What do you do once you have retired from singing?
Some opera singers dedicate themselves to teaching while others begin directing. Others, still, begin young artist programs.
For legendary soprano Lucine Amara, now 92, it’s about all of these as she has devoted her energy to building an opera company that gives an opportunity to young singers. For the past years, she has served as Artistic Director of the New Jersey Verismo Opera alongside her daughter and has worked with young singers to build careers and strengthen techniques.
Since its founding in 1989, the company has grown exponentially putting on lavish productions and even a competition.
“We now have an agreement with the Bergen pack and we’ve been there ever since and the company has grown tremendously,” Amara told OperaWire in a recent interview.
When it first started Amara recalled working at various schools and even doing operas with piano. But now its fully staged and there is a complete orchestra and numerous Metropolitan Opera veterans.
“We have gone from a very small company with just piano, which is what most companies start with, to a full orchestra. We have our conductor who is from the Met, and we have acquired a lot of Met singers.”
But regardless of the growth, Amara holds true to the original purpose. She wants to give young performers a chance they sometimes don’t have in some of the repertory staples.
“We are still a company that wants to train young singers because the arts have been hurt so badly and we find that there are so many companies that have gone out of business.
“So where are young people supposed to learn their craft? We coach singers extensively both musically and dramatically and I’ve taken part in that as well with my years of experience from the Met. I think I add a bonus to the company,” she laughed noting her more than 800 performances with the the legendary opera company.
To enhance the experience, the legendary artist devotes time to masterclasses to coach upcoming artists.
“We do masterclasses alongside my daughter. When we put on the productions, we have extensive time coaching the young singers. It’s really important that they are able to step on any stage in the world and have a complete character. So she and I are extremely involved in helping the young artists achieve that goal.”
A Competition For EVERYONE
Amara is also involved with the annual competition Verismo Opera has held for the past 28 years. Like many such events, it gives young singers a platform to showcase their talents and an opportunity to advance their careers. But it is also a bit different from most competitions.
“There is no age limit and we give free masterclasses for the ones we don’t choose.”
Amara finds it important that young singers get feedback especially as they are developing and they get as much information as possible.
“It is difficult to get information from a competition. Even with auditions, you find that a singer will sing their best and after will get no comments. How is a young singer supposed to know what they did right and what they need to improve? So we offer that for those that didn’t get to the finals and we try to give them as much information of how they sang at their audition.
Another aspect Amara prides the competition in is the lack of an age limit. The opera world has become youth-oriented and most competitions cutoff participants at age 30 something the soprano is completely against.
“It’s such a youth-oriented business and even the managers are looking for younger performers. Once we had the competition at Weill Hall and one of the singers was 34. I spoke to a manager and told him this girl should have a career and he said, she’s too old. And I said, ’34 and she’s too old.’ What you realize is that some of the darker voices including my own they take longer to mature and to say 34 is too old is insanity.”
As an experienced singer, Amara is also outspoken about casting young singers for such roles as “Aida” and “Il Trovatore.”
“These parts are much too heavy for a young singer. You ruin your vocal instrument. So we say no age limit but we don’t want a 65-year-old walking through the door. But even on stage that singers that are over 30, their stamina is much greater and far more open to information and better colleagues. Young people just don’t have the kind of stamina that people in their 30s and 40s have. So we say no age limit. I don’t care how old they are as long as they can sing.”
Mentorship And Guidance
As the young generation develops and the industry becomes even more challenging, Amara stresses that singers become even more diligent and prepared. She is outspoken about the lack of teachers and the lack of technique. In many ways, she believes young singers are being pushed too quickly.
When looking back at her career Amara recalls having mentors who knew her voice and knew what was best for.
“I was blessed with having a phenomenal teacher and I developed a great technique and without a great technique, you don’t last very long. For example, I was not allowed to sing heavy repertoire until I was much older.”
The soprano also noted that the Met guided her in the right direction.
“They really aided my career greatly in terms of what to sing and what not to sing. I don’t think they do that much anymore. But you learn to do that and you go through a role and say alright I can sing the aria, but can I sing the rest of the role. And often the answer is no. So young singers have to do the same thing. They have to look at the role as opposed to just the aria.”
A role Amara often refers to is Marguerite in “Faust.” As the soprano noted, the Jewel song is used for competitions and is sung by Light lyrics. But she believes the aria is not a sign of what the role requires.
“Everyone wants to sing the aria but in an audition, they will always ask you to sing the trio because that is a killer. And if you can’t sing that then don’t sing the aria. ”
In Amara’s words it’s about the package. “It’s really important to sing a role that you feel comfortable with and that fits beautifully in your voice. It’s super important and I wish there was more guidance.”
Acting Is Reacting
Amara also believes that part of that guidance should focus on acting. In her prime years, Amara was well-known for her acting and for her dramatic characters. She was compelling to watch and listen to. With the growing emphasis on theatricality, artists are sometimes limited to learning to sing. And Amara believes that is detrimental to any young singer.
“Many teachers today will not let their students move their arms or bodies and when you get on the stage, your voice says what are you doing. Acting is incredibly important. Singing comes from your belly. And that is the machine you use to sing. Therefore it is your body that creates that acting. And if teachers don’t allow your arms to move when you’re singing or to use their body in a productive way, your voice asks, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ And therefore you can’t act.”
Part of learning music for Amara is how you work the body and how it moves across a stage. So what does she suggest?
“Learn the music, get in your body and then walking around your apartment or wherever you are and act. How would you say this or how you move. It can not be faked and it has to come from within. In master classes, I often ask them what they sang and they tell me using their hands. And I say why didn’t you do that when you were singing? People want to see realism. We want them to act like real characters and create three-dimensional characters.”
And Amara also notes that acting is sometimes a savior. She goes to the old Broadway phrase, “When you’re not feeling well then you dazzle them with your footwork.”
And that is what she believes helped her in some of her most challenging evenings at the Metropolitan Opera. One evening she recalls very fondly was replacing Dorothy Kirsten in Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut.”
“I wasn’t feeling well. I had just learned the role and I had seen some of the staging but not all of it. And I said ‘Oh dear, can she at least do the second act and they said no she has the flu.’ And I thought that second act is such a killer. The score is wonderful but you’re always afraid of messing up and it’s very nerve-wracking. And the last act, when you’re in the Louisiana desert and I’m in the tenor’s arms and all of a sudden I went absolutely blank. And I knew it was too late to ask the prompter. So I whispered to the tenor asked him ‘You wouldn’t happen to know what my next lines are?’ And he said, I don’t know but I think its ‘Qui.’ And that is all I needed.”
“Then there are circumstances when you haven’t seen the stage and you have to replace someone and your colleague is turning all over to see where to go because it was a different production and I have no idea where to go except to follow the furniture. I have had some very special moments.”
While Amara is now retired from singing on the stage, she still has so much energy. As the company develops, she hopes to be able to present more opera that gives young singers more opportunities. But what she hopes more than anything is to see these singers thrive.
“Seeing young performers go to the Met or to a major company. That is a thrill for me. I can’t imagine they don’t all find a job. I mean that is wonderful. Because having had a 41-year career at the Met I know how difficult it is to have a career. My thrill is that they can perform anywhere in the world.”