By Kelly Maxwell
The greatest perk of working at Opera Colorado is daily interaction with this amazing art form—and the inspiring artists who make it come alive. We’re especially thrilled that our desks are just steps away from our new rehearsal studio, here at the Opera Colorado Opera Center in Englewood. It means that we’ve had the chance to hear the ridiculously focused and talented Opera Colorado Young Artists over the past several weeks, as they’ve been rehearsing and preparing for this Sunday’s intimate and immersive concert, An Afternoon of American Song.
Trust us, there is nothing like being just a few feet from these musicians when they start to sing. That’s exactly why An Afternoon of American Song is in its third year! “The audience listens with rapt attention, while the singers are just twenty feet from them,” says Cherity Koepke, Opera Colorado’s Director of Education & Community Programs and Director of the Young Artist Program. “They’re not up on a stage. They’re literally right in front of you. There is also a printed program with all of the text in it, so there is no barrier of language. The audience can follow along with the text and read it as the singers are singing it. I think that creates that comfort zone that people sometimes want with this art form. And, afterwards, there is a reception so they actually get to talk to these Young Artists that they’ve just seen perform. The audience is included in this community that we’re trying to create with events like this.”
In advance of this weekend’s performance, we’re taking some time to get to know each Young Artist. Today, we sit down with soprano Vanessa Naghdi and learn about her background, what brought her to Opera Colorado, and what she’ll be performing on Sunday. Get to know Vanessa, and then make sure to purchase your tickets for An Afternoon of American Song!
Talk me through your path to getting here. How did you come to be an Opera Colorado Young Artist?
I always loved to sing and perform. I would put on skits for my family when I was little, and I started on violin in elementary school. After a couple years, I moved to choir and started doing musicals and plays. When I got to middle school, my mom had me audition for a children’s chorus and I also began with voice lessons. I have my mom to thank for a lot of this! I always loved to sing pop music as a kid, listening to Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC… You know, the big three of the ‘90s! But since my voice lessons were classical, I naturally started learning to sing classical repertoire. I also started doing the spring musical in high school. We did shows like Oklahoma, Anything Goes, Beauty and the Beast, and High School Musical.
When it came time for me to choose a major in college, I knew that I wanted to be a professional singer. I didn’t know what kind or what genre it would be, but I knew I wanted to sing professionally. So, I ended up going to Virginia Commonwealth University, where I majored in vocal performance. It’s a wonderful program in Richmond, Virginia, where I did operas and opera scenes every year. After graduating, I took a year off and continued to study. Then I went to Arizona State University for my master’s degree in opera performance and musical theater performance. ASU’s program is really unique because it fuses the two types of performances together and you get opportunities in both genres. I focused a lot on opera, but I also went back to my roots in musical theater. After graduating, I stayed in Arizona, performing with Arizona Opera. I did outreach and chorus work there.
I cried when I got the phone call to accept a contract here at Opera Colorado. It was such a joy when I was able to come and take the next step in my career here. I felt like everything that led up to this, all the lessons, the years of training, and all the degrees paid off! I get to live my passion.
So, what has the past six months been like for you, as part of the Opera Colorado Young Artist Program?
It’s been a wonderful experience. I feel so grateful to be here. I literally wake up every day and get to do what I love to do. That’s a big deal! As performers, we don’t always get that luxury. So I feel blessed and lucky and grateful to be a Young Artist here. All of my colleagues here are wonderful. I consider the other Young Artists to be my friends, not just my colleagues. We count on each other, hang out together, and we purposely spend time together outside of work.
All the people we’re working with at Opera Colorado are great. Cherity Koepke (Opera Colorado’s Director of Education & Community Programs and Director of the Young Artist Program) is the best and really has our best interest in mind at all times. Brett Sprague (Assistant Director) and Parisa Zaeri (Manager of Education & Community Engagement) are wonderful as well.
My favorite part is just getting excited for the work that I get to do that day. “I get to rehearse Elixir of Love today. How lucky am I that I get to go to work and be Adina?” I can’t wait until we get to do Falstaff because it’s one of my favorite operas. I get to do Nannetta on the mainstage! It’s exciting that people want to listen to me sing the stuff I’m having so much fun with. The opportunities that we have here are really wonderful.
What would you say to someone else who is just starting out and interested in a career in opera?
If you go into this, it’s a lifelong journey. You have to love it. Keep going. If you love it as much as we do, it’s totally worth it and it will bring you happiness tenfold. Don’t give up! That applies to whatever you love to do and whatever you want to do. Stick with it no matter what!
As a Young Artist, you’re constantly diving into a lot of repertoire. Who would you say is your favorite composer?
It really depends on what I’m singing at the moment and what I’m currently working on. But, I would say my favorite composers that I always love to sing are Mozart, Puccini, and Donizetti. I love mostly bel canto and Italian repertoire.
Would you say Italian is your favorite language to sing in?
That’s so hard. I love all of them for different reasons. Italian is obviously just the bones of opera, and you can apply the Italian technique to every language, and you should, in my mind. I love singing in French, too, so maybe it’s a battle between those two.
An Afternoon of American Song is this Sunday, and it’s really a highlight event of the Young Artist season. Why do you think makes it so special?
An Afternoon of American Song is going to be really different from other concerts. It’s really current repertoire that is being created and performed today. It’s all in English. You’re going to get these classically trained voices singing this modern rep with so much gusto underneath. I might be a little biased, but I think it’s the way it should be sung!
Can you give us a sneak peek of some of your favorite pieces on the program?
I’m singing “The Girl in 14G” with the other two female Young Artists, Nicole Keeling and Katherine Beck. We’re all really excited for that. I’m the opera singer in the song and it’s now a trio with the other two girls. I’m sure it’ll be a hoot! I’m also doing a duet with Nathan Ward: “The Rooftop Duet” from the musical Ordinary Days. All of the musical theater is something that we don’t get to do as often in our day-to-day as opera singers, so it’s something where we get to flex our musical muscles. I’m also singing “The Audition Sequence” from The Last Five Years, which I would say has been the hardest to learn. I was working on this last night and I was just hammering out beats thinking, “Why can’t I get this? Why is this so hard?” But the song is just so good! I’m also doing “The Glamorous Life” from Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. It’s beautiful and it’s really hard for me not to cry every time I sing it because it’s like, “This is my life,” pretty much.