By Kelly Maxwell
We’ve spent all week getting to know the 2017-18 Opera Colorado Young Artists, in advance of their performances at An Afternoon of American song this Sunday, and today we’ll continue by checking in with baritone Hearth Martin. But first, there are two other musicians who deserve a moment in the spotlight: collaborative pianists Jordan Ortman and Parisa Zaeri.
Ortman is this season’s Resident Coach/Accompanist, while Zaeri is Opera Colorado’s full-time Manager of Education & Community Engagement. Both are fantastic musicians in their own right, and they’ll be sharing the crucial role of accompanying the Young Artists on piano this Sunday. They’ve also spent quite a bit of time exploring all the music for this program.
According to Ortman, “I get the experience of playing all of their music with them, so I end up going through a lot more rep than each of the individual singers do!” That can be a challenge, but it’s a challenge that keeps Ortman excited to come to work every day. “I just have to play the piano,” he says. “That’s my job and that’s pretty great. How can you argue with that? I feel very lucky to be able to do this as a career.” Zaeri feels the same way: “Diving into this music, being able to pick phrases apart with your partner and truly make it your own, is really exciting for a collaborative pianist.”
Since these musicians have such an intimate understanding about the entirety of the Afternoon of American Song program, I asked each of them which pieces they were most excited to play—but they couldn’t pick just one favorite. “This program is just so different from every other event and all the other repertoire that we present throughout the season,” says Zaeri. “Normally, we’re doing arias and ensembles from opera’s greatest hits. I think that a lot of this music, in An Afternoon of American Song, will be heard by our audiences here for the first time.” Plus, Ortman adds, “There’s going to be a good mix of emotions portrayed by the singers and the pianists as well.”
With the event coming up in just a few short days, the rehearsal studio is buzzing in anticipation. The pianists and the Young Artists are busy putting the polishing touches on their repertoire, but we still were able to nab Young Artist and baritone Heath Martin for a quick Q&A. Read on to learn more about his path to Opera Colorado’s Young Artist Program, his creative process, and what makes An Afternoon of American Song such a unique event.
To start, tell us about when and how you discovered a passion for opera.
I got into theater in middle school and high school. I fell in love with the stage when I first started taking theater classes in seventh grade. But it wasn’t until my junior year of high school, when I was doing this play called Lend Me a Tenor, where one of the leads has to sing a duet from one of Verdi’s operas, that I discovered opera. I never really listened to opera before and when I heard it, I thought, “This is fantastic.” I had grown up in choir, so I liked the singing aspect of it a lot. I was like, “This really focuses on the singing, without the dancing of musical theater. I want to do this.” I decided then I wanted to do it. I went to Sam Houston State University for my undergrad, where I majored in vocal performance. Then I did my grad work at University of Houston in vocal performance as well. After grad school, I sang with the Houston Grand Opera Chorus for two years. That was a great experience where I learned a lot and did some solos for some of the shows. And last year I got cast in a small role in a new opera, It’s a Wonderful Life. It was awesome.
How has your experience been as an Opera Colorado Young Artist this season?
It’s been great. Our housing is spectacular and we all get along so well. Having the other Young Artists here, away from my family and friends, has been so awesome. We’re a family unit. As far as the program goes, I would say Steal a Pencil for Me was a pretty big highlight. Getting to do a world premiere, in a venue like the Wolf Theatre at the Mizel Arts and Culture Center, that’s so close to the community here, was pretty spectacular. Getting to meet the composer and the librettist, two living people, was really, really cool. That’s definitely a highlight. La bohème was fun too. That’s such a fun show and that was my first Bohème. Getting to be backstage and meet the principals was another great experience.
Speaking of Steal a Pencil for Me, you had a tough role in that you were portraying a Nazi. What was that like?
That was a challenge and probably one of the most challenging things I’ve done so far in opera. Doing the research was very depressing because I wanted to play true to the character. I wanted to know what his daily activities were, what he would do around the camps, so I would go look in history books and see what they would do. All the while, I would go to bed at night, after reading hours and hours of research material, and I would just be like, “Oh my god, I hate myself.” But I really liked the challenge of it. It’s one of those things where you have to separate the on-stage and the off-stage. We joked around a lot to kind of keep our spirits up.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about your voice type?
Being a baritone, I don’t get to sing many romantic things. Usually I sing something angry or jealous. With bass-baritones, it’s this way, too. Usually lower parts are the bad guys. Clearly, as you saw in Steal a Pencil for Me, I was the worst guy in that show. Other than that, baritones are pretty chill! We’re pretty cool.
What would you say to another young performer who’s just starting out, and who has just decided this is the trajectory that they want?
I would say just keep going. Work hard and be disciplined. Getting to where I am today was not easy and it took several years. You’re not going to have the exact same path. I would say just do you and don’t compare yourself to other young singers like you. There are some 21- and 22- year-olds who are singing at these big opera houses now, and you can’t compare yourself to them because you’re going to make yourself miserable. People will see the hard work you’re doing.
Looking ahead to Sunday, is there a piece that you’re particularly excited to perform during An Afternoon of American Song?
The piece I’m most excited about is “Finishing the Hat” from Sunday in the Park with George. I was kind of nervous about it at first because it sits high in some parts. But the first time I listened to it, I was ready to accept the challenge. I’m singing “Dust and Ashes” from Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812. It’s a newer musical and Josh Groban was in it. So, I’ve been listening to him quite a bit. And then stepping way from musical theater, I’ll be doing a piece called “The Actor” by William Bolcom. They picked some really great music for us.
It look like we’re going to have a great turn-out on Sunday. What would you say to anyone on the fence about purchasing tickets? Why is this such a special concert?
The exciting thing about An Afternoon of American Song: it’s our language, and the pieces we’re doing are so American. I think it’s something anyone can enjoy, either a casual concert-goer to the die-hard opera fan. You’re going to enjoy it because the songs are simply entertaining. They’re made to be entertaining and to be accessible. I would also say that we’re awesome and hopefully we’re going to perform these pieces to the best of our abilities!