After listening to a recent performance of Wolf Trap Opera Company’s 'Don Giovanni,' it is hard to believe that the performers are not yet professional opera singers. In fact, the entire cast is made up of members of the Filene Young Artists Program.
"After attending school for six or seven years, this program is the last stop in the young artists' career before they become professionals," said Kim Pensinger Witman, director of the Wolf Trap Opera Company.
The first four of those years are especially grueling. "Getting an undergraduate music degree is harder than getting a pre-med undergraduate degree," said Maureen McKay, an opera singer with Wolf Trap's Filene Young Artists Program. Following graduation, aspiring singers go on to earn their graduate degree or artist's diploma. The last phase before becoming professionals is participation in programs that give them performance experience.
The Filene Young Artists Program is one program available to these singers. Opera singers ranging in age from 23 to 32 spend one to two summers training and performing at the Barns at Wolf Trap in Vienna.
"This program was at the top of my list," said McKay. "It's a famous program, one of the elite. Singing here is really special because so many great artists have sung here." Jason Ferrante of Baltimore tried out for the program six times before becoming a member this summer, beating out over 300 hopefuls. He said that some other programs provide fewer opportunities for their young artists. "But here," he said, "we are the featured artists, not understudies or chorus members. We actually learn our craft on the stage. It's a good bridge from formal training to a career."
THE YOUNG ARTISTS Program does such a good job of giving singers a taste of the life of a professional opera singer that some quit after realizing how demanding it is. "Moving here for the summer, they get used to living life on the road, like most professional opera singers do," said Witman. "Typically, six months of the year are spent away from home. This lifestyle is especially hard for women."
McKay, whose husband lives in Seattle, agreed. "You must show a lot of dedication, hard work and patience,” she said. Even though she enjoys traveling, McKay said she is glad that she has her spouse to keep her grounded and focused.
Wolf Trap has done its best to make things as easy as possible for the uprooted singers. Through its volunteer host system, singers stay in homes in the community. "The original reason for the volunteer host system was economic," said Witman. A large part of the budget would have gone to temporarily housing the singers in apartments or dorms, leaving too little for the production of the shows.
Since so much of the singers' time is spent at the Barns, it is essential that they reside nearby. "Thus, there is a financial and logistical need for volunteer host situations," said Susan Weinsheimer, who is in charge of placing singers with families in the area. Also, according to Witman, living with a family that is familiar with the community eases the transition of moving to a new place and gives the singers an immediate connection to the area. It also provides a higher standard of living than would a dorm or temporary apartment.
"Our hosts are a wonderful corporation of volunteers who physically and emotionally support these very talented young people as they start their careers," said Weinsheimer, adding that hosts are usually found through advertisements in local newspapers or by word of mouth.
"One of our music directors at church is Kim P. Witman, the director of the Wolf Trap Opera Company," said Patti Collins, a volunteer host. "She was looking for some host families about three summers ago. We thought it sounded intriguing and responded that we would like to help.”
The relationship between host and singer is mutually beneficial. "My hosts have become a surrogate family," said Ferrante of Great Falls residents Wendell and Karen Van Lare.
"We have hosted delightful singers and have made new friends," said Patti Collins of McLean. She and her husband are hosting McKay. "The opera singers are very encouraging to my daughters' desires to learn music. One of our daughters even took last year's opera singer to 'show and tell' at her school.”
"It's been a great experience to know an opera singer personally," said Faith Collins, the Collins' oldest daughter. "It is great to hear them sing and practice at our house and then see them perform it on stage after you have heard them practice it over and over."
The singers also enjoy the benefits of living in Northern Virginia. "They like being here because we are centrally located. If they need to, they can hop on a plane at Dulles and go to New York for an audition," Witman said. Also, the singers are given the opportunity to rehearse in the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall.
However, Witman noted that one drawback is the adjustment to Northern Virginia's notorious weather. "In this area, climactic and allergy conditions are unique, so every year, someone gets sick."
Ferrante also commented on another northern Virginia staple: traffic. “I have learned that leaving the house for errands on a weekday between 3 and 7 p.m. is not a great idea,” he said.
Nevertheless, most singers do come back for a second summer, often staying with the same host family as the year before. After that, they go on to graduate from young artist status and travel the world as professional opera singers. Because of the Wolf Trap Opera Company's Filene Young Artists Program and the volunteer host families, the aspiring singers have a place to become adequately prepared for their careers.