By Bill Kennedy
Everyone adores the star singers who adorn the stage of the LA opera during the season. But Opera League members have a special place in their hearts for members of LA Opera's Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist program.
League members get to see them in mainstage productions but also hear them, see them and mingle with them at many of the salons, musicales, seminars and special events that dot the League's calendar.
So, with the aid of the LA Opera staff, BRAVO sought to find out how the lives and careers of three of the most popular recent Young Artists have developed since they moved on and especially how they feel the program contributed to their personal and artistic development.
For all of them, the Young Artist Program was a launching pad for singing careers that are taking them into the stratosphere of the opera world.
And, ironically, all three of them proved that you can go home again by returning to LA Opera this season for major roles in mainstage productions: sopranos Janai Brugger and Amanda Woodbury, both taking on Musetta in the split-cast production of La Boheme, and tenor Ben Bliss singing Tamino in The Magic Flute.
Since leaving the Young Artist program in 2012, Chicago native Janai Brugger has leapt onto the world's top stages. Seven months pregnant, she made her Metropolitan Opera debut four years ago as Liu in the spectacular Franco Zefferelii-designed production of Turandot and followed up there the next season in the role of Helena in the Baroque / Shakespeare pastiche Enchanted Island. She has sung in concerts led by both Maestro Conlon and Gustavo Dudamel among others and sang the role of Pamina in The Magic Flute last year at Covent Garden.
Janai is especially grateful for the improv training that is such an important part of the Young Artist Program. "You really need to know how to recover when things don't go as they should," she says. She also credits the program with getting her ready for "what you will face in the real world. You learn how to be prepared, to be professional and how to be a good colleague."
She has worked and compared notes with many other top young singers in the four years since she left the LA nest and has come to appreciate that the program here "really uses you and puts you on stage.” She said some of her colleagues who came from other programs got plenty of work and were assigned as covers but didn't necessarily "go on stage if the principal got sick."
Dallas native Amanda Woodbury, who was a Young Artist for the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons, echoes Janai's comments. She says the principal goal for the leaders of the program seems to be to serve the artists, not the company.
"We were worked hard, but never overworked," she says. "The leaders of the program are very aware that it's easy for young singers to hurt their voices."
Since leaving Los Angeles, Amanda has performed as Konstanze in Abduction from the Seraglio at the Des Moines Metro Opera (with Ben Bliss as her Belmonte) and debuted at the Met in the trouser role of Tebaldo in Don Carlo, singing there again as Lelia in the final performance of this season's acclaimed new production of The Pearl Fishers.
Back to her experience in LA, Amanda credits the Young Artist Program with allowing her to "step into the professional world with confidence; to know what to expect and what's expected of me."
Ben Bliss' entry into the Young Artist Program was less conventional. A music minor at Chapman University, the Prairie Village, Kansas native had embarked upon a television career but then decided to switch to singing. A mutual friend put him in touch with Joshua Winograde, LA Opera's Senior Director of Artistic Planning. From that serendipitous beginning (and a chance to sing a beloved zarzuela piece for Maestro Domingo), Ben joined the Young Artist Program for the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons.
Since his prior musical training wasn't as extensive as that of his peers, it was especially important to Ben that the program provided him with "opera at a foundational level: good skills, learning and preparing music, working with conductors" and so on. The family atmosphere helped, too, making Ben feel "a part of all that's going on at the opera."
To further his foundational training, Ben entered the Met's Lindemann Young Artist Development Program. From Los Angeles and working closely with Maestros Conlon and Domingo he went to New York and had the opportunity to work closely with Met Music Director James Levine, a pair of experiences Ben will treasure forever.
While in the Lindemann program, Ben made his Met debut as Vogelgesang in Die Meistersinger. His 2015-16 schedule includes the aforementioned Belmonte with Des Moines and Flamand in Capriccio at Sante Fe Opera.
For all three of the emerging stars, their experience in LA has left them with personal recollections and connections that are as important in many ways as the professional ones.
One of Janai's favorite memories was being onstage singing a duet with Maestro Domingo. She was nervous because it was her first time singing with him "but he was the most gracious and fun colleague I could ask for." The Maestro made an impromptu decision to go into the orchestra to take the baton, sending Maestro Conlon on to the stage to take the bows with her. "I thought I was dreaming," she says. "Singing with Maestro Domingo under the baton of Maestro Conlon only to have them both join me onstage at the end. Dream come true and a highlight I will never forget."
During his years in LA, Ben happened to be singing for Maestro Conlon with an orchestra that included Dana Jackson, a talented young bassoonist then enrolled at the Colburn Conservatory and now at the Pacific Northwest Balle
Amanda recounts having a particularly tough day in New York last season, feeling hard-pressed and frustrated, when she turned a corner in a Met backstage hallway and ran into Maestro Domingo and a small entourage. He gave her a quick embrace, she says, and told the group: "This is Amanda. You should hear her voice. What an incredible gift.” Needless to say, the rest of her day went better.
Oh, and where are these three Opera League favorites heading?
Well, for starters, they will all be on stage at the Metropolitan Opera next season. Stratosphere, here they come.
Photo credits: Dario Acosta for Janai Brugger and Ben Bliss.