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50 Years of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia

Question: What can a singer, especially one interested in opera, do in that difficult limbo period between his early professional training and the establishment of his career? Singers take longer to mature than composers or instrumentalists who may learn their craft without waiting for their bodies to cooperate. Moreover, the opera singer's reservoir of expertise must contain, in addition to the strictly musical disciplines, linguistic skills, acting abilities, and such parochial pursuits as stage make-up, dancing, and even fencing.

Answer: There's not much a singer can do to acquire the practical experience he needs to qualify for name billing on the operatic boards, but wait. Unless, of course, he (or she) has the good fortune of being accepted by the Academy of Vocal Arts (AVA) in Philadelphia.

The 1984-85 season is a banner event in the Academy's history: it marks its 50th anniversary and, in looking with eager anticipation to its next fifty years, it is pausing to take stock of the present moment and to look, with justifiable pride, at its past achievements.

Founded in 1934 by a Philadelphia philanthropist with a particular passion for the human voice, Helen Corning Warden, AVA has been dedicated ever since to "making available to talented and deserving young men and women opportunities for vocal instruction and to assist and supervise their work." Mrs. Warden, who served as AVA's founder-president from 1934 to 1960, wrote that her interest lay in "keeping it always within the means of talented boys and girls who are willing and anxious to sacrifice everything in order to obtain the finest individual operatic education and development offered by our Academy."

The Academy's economic base is only one of its unique features. It accepts students exclusively on a full scholarship basis so that outstanding singers can receive the professional training they need without bearing the prohibitive costs involved. Applicants should have at least two years, preferably four, of college training or its equivalent in private study. Women applicants should be no older than 28 and men no older than 30. The predominant emphasis is on the production of opera. No formal degree is offered, but a certificate of merit is awarded to those students who, in the judgment of the Academy, are ready for operatic and concert careers.

Towards that end, AVA offers instruction in voice, operatic staging, theatre history, solfege, piano, and other related subjects. All students are required to take courses in the three principal operatic languages, Italian, French and German. The full course at the Academy is four years, and the curriculum is structured in two sections. The first two years are devoted to the teaching of basic studies, and the next two have been described as "a transition period into the profession itself, with students given opportunities to study and perform full operatic roles. They are urged to seek outside engagements while remaining under the supervision of the school."

Students come from all over the country and abroad. In recent years there have been, in addition to U.S. and Canadian students, young men and women from Spain, Korea, Chile, Israel and many other countries. Although their tuition is fully covered, they are expected to find their own lodgings and to pay their living expenses. The AVA accommodates a total of between 30 and 40 students, but tries to stay pretty flexible so that a really first-rate talent need never be rejected for lack of space. On the other hand, selections are made, much like selections to an athletic team, according to production needs and openings.

Osmin and Pedrillo sing

Since 1977, the Academy has been headed by the brilliant Dino Yannopoulos, an all-around humanist with degrees from the Universities of Vienna and Leipzig-his Ph.D. was taken in the history of economics!-and erstwhile student at the Vienna Conservatory and Salzburg Mozarteum. An opera director who was responsible for 24 new productions at the Met, Yannopoulos has worked in most of the world's great opera houses and founded the International Festival of Athens (1955) and the Corfu Festival (1981). He was in charge of the Cincinnati Summer Opera and, in 1969, was invited by Rudolf Serkin to join the faculty of The Curtis Institute of Music. In reviewing his credentials, he never fails to recall that it was he who prepared Maria Callas for her debut.

Artistic director and chief conductor is Christofer Macatsoris. He and Yannopoulos both feel that AVA must expose its students to the standard works which will be expected from them in the opera market. It is not enough, they think, to do the unusual, the rarely heard, the avant-garde. First and foremost must be the bread-and-butter staples of the repertory and, wherever practical, in the original language. Thus, for example AVA presented Mozart's Entfuehrung aus dem Serail (Neue Mozart-Ausgabe) in German last season, rather than an English translation. On the other hand, when the production was a seldom seen vehicle such as Mozart's La Finta giardiniera (see MadAminA!, Fall 1983), a suitable English translation was commissioned specifically for that occasion.

The voice faculty is headed by Nell Rankin, a leading dramatic mezzo-soprano who has appeared on the world's concert and opera stages, including 24 seasons at the Met. Other members of the distinguished faculty include Nancy Williams, Vahan Khanzadian, and special coaches in the French (Thomas Grubb) and German (Felix Popper) repertoire. Master classes are given several times each year by such artists as Jerome Hines, Renato Capecchi, Gerard Souzay, Simon Estes and Beverly Wolff. While the students' sessions with their respective voice teachers are considered high-priority time segments, scheduling remains extremely flexible, invariably hinging on the time demands of the production in progress at any point.

AVA has proved to be an extraordinarily effective farm system for professional opera companies. The Met, New York City and San Francisco Operas all have several AVA alumni on their rosters. Moreover, currently enrolled students are helped to find jobs at such summertime operations as the Santa Fe Opera, Lake George Opera Festival, Artpark and others. Directing the concert bureau is Richard Shapp, a baritone (formerly with the Israel National Opera) who dreams up new ways of providing exposure for these gifted young people. He has successfully enlisted the aid of local foundations and businesses in providing funds to send singers into schools, hospitals, retirement homes and even penal institutions in the Philadelphia area. The season just ended, for example, included 16 "Opera for Kids" performances as well as 51 informal institutional presentations.

One of the recurrent problems faced by the AVA is the site of halls suitable to their productions. Their own, recently refurbished Helen Corning Warden Theater is a wonderfully intimate facility for chamber opera. However, it only seats about 150 people, making it necessary to present each opera four times, an expensive venture considering that each performance means paying orchestra and technical personnel. An alternative has been the Walnut Theatre with large enough seating capacity to permit paired performances of the larger productions such as Il Trittico by Puccini. There, however, the big problem has been the theatre's limited availability, and efforts to find a more dependable auditorium go on.

Since its founding, AVA has produced no less then 81 operas by 47 composers. True, many of these were staged with piano accompaniment rather then full orchestra, but even such studio productions were given with meticulous attention to every musical and theatrical detail. The operas which call for a huge apparatus or extraordinary virtuosity are avoided. The faculty is aware of their resources' limitations, both musically end physically. Thus, for example, no Wagner has ever been given, and the Verdi (Don Carlo, Falstaff, King for a Day) or Strauss (Arabella, Ariadne auf Naxos, Capriccio) operas have had more modest requirements than, say, Aida or Der Rosenkavalier.

In addition to the great operatic mainstays, one finds in the AVA'a annals such seldom seen operas as d'Albert's Tiefland, Paisiello's Barber of Seville, Schubert's Fierrabras, and both Hamlet and Mignon by Ambroise Thomas.

A generous cross-section of 20th century opera has been given under AVA auspices by composers including Bakse, Barab, Barber, Beeson, Bernstein, Britten (3), Cheilly, Floyd, Gesensway, Hindemith, Laderman, Menotti (4), Milhaud, Moore, Musgrave, Nordoff, Pasetiari, Turok, Weill and Wolf-Ferrari. During 1985, the Delaware Valley premiere of Peter Maxwell Davies' The Lighthouse has been scheduled.

Helen Corning Warden's dream is a thriving reality. Her daughter, Mrs. Henry D. Paxson, serves as AVA's president, her daughter-in-law, Mrs. Clarence A. Warden, Jr. as vice president, and the board includes such distinguished personalities as Max Rudolf and one of AVA's most successful alumni, James Morris. With the enormous expenses of late 20th century survival, AVA has come to rely on the generous support of outside foundations, corporations and private individuals. Contributions were made with conviction and enthusiasm. Both the medium and the message have been tested and found to be good. The Academy of Vocal Arts is the only institution of its kind in the world.

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