By Kelly Maxwell
Brett Sprague, Assistant Director and an accomplished performer in his own right, passionately believes in the arts. His eyes light up as he discusses the role of the audience, and you can tell he views them as critical to a great performance. Sprague believes, “If opera is to survive in the United States, if we want to champion the singers of tomorrow, we have to create the audience of tomorrow. That’s our job.”
So how do you ensure this art form thrives, when the commons stereotype is that it so often clings to the past? You welcome newcomers and long-time patrons alike to events like this Sunday’s An Afternoon of American Song, featuring a program of opera, art song, musical theater, and cabaret, all from 21st century American composers. Just as important, this special concert features the exceptionally talented Opera Colorado Young Artists, performing in an intimate setting—the beautiful new Opera Colorado Opera Center rehearsal studio—just feet away from attendees.
“Inviting people into our home is another way of telling our story as a company,” says Cherity Koepke, Opera Colorado’s Director of Education & Community Programs, and Director of the Young Artist Program. “This is where we do business, where we live for at least eight hours each day. It’s so cool to be able to do this here, and invite people in for this concert.”
Today we check in with mezzo-soprano Katherine Beck, one of the Young Artists who will perform this Sunday. We hope you’ll join us at An Afternoon of American Song (tickets are just $25!), but before you do, read on to learn more about this wonderful singer, her unwavering drive, and her life-long dedication to music.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about mezzo-sopranos? And what’s your favorite aspect about your voice type?
For me, I actually find a lot of versatility in my voice type. Some people may not love that I can play a man or a woman on stage, but I actually enjoy it. I think it’s interesting because you end up seeing so many different perspectives from different characters’ point of view. With my voice in particular, I’m fortunate to be able to sing mezzo repertoire and also journey into some higher soprano repertoire. Perhaps a misconception that I actually just recently become aware of is how some people think, “Mezzos are more rare, so they must get more work.” Not necessarily the case! Because there are fewer of them, there are also fewer roles for a mezzo. I can’t say that’s absolutely true, but there are not as many opportunities for mezzos. I always thought, “Oh, if I’m successful I’ll be working a lot because I’m a mezzo and not a soprano.” In reality, there’s still very stiff competition with mezzos. I would say maybe that’s a tough part of being a mezzo. But overall, I am still comfortable in my own skin and my own voice type.
As a performer, what is your favorite kind of music to sing? Do you have a favorite composer, or favorite language?
I have so many favorites! I love Mozart; how can you not love Mozart? My dream role is Octavian in Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier. I also really have enjoyed singing Nicklausse in selections from Tales of Hoffmann. I’m looking forward to hopefully doing that in the future. I should also add that I love art song and chamber music. One of my favorite things to sing in the entire world, specifically with my best friend who’s a pianist, is “Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson” by Aaron Copland. It’s my favorite piece of music ever!
So, let’s take a step back: how did you begin your journey to becoming an opera singer—and then to becoming an Opera Colorado Young Artist?
I always was singing growing up. My story is actually very similar to [fellow Young Artist] Vanessa Naghdi’s. We both grew up singing pop and listening to anything and everything. When I was 12, my mom finally convinced me to join Bennington Children’s Chorus in Bennington, Vermont, where I grew up. That was the point when a door opened to classical music. I really never liked opera and I had no interest in classical music until I started singing it and experiencing it. I had a very inspirational director who later became my voice teacher throughout high school. Taking lessons led me in a classical direction, and that carried on through undergrad at the Crane School of Music at SUNY Potsdam. I learned a lot there. I took some time off between undergrad and grad school, where I was working in schools as a paraprofessional. I was advised to take some time off to get out of student mode. It was great because I did some really difficult but rewarding work with kids. And although I loved working with kids, I went, “Nope, I’m not doing music, I’m not fulfilled, and a huge part of my life is missing.” That’s when I applied to grad school and got into USC. It was even better to be there at that point in my life because I knew what had been missing. I went there for my master’s and one year for my grad certificate program and then left; I didn’t finish it because I got into the Opera Colorado Young Artist Program.
How did you make the lifelong decision to pursue this as a career?
I don’t know if I have a specific moment where I said, “I know I’m going to sing opera.” I always knew in my gut that singing was what I wanted to do. There was a specific moment where a really famous mezzo came to do a master class at my undergrad and took me aside and said, “If you want to do this, you can do it. But you have to want it.” That was really a very intense moment in my life. I’ll never forget it. I can’t say I decided then and there, but it did give me the kind of courage and fire in my gut to decide, “Okay, I think I want this.” It was terrifying, actually, but still very special.
How has your experience been so far this season in the Young Artist Program?
It’s been really great. I think the most valuable thing so far is just being part of the mainstage productions. I hadn’t been part of a mainstage show prior to being here. I’ve done lots of opera, mostly school-related and at summer festivals and things, but I’ve been a part of two mainstage productions here (La Bohème and Steal a Pencil for Me), one in which I had a real role. Working alongside the mainstage artists has been so memorable. I also appreciate my colleagues so much. We’re a really fun, dynamic crew. We’re all in the same boat and we’ve become a very strong and diverse support system for each other.
We all can’t wait for this Sunday’s An Afternoon of American Song! Do you have a favorite piece you’ll be performing?
I don’t know if I could say I have a favorite piece yet, but I’ve been enjoying the musical theatre aspect of the program. I’m always curious to know how I perform in that genre. I have performed musical theater before, but not seriously for a very long time. I also really like singing a variety of genres and getting out of my normal routine—mixing it up, and using some different vocal techniques. The fact that it’s all in English is very refreshing! We connect to it because this repertoire is very real and just relevant to who we are. This life not all glamour and glitz; there are real struggles and joys to it. One of my songs is called “Ghost Light.” It’s a present-day “Send in the Clowns.” It’s definitely going to be a marathon of a song, because it’s so long, but it’s poignant and real.
What would you say to someone who has just decided that this is the life for them, that they really want to be a professional opera singer?
I would say, “Be thankful for the opportunity, be open-minded, and enjoy the ride!” Remember to not only focus on opera. Of course you have to do that, but life informs opera and art. You have to live!