans are recognized worldwide for being as accomplished and experienced as their European counterparts, and they regularly perform not just at U.S. opera houses but in European venues as well.

Consider Sarah Coburn, a svelte 28-year-old with an Oklahoma twang and a silvery soprano voice. Her father is U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn; her mother is a former Miss Oklahoma. Her childhood vocalizing was limited to family sing-alongs, church choir and high-school musicals. Training? "My minister gave me a few lessons," she recalls. She didn't see a live opera or consider singing professionally until she was studying to be a music teacher at Oklahoma State University. Rejected by top training programs like those at Yale and the Manhattan School of Music, she ended up at Oklahoma City University. Soon after she graduated, however, she won apprenticeships to the Seattle Opera and Glimmerglass's Young American Artists program, which led to the big time. Last year Glimmerglass entrusted her with the title role in Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor," famous for its fiendishly difficult coloratura singing. She triumphed, and is now scheduled to star next season at New York's Metropolitan Opera, alongside Plácido Domingo, in the world premiere of Tan Dun's new opera, "The First Emperor."

Lawrence Brownlee, a 28-year-old African-American tenor from Youngstown, Ohio, rode a similar path to fame. When he was a high-school senior, a teacher heard him "kidding around" with an opera aria and advised him to study seriously. "I thought it couldn't be serious," Brownlee recalls. "But when I saw my first live opera, I was hooked." A professor at his small Christian college taught him basic technique; prestigious fellowships at Indiana University and Wolf Trap honed his skills. Today, just four years after his professional debut, Brownlee has triumphed everywhere--even in the shrine of Italian opera, Milan's La Scala.

Multiply these stories by a thousand, and the result is a florescence of opera in America. Of the more than 120 American opera companies, two thirds were founded after 1960. Even a post-9/11 slump in U.S. arts funding can't stop their proliferation. Three years ago two married thirty something singers in Princeton, New Jersey, Scott and Lisa Altman, floated $50,000 on their credit cards to found a new company. Today the New Jersey Opera Theater trains young singers, offers dozens of performances and educates thousands of schoolchildren annually.

How did opera, developed in the courts and capitals of Europe, become an all-American art? Marc Scorca, the president of Opera America, credits the country's "grass-roots" system. In contrast to Europe and Russia, where opera has long been a centralized, state-run activity, the U.S. opera establishment is a decentralized patchwork of universities, conservatories, apprentice programs and competitions, funded by thousands of different private, foundation and public donors. Add it all up, however, and it functions as what Scorca terms a "carefully calibrated system that helps young singers cross the chasm from conservatory to career."

For many singers the process starts at a university or conservatory, where teachers can spot those who might have what it takes to become the next Pavarotti--even among singers who have never seen an opera or been to Europe. Hundreds of singing competitions provide performance experience, feedback and--for the successful--financial support. Even more critical are the dozens of programs, many connected with summer festivals, for "emerging artists" in their 20s. At some festivals--such as Wolf Trap and San Franciso's Merola—pre professionals take most of the lead roles. At other programs, such as Santa Fe, Central City and Glimmerglass, young "apprentice" singers fill the chorus, play bit parts, perform for schoolchildren and serve as understudies for established stars; they thus help opera festivals balance their budgets amid meager public funding while receiving valuable coaching in acting, foreign languages and voice. No wonder these programs are as exclusive as Ivy League colleges, with hundreds of aspirants vying for a few dozen slots.

America's oldest apprentice program, in Santa Fe, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year--a span so long that its current director, Don Holloway, himself an alumnus, demonstrates its success. Before he became an apprentice in 1967, his only operatic experience had been voice lessons at Kansas State University. "I thought Santa Fe was the world's leading opera house," he says, recalling his naiveté. He went on to sing at major houses throughout the world, and now teaches the next generation.

This system of performance and training seems to work well because, like so much in America, it is open to both private funding and individual initiative. New ideas bubble up from myriad sources. Glimmerglass Opera's new Apprentice Angel program, for example, arranges for donors to sponsor individual singers. (Some get so involved with their protégés that they tour with them across the country.) "The idea came from one private donor who wanted to sponsor a singer," says Glimmerglass general director Michael MacLeod. "We just ran with it."

So music lovers heading out to the summer festivals will not only get a chance to hear an accessible repertoire in a relaxed setting; they'll enjoy arias performed by the biggest homegrown stars of tomorrow. It doesn't hurt that singers like Coburn and Brownlee are young enough to resemble the romantic characters they play. "People fear opera because they associate it with furs and Brünnhildes," says Coburn. "But it doesn't have to be that way. Opera is for everybody." What could be more American than that?