Opera on the World Stage
Cameo Humes stood on stage in the most famous opera house in the world in Milan, Italy, and couldn’t believe he would sing where the greatest names in opera have performed.
Teatro alla Scala, or La Scala, as it’s commonly called, has been the anointed place for Italian opera since 1778, the place where Rossini, Bellini and Verdi premiered their works.
Humes, ’06, made his La Scala debut in Porgy and Bess in November, an incredible accomplishment for a 33-year-old graduate of Stetson University’s School of Music. Even more amazing was another Stetson alum – Donovan Singletary,’06 – was making his La Scala debut with him. Singletary is an accomplished opera singer and the first Stetson student to win the Metropolitan Opera Grand Finals in New York City during his senior year.
No Stetson alum had ever performed at La Scala, to the best of the faculty’s knowledge, and here two of them were making their debuts together. A third Stetson alum, Tai Oney,’07, was performing at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in London and will make his debut at the Deutsche Oper Berlin in March.
Three male opera singers, all recent Stetson alums and all African-Americans.
“These are all world-class opera houses and to my knowledge these are firsts for Stetson voice (graduates),” said Thomas Masse, dean of the Stetson School of Music. “This many singers, this young, at the most internationally renowned houses, that’s pretty remarkable.”
And surprisingly, the three of them arrived at Stetson with no aspirations of being opera singers. They were friends in college and even performed in a Stetson ensemble together for a while.
“La Scala was a dream come true,” said Humes, who now lives in Chicago. “There are so many singers gunning for the same small pool of jobs in opera companies and opera houses. That’s what makes my story and Tai’s story and Donovan’s story so incredibly unique. And I’ll add this: For all three of us to be African-American males in the opera industry is also an incredible milestone in and of itself.”
After graduating from Stetson, Humes went on to study at the University of Florida and Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. But he credits Stetson first and foremost for his success.
“Stetson has an amazing music program that had I not chosen to go to Stetson, I’m not sure if things would have turned out the way they did,” he commented.
The Science of ‘Vocal Art’
On the second floor of Presser Hall on Stetson’s DeLand campus, a sign on a door read Hollis Voice Laboratory. Inside, Associate Professor of voice Craig Maddox, D.M., was seated at a piano working one-on-one with a student. As the student sang, a computer monitor on top of the piano filled with colors and lines, showing the sound frequencies, from lows to highs, that made up the student’s voice.
“That’s a real-time voice spectrogram,” explained Maddox, a nationally known voice teacher. “Think of it like a prism. What a prism does to light, this does to sound. Those little lines are my voice being broken down into its component overtones in real time. It’s part of the method to my madness and the secret to my success, if there is success to be assumed.”
Maddox has used the voice analysis software for 22 years. To him, singing is as much science as art. Forty percent of what a singer hears, he said, is the bones of their head vibrating. That’s why people are surprised at how different they sound on a recording.
“That’s my job security,” he added. “A singer can never hear, except about 60 percent of the truth. They have to learn to interpret what they’re hearing and feeling with what is actually coming out on the outside.”
The spectrogram allows students to see what Maddox hears with his well-trained ear. A baritone, he has performed with the Orlando Opera, Mobile Opera and Shreveport Opera, among others.
On this afternoon, he played musical scales on the piano as senior Maria Gikas sang, again and again, in a high, powerful voice that at age 22 already sounded destined for the operatic stage.
With each repetition, Maddox guided her toward the ideal operatic sound – a ringing brilliance that the Italians call chiaroscuro, meaning “light-dark,” a high, light ringing sound combined with depth underneath it, and seen on the computer monitor as a mass of colored lines in both the upper and lower parts of the spectrogram.
“A lot of times, when she really gets it going, she knows it,” said Maddox. “She can read my eyes. She describes it as it goes into the pocket. It feels like the voice goes into a place where it exits your body very effortlessly. That’s what I’m working on with every student to get.”
And students who wish to sing opera professionally must vocalize this sound up to 120 decibels, or as loud as a jet engine. That’s what separates opera singers from other genres of singers, Maddox said. Opera singers do not need a microphone to be heard. “Ours is an older style of singing,” he said.
The operas of Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi, for example, were performed in an opera house that seated a thousand people and required an orchestra with more than 40 musicians in the 1600s. Today’s opera houses regularly seat more than 2,000. The singers’ voices must carry through the house and over the orchestra – without a microphone. But take away the microphone from today’s pop singers and the audience won’t hear them over the instruments.
“We call it vocal art,” Maddox continued. “It can take 10 years to build a singing artist, with artistic and technical development and a good bit of physical maturation of the voice. The bigger voices tend to take more time to develop.”
‘Stetson Really Does Have My Heart’
Singletary and Oney both received their voice training here in Maddox’s laboratory.
Oney said he is “so grateful” for Maddox’s voice training. Raised in Lynn Haven, near Panama City, Oney grew up in a musical family, performing in churches and at community events. He attended Stetson with plans to become a high school choir director, and he also sang as a tenor in Stetson’s Concert Choir.
It was while working as student conductor for the Concert Choir that his career arc veered in a new direction. He was demonstrating how he wanted the female sopranos to sing a particular phrase, and a friend commented later that Oney might have the vocal range of a countertenor.
Oney didn’t know what a countertenor was at the time. But he did some research. Countertenors are rare. They are men who can sing in the highest register – in the full range that a woman can, plus what a man can sing.
“I brought the idea to Dr. Maddox,” Oney recalled, “and he assigned me a song and he listened to me and he said, ‘Let’s start working on this. Let’s see where this can go.’ And I’m so grateful that he allowed me to explore that part of my voice, because if he had not I really don’t know if I’d be where I am today, to be honest.”
Maddox, a Stetson professor for 33 years, has taught only three countertenors in his career. Oney made the change during his junior year and won the School of Music’s Giffin Vocal Scholarship award – the top in-house voice competition.
After graduating from Stetson, Oney earned a master’s degree in voice performance from Boston University, a graduate diploma from the New England Conservatory and an opera performance diploma from the Royal College of Music in London, where he now lives.
“Stetson really does have my heart,” added Oney, 32. “I really got a chance to get to know who I am as well as those around me. Even nine, 10 years later, I still talk about Stetson as being the best and the greatest experience of my life, honestly. It was the sense of community. That’s something that is so unique.”
‘So Much Competition’
Down the hall in Presser Hall, Voice Professor Jane Christeson was working with another student, Jack Sumrall, who came to Stetson from Jacksonville Beach to major in music education but had since been “bit by the bug” – the opera bug, as Christeson described it.
Stetson has a rich tradition of voice training and choirs, dating to its founding in the 1880s and growing out of its Baptist origins. About 80 students are majoring in voice performance, out of approximately 200 students in the School of Music. The singers each have fine voices or they wouldn’t have been accepted into the program. But becoming an opera singer requires much more than a great voice.
Students must take one semester each of Italian, French and German, followed by a second semester in one of those foreign languages. They take language diction classes, so they can sing in those languages, pronouncing words correctly and without an American accent. They learn music theory, opera literature, movement, posture, breath work, acting and more from Maddox and Christeson, as well as from the director of Stetson Opera Theatre Russell Franks, ’88, Bachelor of Music, conductor Anthony Hose and coach Kristie Born.
“If you say you want to be an opera singer, you have to treat your voice like an instrument and you have to learn all the other skills that it takes,” said Christeson, an accomplished pianist and mezzo-soprano who’s performed around the world. “There’s so much competition. The odds are miniscule that you make it to the level that these three guys have made it. But having all the gifts in the world – doesn’t matter how talented you are – you have to have the breaks and you have to be willing to work really hard.”
Aspiring opera singers also need experience on stage and that’s where Stetson stands apart from the vast majority of music schools in the country. Stetson is one of only a handful of music schools that teach only undergraduate students and that makes a big difference, the professors and students say.
At most music schools, undergraduate students do not take voice lessons with their professors. They take lessons from students pursuing master’s and doctoral degrees. The graduate students get voice lessons with the faculty, and they and the faculty get the lead roles in operas, not the undergraduate students.
“One of the greatest advantages of Stetson School of Music for an opera student is if you look at other great schools of music, they have graduate programs,” explained Masse, who was hired as dean in 2013 from Yale University. “If you’re in a school that has master’s and doctoral students in voice, they’re going to be the leads in the opera. They have the more mature voices.”
Humes, the Stetson alum who made his debut at La Scala, credits his success partly to this distinction at Stetson.
Raised in nearby Titusville, Humes grew up singing in choirs and playing piano. He was recruited to attend Stetson’s School of Music. But he worried about earning a living as a musician and pursued a double major in International Studies, considering a career in business.
Christeson, who gave voice lessons to Humes, remembered him arriving at age 18, shy, soft-spoken, an imposing figure who stood over 6 feet tall. He was a talented musician, but he hesitated at performing opera when Christeson, then the school’s opera director, suggested it. But she persisted.
“Ever since I was introduced to opera, I just love it,” said Humes, a tenor, who also sings for Lyric Opera of Chicago. “There’s something about it that’s very moving to me that I just saw myself being a part of and fortunately for me, being at Stetson University, with all undergrads, when it came to opera workshops and operas, we weren’t competing with graduate students like many do at other institutions.”
His trip to La Scala began with an email from a management company, asking if he’d be interested in performing in Porgy and Bess there. “Of course, I said, yes. I didn’t care what I had on my schedule, it was definitely a, yes,” he recalled.
He sent in his materials and was offered multiple roles in the opera, which took him to Milan for five weeks for rehearsals and seven performances. Written by George Gershwin, the opera was based on a book about impoverished African-Americans in Charleston, S.C., in the 1920s and a crippled beggar who’s transformed by love. To this day, Gershwin’s estate requires the opera be performed by an all-black cast, although La Scala reached a compromise with the estate to have blacks in the lead roles and a white chorus, according to the Financial Times of London, which gave the performance good reviews.
“I wish I could say, oh, I flew into Milan and auditioned for the house and they loved me,” Humes said with a laugh. “But they contacted me, which was really amazing.”
Also cast in the opera was Singletary, a bass-baritone who took voice training from Maddox. After winning the Metropolitan Opera Grand Finals and graduating from Stetson, he completed a three-year artist development program at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and was selected for residency training in Vienna, Austria. He has recently sung with the Seattle Opera and Knoxville Opera.
Raised in Crestview in the Florida Panhandle, Singletary is described as the total package – good looking, talented, a certified personal trainer who does modeling, and possessing an incredible work ethic. During breaks in college, Singletary didn’t go home. Christeson said she’d find him on the third floor of Presser Hall, the only student up there, still practicing.
“Going to college was one of the most significant things to happen to me,” Singletary, who originally planned to be a pop singer, told a Stetson magazine in 2010. “I doubt any of these things would have happened to me if I hadn’t gone to Stetson.”
Maddox and Christeson say Singletary and Humes are their first students to perform at La Scala, although many others have gone on to the best graduate programs in the country and performed in opera companies nationwide. But the prestige of La Scala stands in a class by itself.
“What are the chances that two of our alums – two great young men, very talented and really good people, too – both are making their La Scala debuts together?” asked Maddox. “I couldn’t script it any better.”