Q & A: Johnathan McCullough on the Vail Opera Camp (National Youth Opera Academy)

By Francisco Salazar
(Credit: Daniel Welch)

Baritone Johnathan McCullough is no stranger to being a versatile singer.

He is a singer who has performed at many of the world’s great stages including Opera Philadelphia, Komische Oper Berlin, English National Opera, Opéra de Lausanne, Portland Opera, Wolf Trap Opera, and Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, among others. He is also a director whose “Soldier Songs” film was nominated for a Grammy as well as an International Opera Award. It went on to win the Artistic Creation Prize at the inaugural Opera America Awards for Digital Excellence. He recently made his Canadian directing debut with the Atelier lyrique of Opéra de Montréal.

Outside of his singing and directing career, he is a guest speaker with institutions across the US and Canada including Yale, Curtis, Wolf Trap, UCLA, Young ARTS, Opéra de Montreal, and Pacific Opera Victoria.

McCullough‘s career also extends to education as is seen through his work with the National Children’s Chorus where he serves as the Opera Program Director for the Vail Opera Camp. This past summer he worked with the students on “The Tinker of Tivoli” and was also active giving masterclasses, developing the next generation of singers and artists.

OperaWire spoke to McCullough about his passion for the program and education.

OperaWire: Why did you decide to work on this program?

Jonathan McCullough: My journey in the world of opera started with my own participation in opera camps in Los Angeles and Orange County, as well as performing in the chorus and small roles at Valley Opera and Performing Arts. While studying at Curtis, the concept of “learning by doing” resonated strongly. The curriculum at Curtis ensured we were well-prepared for the professional world, giving us first-time opportunities with roles we would later perform on professional stages. The experience of balancing back-to-back gigs during school turned out to be an invaluable tool post-graduation.

Inspired by this, I aimed to create a program that would not only provide students with a competitive edge when applying to music schools, but also expose them to various career paths within the arts. This led to the development of our curriculum which includes a fully staged opera with an orchestra, masterclasses, design courses, conducting and stage management fellowships, along with a marketing insights class.

OW: As a singer already in this business, what did you learn?

JM: My journey in this industry has taught me that opera is not only about what we communicate on stage, but also about how we communicate within our professional life. I often say to my students that you will receive an email if you send an email, but rarely does someone just email you offering an opportunity. I like to point out to them that effective communication is a vital aspect of the business. While refining singing skills and audition techniques is essential, I realized after school just how much of an impact communication and being a good colleague has on securing work.

OW: What kind of guidance do you think you could impart to the kids?

JM: My aim is to familiarize students with how top-tier collegiate programs operate. Our focus extends from guiding them on managing energy during intense rehearsals and being actively engaged on stage, to helping them choose programs aligned with their goals. This involves finding compatible teachers, programs offering opportunities, and environments where they can thrive for the next four years. Beyond practical advice, we delve into less apparent aspects of the business including managing personal expectations and the importance of arriving to a production prepared and knowledgeable about the style and source material. We also reiterate how much kindness and camaraderie significantly contribute to navigating this challenging industry.

OW: Tell me about the work that you did during the camp.

JM: Our goal is to provide a comprehensive curriculum. From mounting fully staged operas with orchestras to masterclasses, design workshops, and stage management fellowships, our focus is on a holistic opera experience. We offer students insights into conducting and providing an understanding of marketing dynamics within the industry.

OW: Have you always had a passion for education?

JM: Teaching began as a natural progression for me, but I didn’t anticipate how much I would love teaching. While I certainly find fulfillment in teaching voice, my true enthusiasm stems from imparting a comprehensive understanding of the industry and guiding students who are looking, encompassing the entire world of opera.


InterviewsStage Spotlight