An apprentice is one who learns by practical experience under skilled workers or individuals in a trade, art, or calling. For Artistic Director Ward Holmquist, the Lyric Opera of Kansas City and its apprentice program aids developing opera singers with a rare opportunity to continue to hone their art and shape their voices along a more confident path. Those who are selected participate in a two-year program of training and performances, which includes supporting roles in main stage operas, vocal coaching, and serving as ambassadors for their art form.
The Lyric Opera’s apprentice program accepts participants from the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music and the University of Kansas voice department. The program ties with UMKC have been around for more than two decades. Holmquist says the program has always been robust. The KU program is similar, having been around for roughly 15 years. “What makes our program rare is the partnership with the universities. Most opera companies don’t have this. We are fortunate to have the teaching and training at the university level so close to the opera. These young artists already have good professional potential and are working toward a graduate degree of some sort. Adding this apprenticeship gives them even more ability. They get supporting and smaller roles. We look to them to be understudies. We want them to be ambassadors in the community,” Holmquist says.
Holmquist appreciates the veracity of an apprenticeship. “I am an example of how an apprenticeship benefits a young person. I had my training with the Houston Grand Opera. I had a good education in music and knew about the operatic art form, but I didn’t have any professional experience. I learned how to value all the aspects to the art and craft of presenting opera. It was utterly invaluable. I don’t think I would have had the career I have without this starting point.”
Expectations for participants are high. The singers are advancing in their education, their training and their physical age. “Opera is one of the few disciplines where age is a benefit. Because the voice is a tool, the muscles have to develop and age helps that. Singing is one aspect, but learning how you as a performer fit with the stage crafts, costuming and more … it’s just critical,” Holmquist says. “The apprenticeship is two years. First there’s a period of adjustment and then we start charting out where we think the participants need to develop. We will see how comfortable they are on stage and how familiar they are as actors and actresses. Can they move and sing at the same time? Sometimes they come into opera later in life so as they are figuring out the art form; we are also trying to give them what they need.”
Student apprentices leave the program “almost professionally blossoming,” Holmquist says. “From an artistic point of view, their voices and techniques have grown. They are refining their talent and ready to start either pursuing a professional career or they may explore another opera apprenticeship with a bigger opera. We go to see these festivals such as those in Chicago and San Francisco. The places serve somewhat as finishing schools.”
Three apprentices shared their stories. First, mezzo-soprano Tara Cooper debuted in the role of Inez in Verdi’s Il Trovatore and was a chorus member in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer, and Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado.
She has also been selected to be a member of the Marcello Giordani Young Artist Program at the Crested Butte Music Festival this summer. Cooper is currently a student of KU Voice Professor Joyce Castle and a graduate teaching assistant in the voice program. Cooper grew up in the Northland and attended Park Hill High School. She then attended the University of Missouri to study voice and then onto Boston Conservatory for a master’s degree in operatic performance.
“I am also working on my doctorate in vocal performance at KU,” she says. “I auditioned a year before for an apprenticeship and didn’t get it. I re-auditioned and was so very excited to make it.” During the experience, she has received her Union card. “One of the biggest things is to watch the more advanced singers and the guest directors. It’s invaluable to get to spend time with them, ask questions and
She also credits Holmquist with many of her vocal improvements. “We have run the gamut with everything from Verdi and Wagner to Gilbert and Sullivan. It has been a terrific experience so far.” Ironically her first opera was Madama Butterfly at the Lyric Opera as a 16 year old and then she sang in the chorus this past season. “Like some of the others, I was planning on musical theater and playing the flute. However, I wanted to sing correctly and opera became that tool. My voice started developing classically and I came to opera during my master’s degree.”
Elizabeth Tredent also sings mezzo-soprano. She attended Cleveland Institute of Music and is continuing her education at UMKC. “I came here for the apprenticeship. When I knew about it, this was where I wanted to be. Getting my master’s degree is icing on the cake. I was also shocked by how generous the apprenticeship is … a living stipend and funds for school.” Initially opera wasn’t the first love. She didn’t see an opera until her high school junior year.
During her tenure at the Lyric Opera, she has had roles in The Mikado and Madama Butterfly. “These two years were life-changing, especially with Ward Holmquist. He is a great mentor and watching him every day is a treat. You learn from him and from the international singers. You see how they navigate this career. I owe the Lyric so much. I am grateful.” Now Tredent will become an apprentice at the Sarasota Opera. “I will have to start working my way into the industry and hope that I can play the houses such as the MET (Metropolitan Opera).”
Casey Finnigan is a tenor who says being part of the apprenticeship was partly good luck and partly hard work. He received his undergraduate degree at the University of North Texas and his master’s in vocal performance at the University of Houston. “There was a call for more tenors and luckily a teacher of mine got in touch with UMKC and the Lyric. I wound up getting in and I just wrapped up my second year in the program. I gained several opportunities including singing the bigger role of the Steersman in The Flying Dutchman. However, part of it is what you create for yourself and put into the program.”
Finnigan say his parents met in music school so being involved in music seemed inescapable. “When I started off, I was aiming more for choral conducting. Then I had a couple of roles in a summer program. Opera gives you the opportunity to embrace all the art forms …” This summer, Finnigan will head to San Francisco to take part in the Merola Opera Program which has 20 to 25 participants out of a total of 800 who audition. He then is heading to another apprenticeship with Florida Grand Opera.•