Nearly two years after it was first announced, the Aspen Music Festival’s reimagined opera program is up and running with the legendary soprano Renée Fleming and conductor Patrick Summers at the helm and 15 of the world’s most promising opera students in its inaugural class of fellows.
Running since late June, the program’s young singers turn toward the public this weekend with Saturday night’s performance of an abridged “The Magic Flute” at the Benedict Music Tent.
Some of these fellows have been through as many as three post-graduate training programs and all have risen to the top in the dizzyingly competitive field as young vocalists. The co-directors held some quiet concerns that some might have “study fatigue” at this point in their training, as they are poised to launch professional careers. But Fleming and Summers have been pleased to find that this diverse international group of students’ curiosity and teachability matches their talent.
“They’ve been really open-minded and willing to grow and take on more skills,” Fleming said this week on a rainy afternoon, taking shelter in the empty Benedict Music Tent.
Fleming herself is among Aspen’s most famous alumni, beginning her career here with performances in “Transformations” and “The Marriage of Figaro” in 1982 and 1983. Aspen led to Juilliard and a monumental career on the largest opera stages in the world, crossovers into pop, a Super Bowl gig, a Grammy, a National Medal of Arts and the nickname “the people’s diva.”
Spending an entire summer in Aspen for the first time since those early days fulfills an “escape fantasy” she often turned to when her career got stressful, and allows her to focus on giving back to the new generation of performers. Devoting herself to teaching had been gratifying, Fleming said.
“I’ve given master classes for many, many years, but that’s a different animal,” she said. “I’m just really having a blast.”
Fleming has made an effort to wake up extra early to hike everyday — hitting the Ute Trail and other favorites — but she, Summers and the students’ days are packed with music and training.
In the mornings, there are coaching and individual voice lessons, in the afternoons it’s opera rehearsals for “The Magic Flute.” Students have also prepared themselves for the program’s opera scenes master classes (running on Saturday mornings at the Wheeler, these are can’t-miss events for in-the-know festival faithful and a gem of the annual schedule that’s often off casual fans’ radar). Students will also perform an abridged rendition of Handel’s “Rodelinda” during the festival’s closing weekend on Aug. 21.
“It’s a lot of music,” Summers noted of the creative challenges given to VocalARTS students. “We’ve thrown a lot of paint on the canvas this summer. These singers are working extremely hard.”
Both Fleming and Summers — music director at the Houston Grand Opera — were drawn to lead the VocalARTS program for the chance to prepare young musicians for today’s intense and quickly transforming world of opera. Mastering music and theater acting is a given for musicians who have reached the level of these students. Along with elements of the art like language, style and stage movement, VocalARTS is aiming to prepare them for the social media age as public figures and the unique challenges of the 21st century classical music world.
“When we started (as students) there was no such thing as a website,” laughed Summers. “Now singers have to do that from the start of their career on their own — to create a profile and figure out who they are and what they have to say.”
Among the new elements of the opera program, in addition to the top-tier artistic training that the school has provided since Fleming’s days as a student under Edward Berkeley, are plenary sessions aimed at off-stage skills. Fleming and Summers and guest speakers who are experts in their fields discuss topics ranging from Baroque ornamentation and song literature to sessions on racial equity and discrimination. The curriculum includes things like managing one’s taxes, website development and audition practices.
“It is complicated and it’s a heavy lift for the skill set that this life requires,” Fleming said.
Once a week the group has also come together to compose a poem collectively, putting an idea into verse. The practice of poeticizing is aimed at building community among the students and helping them become, in Summers’ words, “a complete artist.”
Announced during summer 2019, the Aspen Opera Theater and VocalARTS program had been scheduled to launch in 2020, when the in-person season was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Fleming and Summers did hold virtual programs and a livestreamed master class that was among the high points of the virtual pandemic season.
The 2021 version of VocalARTS is still scaled back due to ongoing COVID-19 protocols. The class is limited to the 15 scholars named Renee Fleming Artists, though full classes in future summers are expected to admit about 50 additional opera students (overall this summer the music school student body has been trimmed to 270 from the typical 600).
Summers said he is relishing the individual attention this boutique-sized class has afforded. But he and Fleming are eager for future summers with bigger classes and the ability to produce full-length operas with scenery, to launch new education initiatives and to include elements of the curriculum, like vocal jazz, that have been curtailed for this season.
The smaller 2021 rendition has allowed the directors to thoughtfully plan how they’ll expand in years to come.
“We’re doing a lot of reflection every day with each other on what we want to enhance and keep and do more of next year,” Summers said. “We’re learning this first year.”
Doing a “Magic Flute” at 90 minutes without scenery, without the serpent and the animals and all the grandiosity of a full-scale production has perhaps allowed the students to focus on the music itself and maybe allowed for more focus on learning Mozart vocal style, a world unto itself. They’ve cut the dialogue (Fleming will provide narration to move the plot along) and foregone elaborate scenery and staging in the name of public health precautions. So the actors are focused on their characters and the content, and the audiences will be focused on the performers — well-deserved as most have gone 15 months of the pandemic without facing audiences at all.
“This is allowing the focus to be on the artists themselves,” said Summers, “on the music and their relationship with the words and music and Mozart.”
When Fleming was a student here, she also embraced the mountain lifestyle and time in the woods.
“When I was here I biked up to Maroon Bells every day,” she said. “I was a fanatic biker.”
She and Summers are hopeful the VocalARTS students might similarly embrace the mountains and its inspirations. It can inspire a creative boldness, they reasoned, as well as a fuller understanding of the centuries of music inspired by nature.
“When young musicians are finding their artistry, that is a journey in itself,” Summers said. “When you’re finding that in a place that also is so naturally magnificent, there’s a connection to nature that you make forever.”
Fleming is also on stage this weekend, performing Maria Schneider’s “Winter Morning Walks” on Friday with the Aspen Chamber Symphony. She has been a guest soloist here for decades, of course, but performing during a summer devoted to teaching is a new experience.
“I think teaching will inform the performance for me,” Fleming said. “You’re being reconnected with the foundation and the principles of singing in a way that it’s easy to get away from that when you’re years and years into it. So I think it’s going to be very good – I mean, these young singers will be here (in the audience). I’ll be very nervous, I think, because I need to do what I preach.”