Interview: How The Governor’s School Of the Arts Develops New Opera Stars & Audiences
Will Liverman, Fredrick Ballentine & Alan Fischer On How GSA Immerses Students In OperaBy David Salazar
“Alone we can do so little; together, we can do so much.”
Our community has a massive impact on who we are to become and this could not be truer for those those impacted by The Governor’s School of the Arts (GSA). The school, which became a full-time program in 1987 with the aim of nurturing young artists at the high school level throughout Virginia.
Many of the students that attend the school study vocal and dramatic arts. But unlike many other high schools, which place an emphasis on musicals, GSA puts on full-fledged operas under the leadership of Alan Fischer, the head of the voice department for the last 25 years. Among the many productions he has directed are “Gianni Schicchi,” “Die Fledermaus,” “The Marriage of Figaro,” “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” and “The Magic Flute.”
It is the place that helped renowned bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green overcome adverse conditions in his life to become the artist people know today. But he is not the only one to scale those heights. Among other major GSA graduates that have graced the major opera houses around the world are Barbara Quintiliani, Marjorie Owens, Chrystal Williams, Tiffany Haas, Adam Richardson, Brandon Bell, and Joshua Conyers; tenor Frederick Ballentine and bass-baritone Will Liverman, who both spoke to OperaWire, also figure on that list.
“Two statistics I am most proud of are that for all graduates of the department who go on to study vocal performance in college, 10 percent are currently working professional opera singers, and the majority of the male singers are African American,” Fisher noted.
Opera In The High School
The idea of opera in a high school is a unique concept on so many levels. Emotional maturity is in full-fledged development during these years, which can present a challenge for anyone trying to create any kind of organization with students. But for Fischer, high school students have “no preconceived notions of how difficult this all can be, so they just do it. To watch a high school singer singing with the voice or the instincts of a much more mature singer is extremely gratifying.”
Then there’s the question of opera itself. The artform requires a strong and developed vocal structure, which is not often the case with high school students. But for Fischer, he adapts the repertoire from year to year to suit the students he has.
“Repertoire is chosen based on the voices I have in the department each year. We do a lot of Mozart because that music is great for a young singer. We stay away from the heavy late 19th century dramatic operas which require voices of more maturity. When we have a good cast of singers, the opera production really presents itself. I also look for operas that will give me a chance to showcase as many singers as possible.”
But perhaps the greatest challenge for the program to overcome is the fact that most of its students have no idea what opera is.
“Most of these students came into the school with no real understanding of opera. The challenge was to teach them about the artform, while having them sing the artform. For many this was their first real exposure to classical music,” Fischer told OperaWire in an interview.
Ballentine supported this notion, adding that when he entered the Governor’s School for the first time his knowledge of opera “extended as far as a few stereotypical cartoons and the botched ‘Carmen’ chorus we’d attempted in elementary school.”
But fortunately, the school has a means of overcoming this challenge as well: immersion.
“I’ll never forget my first opera survey assignment at GSA,” Ballentine narrated. “Mr. Fischer had us all listen to 22 different recordings of ‘Der hölle rache.’ After that assignment, my 13-year-old self became a passionate expert of coloratura sopranos… Within my first week of school, most of the stereotypes of what opera was had been thrown out the window to make way for an actual educational and love for the art form.”
Students engage in more than just performances. They get private voice lessons, theory classes, sight singing classes, and other musical tools that prepare them for what lies beyond high school.
But for Ballentine the experience was more than just musical development.
“No one who knows me now would believe this, but I was once an extremely shy and reserved kid with a terrible lisp and no social skills to speak of,” he revealed. “Being suddenly thrown into an entire school of talkative extroverts was jarring for me. However, a school like GSA was just small enough to make sure that cliques weren’t so much an issue. So over time, the boisterous nature of my classmates began to rub off on me. It was uncomfortable for me at first, but eventually I overcame my shy nature. That side of me is completely gone. I’m normally the loudest one in the room these days.”
More than Music
Liverman had a similar experience with opera. He also entered the school with little understanding of the artform. But after four years at GSA, he had already appeared in four operas in leading roles and a number of concert opportunities, all of which helped him learn more about himself as an artist. But there were also many life skills that he came away with from his time.
“For myself, and probably a lot of other students, the biggest challenge of GSA was the balancing act of going to two high schools and managing time efficiently,” he explained. “A typical day of a GSA student consisted of early high school classes for five plus hours followed by a long bus ride to GSA, depending on where you were coming from. GSA itself was four hours every day of the week. If we had an opera coming up, you can tack on an additional three hours for tech week. All the while, we were expected to do well at both schools. Our social lives were GSA.
“We learned discipline, time management, and how to thrive under pressure at a very young age,” he continued. “It goes without saying that this school is imperative to the world of opera because it introduces young students to a unique art form at such an early age, which opens our worlds and minds to the possibility of pursuing a special field that we could never have dreamed of otherwise. It’s a rarity.”
And that latter point might be the most crucial of all. For while the Governor’s School of the Arts creates new artists, it also creates new informed audiences in the time where that is essential to the continued development of the performing arts.
“I know that every student going through the program will not become an opera singer and may not ever sing a note of it after they leave, but many of the non-performing graduates have become audience members for opera and classical vocal performances,” Fisher noted.
“Whether they pursue it or not, all GSA students become life long lovers and supporters of opera. It may have produced some excellent singers, but it’s produced hundreds of supporters,” concluded Ballentine.