Renée Fleming raises curtain on details of collaboration between Lyric Opera of Chicago and Merit School of Music
Lyric Opera of Chicago Creative Consultant Renée Fleming revealed details of the collaboration between the world-renowned opera company and Merit School of Music during a media conference at the school on Monday, September 12.
This collaboration will benefit teens in a new Opera and Musical Theater solo voice major at Merit’s Alice S. Pfaelzer Tuition-free Conservatory. Other Merit students will also participate in Lyric offerings.
Joining Fleming were Lyric President and CEO Kenneth G. Pigott, who also serves on the Merit board; Lyric General Director Designate Anthony Freud; Ryan Opera Center Director Gianna Rolandi; and Merit President Duffie Adelson.
Since Lyric announced the Renée Fleming Initiative, plans have solidified for the long-term collaboration between Lyric Opera and the highly regarded community music school based on the near-west side of Chicago (less than a mile from the Civic Opera House). A large percentage of Merit students receive instruction tuition-free or are highly subsidized.
Founded in 1979 when the Chicago Public Schools eliminated music from the elementary-school curriculum, Merit School of Music currently serves 6,000 Chicago-area youth from infancy through age 18. It is regarded as a principal leader in providing extraordinary music education and life-changing experiences for Chicago-area children through music. Classes are held in Merit’s Joy Faith Knapp Music Center, the 40,000-sq.-foot state-of-the-art main facility in the West Loop; and in more than 50 locations throughout Chicago and northwest Indiana. These include public schools, private and parochial schools, community centers, and homeless shelters.
“Of the more than 6,000 students participating in Merit’s numerous programs, 375 have been selected by audition for Merit’s advanced program, the Alice S. Pfaelzer Tuition-free Conservatory,” Renée Fleming noted. “These talented students receive intensive weekly education. The conservatory presents a rigorous learning experience where high expectations in the classroom yield high results. This environment makes it the perfect home for the Lyric-Merit program.
“The collaboration between Lyric and Merit School of Music, one of the country’s best community music schools, creates an exciting and extraordinary environment for teens with vocal potential,” said Fleming. As part of the company’s Renée Fleming Initiative, “Lyric will assist Merit in enhancing its vocal program and will make Lyric Opera more accessible to all Merit students.” Fleming’s background is in music education as well as performance; both her parents were high-school vocal music teachers in public schools.
Fleming stated that “one of the great appeals of Merit is that it provides tuition-free instruction for so many of its students. Developing music skills is developing life skills: personal confidence, pride of accomplishment, problem solving and critical thinking, learning how to listen and work harmoniously in an ensemble.”
Duffie Adelson noted that Merit is committed to helping children realize their full musical potential while helping them to excel academically and grow personally, with special emphasis on children who are economically disadvantaged. The school’s mission has always been to provide life-changing experiences for children through music.
Merit’s New Solo Voice Major for Teens
Last March Merit School of Music auditioned and selected a dozen new high-school students for its new solo voice major program. Fleming said, “Participants may concentrate on opera and music theater or on jazz, through the American songbook.” The soprano recounted her own experiences in jazz singing and how that complemented her classical training.
Fleming noted that Merit has always offered vocal instruction through its many choirs as well as a voice major through its tuition-free conservatory. Now, though, “the Merit-Lyric partnership has inspired the creation of a more intensive opera and music-theater track.”
Merit’s new group of solo voice students (nine of whom chose the Opera and Musical Theater major) joined 350+ committed student musicians in the school’s Alice S. Pfaelzer Tuition-free Conservatory, and began receiving instruction every Saturday, March 12 through May 7, Fleming said. Additional auditions took place in May for voice students to participate in a summer program and to commence weekend studies in October. There are now 46 students enrolled in the solo voice major program for Merit’s 2011-12 school year, October through early May.
“Merit will provide ongoing weekly instruction for solo voice students, and Lyric will provide an extension of those studies through access to performances and professionals,” Fleming continued. “Many of the learning opportunities provided by Lyric will also be made available to non-vocal students at Merit. Young people won’t just be attending performances; learning opportunities provided by Lyric through its education department will be integrated into their studies at Merit.”
Students majoring in Opera and Musical Theater (OMT) will also attend “Live from Gottlieb,” Merit’s ongoing weekly series in which conservatory students have an opportunity to watch professionals, and sometimes their peers, perform.
Merit has hired faculty and selected students for the vocal program as part of the senior division of its tuition-free conservatory, Fleming said. Merit’s voice faculty has developed a curriculum that encompasses private and group vocal instruction covering vocal technique and solo repertoire; instruction in language, diction, acting, and movement; and music theory, among other subjects.
Merit’s voice faculty members include soprano Kimberly Jones and baritone Kirk Walker (both former Ryan Opera Center members, featured artists in Lyric’s Opera in the Neighborhoods and Meet the Artist education programs), singer/composer Jade Maze, soprano Patrice Michaels, choir director Andrew Morgan, singer/stage director A. J. Wester (a Lyric teaching artist), and jazz vocalist Amanda Wolff.
Lyric Board President Kenneth G. Pigott said, “Lyric and Merit are energized and enthusiastic about this collaboration, which has the potential for changing the lives of all the students who participate. Lyric can offer these students exposure to one of the great opera companies of the world – both its performances and its excellent education programs. Through this experience Merit students will better understand what goes into becoming a great singer – the instruction and the discipline involved – or, for that matter, what goes into many other arts-related careers. Through this exposure they’ll become aware of countless possibilities for their own lives.”
Adelson commented, “We are thrilled about our extraordinary partnership with Renée Fleming and Lyric Opera – and not only for the fortunate participants in the Solo Voice Program. All of our Conservatory students will benefit. Through frequent exposure to their peers in the Solo Voice Program and to visiting artists, Merit students will, undoubtedly, fall in love with vocal repertoire and the sound of the trained voice. Each will begin to understand how musicians – whatever their instrument – must continually strive to emulate the human voice and to phrase like a fine singer. To reach an artistic level, every musician must recognize and develop the singer within.”
Following in the Footsteps of Jane Addams’ Hull House
Anthony Freud said, “I was fascinated to learn that the very first community school of the arts in the U.S. was established here in Chicago by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr in 1892 at the Hull House on South Halsted – less than a mile from Merit School’s beautiful current home on Peoria Street. The purpose was to enrich the lives of children of recent immigrants – something to which I can personally relate – and the concept spread quickly to other settlement houses around the country. Merit is among the finest of that group.”
Freud continued, “As I said when I was named Lyric’s general director last April, my goal is to excite and stimulate the Chicago public – including students such as those at Merit School who previously may never have considered that Lyric Opera can be relevant to their lives. Chicago is a wonderfully diverse and vibrant city, and as one of the city’s truly great institutions, Lyric can and must provide broad and deep cultural service to communities throughout our city – as exemplified by this exciting collaboration with Merit School. We are one of the world’s finest opera companies, and we must also be a community resource, always addressing the unique needs and attributes of our city.”
Said Fleming, “As you can tell, Anthony shares my passion for arts education and reaching audiences in innovative ways.” Fleming then outlined the details of the multifaceted Lyric-Merit collaboration, which comprises the following elements in its inaugural 2011-12 season.
Details of Lyric’s Collaboration with Merit
The soprano disclosed that she will work with Merit voice students via Skype three times over the course of the 2011-12 school year. “Selected students will sing for me with their classmates listening in and I’ll be able to comment on their work and offer encouragement,” she added.
“Lyric will provide access to selected performances at the Civic Opera House to Merit voice students as well as to students in other disciplines,” Fleming said. Additionally, “Lyric will provide more than 200 students, including all those in the senior division of the tuition-free conservatory, with the opportunity to attend the dress rehearsal of The Magic Flute on Saturday, December 3.”
The Education Department
Fleming noted that Lyric’s Education Department, which annually serves more than 100,000 children and adults through myriad programs, will play a major role in preparing Merit students before they attend performances. Students will learn about the opera’s plot, themes, and music through engaging pre-opera presentations conducted by Lyric’s professional education staff.
A week after Merit’s 2011-12 school year begins, 375 students will attend an Opera in the Neighborhoods performance of La Cenerentola at the school on Saturday, October 8, which is administered by Lyric’s Education Dept. and Ryan Opera Center. “The students will experience young professional singers performing in full costume with charming sets – in English, with piano accompaniment,” Fleming said. “After the performance the students will be able to meet and ask questions of the singers who, like them, come from a variety of backgrounds.” The intention is to convey to the Merit students that “not only is opera fun, but that it might be possible for them to become opera singers, too.”
“I am particularly excited about what will happen on Saturday, March 17 – and I don’t mean Chicago’s famous St. Patrick’s Day parade!” Fleming continued. “On that day, Lyric’s Education Department will provide special backstage tours for the entire tuition-free conservatory, combined with a ‘career day’ in which Lyric personnel – including me and several others – will speak with the students about the many facets of this wonderful art form, from working behind the scenes to performing onstage.”
The Ryan Opera Center
“Seeing and hearing a professional singer up close can be a powerful learning experience for a young student. I’m very pleased that a Ryan Opera Center Recital Series is being launched this season as part of Merit’s Live from Gottlieb Hall Performance Series, which is presented exclusively for the Merit community,” Fleming continued. “Students will experience professional singing at its best, and will learn through observation how singers with excellent vocal technique and interpretation skills create exciting and moving performances. They’ll be able to ask the performers how they personalized their programs, among other subjects, in post performance Q&As.”
Fleming acknowledged the director of the Ryan Opera Center, “my colleague Gianna Rolandi. Under her guidance the Ryan Opera Center is one of the finest professional development programs for singers anywhere in the world.
“Another wonderful opportunity for the Merit vocal solo majors is ‘Opera Buddy for a Day!’, in which they will shadow members of the Ryan Opera Center during a typical day in the center’s program,” Fleming said. “Merit students will observe Ryan Opera Center members as they prepare for their roles in the 2011-12 opera season.”
Lyric’s Professional Staff
Calling him “one of my favorite maestros,” Fleming noted that Sir Andrew Davis, Lyric’s music director, will conduct a working session with the Merit Symphony Orchestra this season (date TBD).
Lyric Education Director Mark Riggleman will be an available resource to Merit staff through the school year. Riggleman and education-department staff members will provide input as requested on the Merit voice curriculum before the 2011-12 solo voice program commences Saturday, October 1.