OC Stories: Q & A with Stephen Variames
By Suzanne Whitney
Each year the Opera Colorado Artist in Residence program brings incredible emerging artists to Denver. They perform in mainstage productions, in educational programs for students and community members throughout Colorado’s the frontrange, and they have the opportunity to learn from the Opera Colorado staff and visiting artists. The Artists in Residence of course include singers, but among their number is the unsung hero of the program (yes, that is an unapologetic pun): the coach/pianist. This year, Opera Colorado is delighted the role is filled by first-year Artist in Residence, Stephen Variames.
Stephen is an alumni of Baylor University, University of Oklahoma, and the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. He has previously worked with Cincinnati Opera, Nashville Opera, Pensacola Opera, Roundabout Opera for Kids, Opera in the Ozarks, and Pittsburgh Festival Opera.
Here at Opera Colorado, he collaborates with the singers, performs with them in our new digital educational programs, and provides coaching support to make sure each performance is the best yet!
We are so lucky to have Stephen with us this season. He is an accomplished composer, as well as pianist and coach. It is an incredibly unique occurrence to have a coach/accompanist in this program who is also a composer. Looking forward to this spring, one of Stephen’s compositions will be featured in our annual concert, An Afternoon of American Song. Take a moment to learn about Stephen’s musical journey and what life has been like as one of the 2020-21 Opera Colorado Artists in Residence.
You wear a lot of different musical hats: pianist, vocal coach, composer—tell us a little bit about how you found your way to each of those roles.
Well, I started as a solo pianist in college. When I arrived at Baylor University, I realized how much I wanted to compose and was encouraged by my composition teacher to change my major. So I did! But a young composer does not make a career very early; so, during that time I also started playing for voice lessons. From there, it was all over for me! I fell in love with all of the vocal music and wanted to become a coach. I was encouraged by the opera director at Baylor during my undergraduate degree and decided that was to be my main focus. It’s a bit of a juggling act when I try to balance all three of my careers. Some days, I feel more like a coach/pianist, other days I feel more like a composer.
What is one of your favorite musical moments since arriving in Denver?
One of my favorite musical moments was our “Initiation by Aria,” where I performed an aria with each of the Artists in Residence for members of the Opera Colorado artistic team. To collaborate again in person, to see people’s reactions, to hear music in person was such a thrilling and fulfilling experience. I was with Pensacola Opera before this contract and stayed with family in Texas in the interim. Since I didn’t have a piano through that period, I hadn’t realized how much I missed collaborating until I finally got here! So that first presentation was very special to me.
Where does your inspiration come from when you are composing?
I have a few wells of inspiration. Most of the time, when I listen to other music that moves me, I want to head straight to the piano to create something of my own. Also, when I sit at the piano, I have a little card that quotes Sunday in the Park with George by Sondheim, “If it comes from you, then it will be new. Give us more to see.” With so many new pieces emerging every day and so many amazing pieces in the canon, it can be overwhelming at times to want to write. That quote helps me remember every voice deserves to be heard; my C major chord can feel so different from another composer’s C major chord. That gives me inspiration!
What are you most looking forward to when it is safe to go out and gather with friends and family?
Oddly enough, I’m looking forward to going to a movie theater. One of my consoling and fulfilling things to do is just go see a movie. Getting some popcorn, a diet Coke, and sitting in a dark room to experience art with strangers simply makes me happy!
What is your favorite music to perform?
This is a rather loaded question! My favorite music to perform changes almost day-to-day. Most of the time, I enjoy playing heavy romantic music—Puccini, Strauss, Wagner, but other days the transparency and sublime beauty of Mozart fulfills me. As for solo piano music, one of my favorite pieces to play is “Etude Op. 4, No. 1” by Karol Szymanowski. It’s an extremely dramatic piece, and the melodic material is thrilling in every moment. But, my favorite opera to play is Die Walküre by Wagner. Every act has some of the most exciting music in all of opera, and I really get to dig into the keys!
Enjoy getting to know Stephen off the stage in this episode of Meet the Artist!
What other questions do you have for Stephen? Are you looking forward to hearing one of his compositions performed this spring? Let us know in the comments below!