Quarantine Q&A: Rice opera students sing praises for industry leaders’ advice

Like so many music programs across the country, the Rice University Shepherd School of Music Department of Opera Studies has been forced to think outside the box during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Photo credit: Shepherd School of Music

Photo credit: Shepherd School of Music

The typical preparation for a Rice opera student is based on a “personal training model,” with a regimen specifically designed to “take students to the next level,” said Michael Heaston, director of opera studies. While there is no substitute for individual contact with students, listrening to their music in person and providing them with feedback, he notes there are still some important aspects of student training that don’t involve playing music.

This is why Heaston launched his “Quarantine QonversAtions,” with a quirky spelling reflecting the Q&A structure of the sessions. In his Advanced Opera Studies course, a four-semester requirement in the opera graduate program, he trains his students on what it takes to be an opera singer — both on and off the stage. In the past opera professionals have occasionally offered guidance on building a successful career — talent and proper musical training are essential, of course, but it also takes budgeting, investing, publicity and other practical skills.

“I’ve always enjoyed bringing in people that my students can learn from,” Heaston said. “But when (the COVID-19 pandemic) happened, it struck me that there were two needs that needed to be served.

“First, there were students who needed to have a really stimulating online experience,” he said. “So much of what we do as artists is brought about by the interactions we have with the people around us. I also realized that many of my friends and colleagues were out of work due to canceled performances. Many of them wanted to give back during this difficult time and were seeking an outlet.

“So I created this series and was ecstatic to receive immediate responses from some of the finest people in the industry,” he said. “They were enthusiastic to have the opportunity to speak with our opera students.”

The occasional advice sessions turned into weekly Zoom meetings with some of the most recognizable professionals in opera today — singers such as Anthony Roth Costanzo, Ailyn Pérez and Ana María Martínez as well as artist manager Alex Fletcher and public relations specialist Beth Stewart.

“I’ve carved out a very unique career path for myself in terms of producing my own work and creating opportunities, in marketing, in press, in education and in ways to cultivate new audiences,” Costanzo said. “I talked a little bit with the students about how I believe in being the CEO of your own company, as an artist, and carving your own path instead of just fitting into the well-trodden paths of institutions and places that will hire you.

“Of course, we have to do that as artists,” he continued. “But we also have to think creatively in general. Especially now in this context, how can we be entrepreneurial in the way that we can take on reconstructing our art form? How can we see this time not only as a time of great loss, but also as a time of great opportunity to create new beginnings, new futures and even more creative ways to engage with culture?”

Cory McGee, one of Heaston’s students, found Costanzo’s advice especially inspirational.

“He talked about the entrepreneurial nature of being a young singer and how he got started, and it was very encouraging,” he said. “He also discussed interdisciplinary projects he did with visual arts, film and dance, and also talked about the new direction that opera is going, merging into pop culture. I think a big thing coming out of the quarantine is how to make (opera) more relevant, because it’s going to be kind of hard to immediately bring a lot of people back into the theater to see a live performance. His talk definitely gave us some food for thought on these aspects.”

“What I’ve found to be the most valuable from these conversations is that we’re learning how everybody’s career path (in opera) is different,” said Emily Kern, another of Heaston’s students. “No matter what level of performer we are, we’re all just trying to find creative ways to keep working, and stay connected during this time. The guest speakers have been an incredible resource, and everyone has been so open and welcoming. I know we’re all separated at this time, but these conversations have given us a sense of togetherness.”

Kern hasn’t had a specific favorite session. She’s just appreciated hearing everyone’s advice and learning about their individual paths.

“When you’re a young singer, it’s easy to think if you don’t get into one opera house right after graduate school or go in a particular direction, ‘OK, I’m done — what else can I do?'” Kern said. “But we heard from so many artists who explained that not one path is ‘correct’ and the twists and turns along each individual journey make that person, and subsequently their art, special and unique. And that was really valuable information.”

Heaston said he hoped the series stimulated a spirit of creativity in his students and brought them some solace in knowing that their daily experiences are no different from those of the opera stars they admire.

“One of my favorite aspects about opera is its ability to build community,” he said. “We are all learning different ways of doing so at the moment. The arts have the ability to bring out the best in each of us and, ideally, transform the world for the better.”

About Amy McCaig

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.