Archive for Thursday, October 28, 1999


October 28, 1999


The Kansas University music department is singing the praises of recent graduates.

Ask John Stephens about Kansas University music department graduates and he beams like a proud parent with a brood of overachieving kids.

And he has every reason to be happy. KU singers are garnering more than their share of big-time roles with elite opera companies and choirs. They also are achieving success on and off Broadway, in film and TV performances, and as teachers and music scholars.

Most people probably don't associate KU vocal graduates with sophisticated theater events, so that makes their overwhelming professional performance credits and awards all the more impressive.

"It's almost an embarrassment of riches," Stephens said, "and I'm really proud of those kids."

Stephens, a KU music professor, had to contact several sources just to form a partial list of graduates who now make their living on-stage. It takes longer to make it in a field as technically challenging as opera, so there also are several recent graduates who appear to be on their way up the professional ladder of success who have yet to reach the performance plateau where many former students are now.

"What we're seeing is that it usually takes 10 years to make it if you have the goods," Stephens said. "In this business it takes much more in age and maturity to prepare to sing these roles, and we have a whole bunch of people making it big time."

Naming names

Several singers are already at a peak performance level. Here's a brief overview of just a few of them:

  • Jayne Casselman sings extensively throughout Europe. She's had key roles in several German operas and performed with opera companies in Bonn, Mannhein and Berlin. She will make her major U.S. debut next year in Philadelphia.
  • Stephanie Nyffeler has also played in Europe and works extensively in operas in Switzerland.
  • Phyllis Pancella is a past winner of the Metropolitan Opera Council auditions. She sang with the Chicago Lyric Opera and won rave reviews for her title role in "Lizzie Borden" during a recent stint with the New York City Opera. In May she starred as Carmen in the Bizet opera at the English National Opera in London.

"She's having a major career," Stephens said.

  • Richard Roberts also is singing in London. In an ironic twist, he played a supporting role in "Carmen," opposite Pancella, his former classmate.

"It's a small world after all," Stephens said with a laugh.

Added to the list are KU graduates like Andrew Stuckey and MaryJane Kania, who have both performed with the Chicago Lyric Opera; Kari Paludan, who toured with the New York City Opera Company in "Madama Butterfly"; and Troy Curtis, who had the male lead in the National Opera Company's recent touring production of "Cinderella."

It's not only in opera that performers are establishing their careers. Mike Moore was in the recent TV adaptation of "Gypsy" with Bette Midler. Cristi Catt sings with the Boston-based choral group Tapestry, and Lori Louis makes her living in the Dale Warland Singers, an internationally renowned choir.

Then there is Holly Rudkin. Rudkin has worked in professional operas, but she's also made the jump to movies. She acted in the summer blockbuster "The Sixth Sense," with Bruce Willis.

"She's doing all kinds of stuff," Stephens said.

Gearing for success

A singer training for an opera career is like an athlete training for a triathlon. It's much more rigorous than other performance arenas, and singers need more than talent. They need years of hard work and discipline, competitiveness and focus in order to win roles. Stephens thinks KU's music department helps them develop those traits.

Opera singers usually major in voice, and their degree requirements are daunting. They study music theory, history and acting courses, and because so many operas are written in languages other than English, they have a heavy emphasis on foreign language and diction courses.

Stephens said KU also offers a teaching staff well-versed in both music training and the business side of opera, along with numerous performance opportunities. This season KU has five operas scheduled.

"We have a good atmosphere. It's not so large students get lost, but it's big enough to be competitive," Stephens said.

Plenty of opportunities

Despite movies, TV and computers offering numerous entertainment choices, Stephens said that live stage events are attracting record audiences, giving opera singers plenty of opportunities to perform.

Almost every major European and American city has a resident opera company. There are also touring productions, and many companies offer in-house training programs with their own performance schedules.

"There are an enormous amount of opportunities for classical singers," Stephens said. "It's not going to rival TV, but it's a healthy part of the arts culture, and there's simply no substitute for the human contact you get at a live performance."

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