Million-dollar funding launches Opera Institute
The Mason Gross School of the Arts is set to fulfill a longtime goal of expanding its opera program with the upcoming launch of the new Opera Institute at Rutgers.
Through a $6.6 million bequest to the school from the estate of University alumna Victoria Mastrobuono, the institute will give graduate students the chance to gain practical skills and experience needed to succeed in their professional lives.
"Opera is one of the most successful art forms within classical music. We have noticed that we are not only retaining our opera audiences, but we're also growing them," said Antonius Bittman, chairman of the music department. "There are a lot of people who really want to see this go into fruition and grow bigger at Rutgers."
The school anticipates the first wave of students to begin the two-year program this coming fall and will audition as part of admission, said Pamela Gilmore, director and producer of the Opera Institute.
Once in the program, they will pursue a concentration in opera within a master's degree, Bittman said. This offering is only temporary while the institute waits for accreditation from entities like the National Association of Schools of Music to ultimately offer a master's degree in opera performance.
"We haven't been able to really offer degrees in opera or concentrations in opera because we didn't really have adequate curriculum," Gilmore said.
As it stands, the program consists of Opera Workshop, a course with 25 to 30 students involved, she said. But seven core classes will be introduced specifically designed for singers.
Classes will touch upon topics like acting and movement for singers, diction in foreign languages and the history of opera, Gilmore said. They also hope to include courses in voice science and the business of opera.
"[The course range] is diverse, but they're all skills that are critical for opera singers," she said.
Graduate student of vocal performance Eileen Cooper said lessons on acting a movement are particularly useful for singers who are staging an opera during crunch time.
"Having classes that give you the time and energy that's exclusively devoted to learning how to move on stage and to develop the characters that you are trying to play, I think that'll be a really big help," she said.
Cooper, who took part in last semester production of "Flora," is also interested in the practical knowledge that will be offered in the business classes.
"You get out into the real world, and sometimes it's very difficult to be able to navigate your way through reality," Cooper said. "It'll be a nice thing to have classes that'll prepare people for what it's actually like on the other side once you are dealing with directors, auditions and managers."
Aside from courses, the current program puts on one major production during the spring semester along with a scenes program in the fall, where select portions of an opera or a short baroque opera are fully staged, Bittman said.
With the institute, the number of main stage performances will expand to two per year, Gilmore said.
"We're generally looking to the Opera Institute to help us raise the production value for all of our productions," she said.
In addition to expanding the curriculum, funding will create more scholarship opportunities for students and open more available staff positions, Gilmore said.
American soprano singer Nancy Gustafson has already agreed to work as a part-time lecturer for the institute this fall, Bittman said.
"She was here last semester as a replacement of [Assistant Professor] Eduardo Chama who was on extensive tours … to teach his students during his absence," he said. "She is so well-known, and we hope to recruit more of these part-time faculty members to join the institute."
The school is also working to create an alliance with the annual Castleton Festival, a popular opera festival in Virginia, in hopes that opera students at the University will get to sing in its productions, Bittman said.
As an aspiring professional singer, Cooper said an alliance with the festival would give students a good advantage by putting them in contact with people in the field and boosting their name recognition.
"Your personal exposure and who you know is 90 percent of the time almost equally if not more important than what you're able to do," Cooper said. "You could be wonderful, and if you don't know anybody or don't have any connections, it's very difficult to get work."
Although, the number of spots offered is not entirely figured out yet, Gilmore said the opera department is hoping to expand their enrollment.
"I'm very excited," she said. "I feel we're very lucky. I'm very grateful for this wonderful opportunity to develop a program that I hope is going to bring us some national prominence in the art form."