Opera is an exquisite art form. Each singer must go through Olympian vocal gymnastics to carry the human voice to its supreme expression. World-renowned soprano Mary Jane Johnson …
Opera is an exquisite art form. Each singer must go through Olympian vocal gymnastics to carry the human voice to its supreme expression. World-renowned soprano Mary Jane Johnson has that gift -- and the generosity of heart to give back.
Back in 2007 Johnson and fellow operatic soprano Linda Poetschke founded the Taos Opera Institute and located it in Taos Ski Valley. Poetschke's career has spanned 40 years and she has enjoyed numerous appearances with symphony orchestras and regional opera companies across the Southwest.
Taos Opera Institute's singers have put the icing on its month-long series of free performances with a lush TOI Festival Showcase. The concert is planned Saturday, (June 29), 7 p.m., at the Taos Community Auditorium, 145 Paseo del Pueblo Norte. It is designed to include performances of scenes and arias from "Carmen," "West Side Story," "Die Fledermaus" and "Porgy and Bess." Dessert and wine will be served during the intermission.
If you didn't already know, Johnson, an operatic soprano, has performed with many of the greats including Luciano Pavarotti, the late Italian tenor. She is the real deal and has brought top-notch talent to teach at the Taos Opera Institute - so when you are accepted into the program, it is a big deal.
One of this year's students is Alexandria Carmon, who recently graduated with a double master's in vocal and vocal pedagogy. She comes to the Taos Ski Valley from Oklahoma City. Carmon says she hails from a family of singers and has been singing since the age of four. That's 21 years of her life.
"When I was five or six, my grandfather was listening to an opera CD and he said, 'You are going to sing like that one day.' " Carmen says she feels fortunate to be part of the institute's program.
The TOI is an intensive summer program for up-and-coming opera students. They spend a month in the Taos Ski Valley learning the ropes from four vocal coaches and four pianists while learning arias in German, English, French and Italian. The institute goes above and beyond the craft with yoga and meditation along with exposure to marketing and media. It is a veritable whirlwind.
"I have had an incredibly enriching artistic experience here with the students and faculty of Taos Opera Institute, largely because of the program's true dedication to the individual," says stage director Mark Craig. "It's a beautiful, holistic approach to teaching and learning that is often missing in a university atmosphere."
Craig is a professor of voice at the University of Lynchburg, Virginia. He holds a master's in music from the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music. Craig says the essential goal of the festival is to invite people to an evening of beautiful voices, with familiar and new music from a broad repertoire. Opera becomes interwoven into a musical panorama.
In June of each year, Taos receives the mother lode of this hard work and talent in the way of free concerts, all except for the institute's grand finale showcase. The students along with Cantos de Taos, the institute's outreach program, perform numerous shows throughout Taos and Santa Fe.
Featured in the Cantos de Taos are the Moipei triplets, Mary, Maggy and Marta, from Nairobi, Kenya. The young women are recent graduates of St. Mary's University in San Antonio, Texas. They sing an eclectic mix of their own arrangements of Broadway tunes, jazz hits, sacred pieces and Kenyan folk songs.
In 2017, they featured in their first professional opera, "Speed Dating Tonight," with the Alamo City Opera company, breathing new life into a rapidly changing industry. You will be seeing more of them.
Johnson says the way to keep opera relevant is to keep up with the changing industry. Her plan: Make performances shorter and affordable because people do not want to sit for two and a half hours, nor do middle-class Americans have money for tickets that can run into $200 plus dollars per individual. Opera can be performed in smaller troupes at smaller venues. The days of the main stage are in decline.
Spanish-American tenor Eric Barry came up through the ranks in the institute's intensive program. While enjoying a career in opera he has returned to the fold to manage the business side for the institute. Add to his music credentials a master's of business from Yale University.
In a 2017 Schmopera interview Barry says, "It's incredibly hard work to keep our instrument in its best form but the high I get from creating a beautiful moment onstage with a hall full of colleagues is unbelievable." This is what keeps the artist going, those moments to which young opera singers aspire.
Students who go through this program have many inspiring mentors but none more brilliant or stronger than Johnson herself. "I don't believe you can't have what you want," she says. "You may have to work a little harder, you may have to struggle, you may have pain, you may have heartache, but if you want to pass through all those levels and get what you want out of life, you can do it if you want it badly enough."
Tickets to the TOI Festival Showcase are $25.
In addition to the showcase, the TOI Singers will perform Friday (June 28), 5 p.m., at St. James Episcopal Church, 208 Camino de Santiago. Admission is free. Plus, the same day at 8 p.m., Cantos de Taos will perform at the Sagebrush Inn, 1508 Paseo del Pueblo Sur. Admission is also free.
For more information, call (575) 758-2052 or visit taosoi.org.
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