Soprano Olivia Yokers, a native of Hamilton. CONTRIBUTED

Falling in love at Dayton Opera: Young artists sing ‘Barber of Seville’

It’s easy to imagine an 8-year-old girl aspiring to become a ballerina or a 14-year-old musician dreaming of rock star fame. But what accounts for a decision to set your sights on an opera career?

We posed that question to the four young opera singers participating in Dayton Opera’s Artist-in-Residence program this season. Selected from 150 to 200 applicants at national auditions in New York and Dayton, the four arrived in December to perform in the Dayton Philharmonic’s annual presentation of Handel’s “Messiah” and in the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance’s New Year’s Eve Concert. Their official residency began in January and you may have caught them performing at the Dayton Philharmonic Chamber Concert “Bernstein Songfest” at the Dayton Art Institute.

Three of these singers will be on stage at the Schuster Center when the Dayton Opera presents Gioachino Rossini’s comic opera, “The Barber of Seville” on Friday, March 2 and Sunday, March 4.

“The first, and most important, attribute I look for is career potential vocal quality,” explains Dayton Opera artistic director Tom Bankston.” Our AIR singers have to be able to represent Dayton Opera at a professional level in wide-ranging performance situations so it is important that their voices show a professional level that is distinguishable even to the youngest of children, and believe me they can tell the difference!”

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Bankston says he also looks for a baseline level of experience and training gained either from university- or entry-level opera company experience. “And because they are advocates and emissaries for our art form,” he adds, “they must have an ability to communicate what our art form is all about in a persuasive and positive way.”

About the program

The Dayton Opera Artist-in-Residence (AIR) program was established in 1987 as a professional training program for young singers, providing a bridge between their university/conservatory education and a professional opera company career. This season marks the program’s 31st year.

In addition to performing in Dayton Opera productions and Philharmonic concerts, the young artists introduce opera in schools throughout the community. This winter, in cooperation with The Muse Machine, they’re presenting “OMG — It’s Opera,” written and directed by WYSO’s development director Luke Dennis.

“This quartet is the best I’ve worked with in terms of comedic timing,” says Dennis. “Sometimes opera singers are in the ‘park and bark’ school, but these four are really actors as well.”

New to the AIR program is pianist Carol Warner, who is serving as music director and accompanist. She’s worked extensively for Cincinnati Opera and has been principal accompanist for past Dayton Opera productions.

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Meet the singers

Soprano Olivia Yokers, a native of Hamilton, was only 13 when she saw her first opera, “Tosca,” and immediately fell in love. “I was amazed by the woman playing Tosca and in awe by the power of her voice,” Olivia remembers. “I never knew that the human voice could sing over a 50-person orchestra and fill a concert hall like that without the help of microphones. I was struck by the beauty and drama of the whole thing and from that moment on, I knew opera was something I wanted to pursue.”

Olivia, who earned both her bachelor and master’s degrees in music at Indiana University, first appeared locally in the Dayton Philharmonic’s PhilharMonster concert, “Green Eggs and Ham” in October. Being from Hamilton, she says, has meant that Dayton Opera has always been a company she loved. “I think the highlight of my time here was performing in the New Year’s Eve concert,” she says. “I couldn’t think of a better way to bring in 2018.”

Mezzo-soprano Noragh Devlin has been praised for her “powerful, rangy mezzo-soprano” by the New York Times. She’s a recent graduate of the Manhattan School of Music.

When it came to choosing opera as a profession, she says, there was no special “a-ha!” moment. “I started out as a violinist and when I was 12, I took my first voice lesson out of curiosity,” she says. “From there, I just couldn’t get enough. I took more lessons and joined more choirs. It quickly became evident that my voice was more suited to classical music.”

After a friend spoke highly of her experiences in Dayton, Noragh decided to look into the Dayton residency. “I did some research and saw that Dayton Opera would be putting on ‘The Barber of Seville’ and applied immediately,” she says. “Berta is a perfect role for me right now and I hoped I would get the chance here in Dayton. I even prepared Berta’s aria for my audition — and it worked!”

She loves performing comedy and says Berta is such a funny character. “She’s sometimes curmudgeonly, sometimes bitingly sarcastic, sometimes very earnest,” she says, “and I am very much looking forward to finding all the nooks and crannies in her character.”

Tenor Michael Anderson says three things inspired him to choose opera: Frederic, Liz, and Oberlin.

“I discovered that my voice was suited to opera when I got a ‘lucky break’ as a freshman in high school,” says Michael, who grew up in Little Silver, N.J. He currently lives in New York City, where he received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Manhattan School of Music. “The senior singing Frederic in ‘Pirates of Penzance’ dropped out three weeks before opening night, and I was the cover.”

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That first time singing with a full orchestra, he says, was a magical experience. “As a sophomore, a pretty girl named Liz took me to my first opera, Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute,’ at the Metropolitan Opera, and I was absolutely blown away by it.”

The following year, his voice teacher suggested he attend a summer program at Oberlin College. “Working with so many talented artists and impressive faculty members sealed the deal!” Michael says. He will make his Dayton Opera debut as Sergeant in “The Barber of Seville” and will return in May to sing the role of Pong in “Turandot.”

He’s enjoying his time in Dayton. “As part of the residency, we visit middle schools and high schools to perform and speak with kids about what we do,” he says. “This aspect of the program has been inspiring beyond belief. We have had the chance to interact with so many wonderful children and young adults and introduce them to opera. I remember being their age and being motivated and encouraged by artists who came to my school, and it’s exciting to know that we could be that for these kids.”

Baritone Alexander Harper, who last year sang Morales in Dayton Opera’s production of “Carmen” and Assan in “The Consul,” says he was fortunate to grow up with a classically trained vocalist in his household: “My own mother!”

“She would tell you I’ve been singing ever since I’ve been talking, although it wasn’t until I was in high school that I knew I wanted to be an opera singer,” Alex says. “I didn’t pay much attention to opera until Luciano Pavarotti died. A tribute to him in the form of a television commercial featured him singing ‘Vesti la giubba’ from ‘I Pagliacci’ and I had never heard anything more beautiful in my life — although I understood none of the Italian, nor even how to figure out which aria I was even listening to!”

That TV commercial inspired him to visit every record store and secondhand music shop he could find in order to buy all of their opera compilation CDs. “I must have listened to 100 arias and duets before I landed on Mario del Monaco singing the aria I had heard on television, but by that point I was already hooked on the art form,” he says. “I was lucky to have a supportive family and chorus teacher, both of whom urged me to follow my passion.”

Alex, a native of Richmond, Va., attended college at Virginia Commonwealth University and received his master’s degree from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. He will appear in the role of Fiorello in “The Barber of Seville.”

Music director Warner says these four singers are not only talented in their own right, but together make a dynamic group. “Each one has contributed ideas and energy to the programs we have performed and each is eager to communicate and interact with all of our audiences,” she says. “The enthusiasm and good will between them and from them is very contagious.”

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