Lyric Opera's Ryan Opera Center giving young artists professional training that goes well beyond the stage

By Laura Kinter

It's no secret that it takes more than a lovely voice to succeed in the opera world. Several major opera companies across the country have artistic development programs that coach young singers in the business and professional sides of operatic performance, providing fellows with the practical instruction required to succeed in such a competitive environment. 

One such program in our own backyard is The Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center of Lyric Opera of Chicago, and it offers unparalleled educational and development opportunities to young artists, equipping them for a thriving and long-lasting career in the field.

The program is considered one of the most prestigious vocal training apprenticeships in the world and has dispatched a roster of distinguished alumni like Quinn Kelsey, Amanda Majeski, Susanna Phillips and countless other acclaimed vocalists. Founded in 1974, the Ryan Opera Center is the oldest artistic development program affiliated with a major company like Lyric Opera. With a world-renowned team of opera singers, directors, conductors, and orchestral musicians to help fashion the fellowship experience, the Ryan Opera Center has risen to the top tier of programs of its ilk.

In addition to hearing singers from operatic summer programs in San Francisco (Merola Opera Program) and Santa Fe (Santa Fe Opera apprentice program), the Ryan Opera Center holds auditions in New York City and Chicago. From that pool, 20 talented artists are invited to audition with one short month to prepare their final audition piece. Of that 20, three to four artists are welcomed as new members into the Ryan Opera Center's program.

Ensemble members are ushered into an intensive training program from May to August, attending a wide range of classes for vocal coaching, acting, language and diction. Lyric Opera’s mainstage season begins in September, during which artists have the unique opportunity to perform and understudy roles in mainstage productions. Artists may re-audition to remain in the program, and most continue for two years before moving on to independent careers.

Ensemble members receive artistic instruction from performers at the “highest international levels,” says music director Craig Terry. “Being around those kinds of artists that are still performing at the top of their game, and to be advised by them, makes our program beneficial in a very practical way.”

Chief among those artist/advisors is celebrated, world-renowned soprano Renée Fleming, who stunned a national audience with beautiful operatic performance of The National Anthem during this year’s Superbowl—a first for any operatic performer. Fleming works with the artists as part of her role as Ryan Opera Center Advisor. “Renée brings her incredible experience as an iconic member of our profession to really try and nurture young talent,” says Terry. “She coaches all of our young artists in singing technique, and artistry. She is also wonderful about advising them on career choices. She’s happy to help as much as she can, and she mentors them on the business side of being a professional opera singer.”

Having mentors like Renée Fleming, in addition to other experienced Lyric principal singers, creates a truly nurturing environment for young artists. “We informally call it the ‘buddy system,’” explains Dan Novak, director of the program. “A lot of seasoned, experienced professionals are so gracious, and mentor (their junior colleagues). They’ll offer real world advice such as, ‘Here’s what it’s like when you have to work in Europe and deal with taxes.’”

Aside from the high caliber of artistic instruction, singers gain practical business and professional knowledge of the industry from the program’s veteran administrative team. The program is often compared with a conservatory experience, but Novak insists it offers opportunities far and beyond that of a conservatory. “The Ryan Opera Center is not a school or a conservatory. It is the next step in artistic development after a conservatory. I refrain from calling (Ryan ensemble members) students, because they’re really young professionals. It’s an experience that you can’t get anywhere else besides an international company. It’s a real eye opener when they get here, for them to see how things work.”

Novak and Terry both maintain relationships with the performers, encouraging independent artistic vision and confidence. “My relationship with them is primarily to help them grow artistically and musically through the various assignments they have during the season,” says Terry. “There are operatic engagements in the house and recitals…we program nine recitals a year. I help them become more competent and accomplished. It’s the most exciting part of my job.” Novak adds, “We want them to stand on their own artistic feet and say ‘this is what I have to say,’…We want them to keep doing what they’re doing—on their own. Our goal as administrators of the program is to inspire the confidence to say what they want to say artistically.”

Exposing the performers to the pragmatic, business side of opera singing truly sets the Ryan Opera Center apart from other artistic development programs of its kind. J’nai Bridges, a mezzo-soprano currently in the program, notes just how the Ryan Opera Center has helped her overcome the more practical challenges within the industry. “There are many different dimensions of this art form and singing is only a part of it. You have to be capable of promoting yourself and handling all situations in a respectful and classy manner. Seeing many sides of this field has given me more confidence in my gift of singing, speaking, and appreciating the opportunities. It's not always easy, but the end result is so satisfying.”

Bridges earned her Bachelor of Music at the Manhattan School of Music, and subsequently her Master of Music degree at the Curtis Institute of Music before joining the Ryan Opera Center in 2013. She has small roles this season in Lyric productions of  Parsifal, La traviata and Rusalka. “I heard so many wonderful things about the Chicago Lyric Opera’s Ryan Center before auditioning,” says Bridges. “Many singers from all over the country raved about how outstanding (the program) was especially because of the exposure and role preparation opportunities given. It was a very positive experience, and singing on the main stage for the final audition was a thrill!”

For the first time, this year’s final round of auditions was held on the Lyric Opera stage in front of a live audience, made up of donors and subscribers. “It was a really wonderful experience for the performers and audience,” says Novak. “It was a great way to give our supporters a behind-the-scenes look, so they could hear someone from the ground floor.” 

Ryan ensemble members have also had the occasional opportunity to perform the roles they’ve understudied in Lyric’s main stage productions before Lyric’s Civic Opera House audience. This past December, tenor and second year ensemble member John Irvin stepped into the role of Alfred for two performances of Johann Strauss, Jr.'s Die Fledermaus. Last season, Ryan soprano Kiri Deonarine stepped in at the last minute to sing Gilda in Rigoletto. Such opportunities to perform a lead role on an international stage is typically a far and away dream for most young opera singers, but the Ryan Opera Center gives fine young artists the training and opportunity to do just that.

Novak and Terry have very high hopes for furthering the growth of the program. “It’s a very exciting time at the company. We’ve added some things, like a recital series on the radio twice a month, and we’re excited about what other possibilities the future might hold for us. We hope to continue to grow the program and provide the unique experiences that make it the most attractive to young performers.”

Chicago is clearly a pivotal epicenter for educational and developmental opportunities for aspiring artists of all kinds. Says Bridges, “There is a wealth of opportunities for young musicians, and Chicago should be incredibly proud of that. Artists involved (in the program) will gain tremendous experience.” Bridges' account of her rich experience should encourage young performers to audition. “My confidence on stage has grown. Now, instead of the negative stage jitters, I have nerves that give me energy to sing and emote well in front of an audience. I also am more confident about what works and what doesn't work for my voice. I've discovered things about myself that I'm not sure I would have had the courage to do without the help of the Ryan Opera Center.”

Ryan Opera Center member J'nai Bridges as Flora in Lyric Opera's 2013-2014 production of Verdi' La Traviata (photo by Todd Rosenberg).

Expanding Horizons