The Atlanta Opera Blog

The Atlanta Opera High School Opera Institute: Planting the Seeds for an Opera Career

Guest Blogger: Kaitlyn
Johnson

I am a
rising junior vocal performance major at Rice University, and very proud alumna
of the 2011 High School Opera Institute (HSOI). 
Our end-of-year performance remains one of my all-time favorite moments
in my vocal career, and I’m extremely excited to perform in the program again
as an alumna this Sunday, June 9th. While the performance represents
an exciting and entertaining culmination to the program, the High School Opera
Institute offers so much to aspiring young singers throughout the year.   I want to share my fabulous experience with
the program, and how it has proven to be an invaluable resource in preparing me
for collegiate opera studies.  The HSOI
provides a rare opportunity for young vocal students—an inside look into what
working for a professional opera company is like, helping to determine if they
want to pursue singing as a career.
For
students like me who found a love and passion for classical singing in opera
while in high school, there aren’t many places to explore our talent and
determine if opera could be a true career possibility.  Fortunately for metro Atlanta students, The
Atlanta Opera offers the High School Opera Institute, organized by director of community
engagement Emmalee Iden Hackshaw and led by opera chorus master and vocal coach
extraordinaire Walter Huff.  While weekly
voice lessons with private teachers help singers acquire and solidify the
technique needed to sing demanding repertoire and roles, the HSOI fills a
performance void that is missing for high school students interested in
opera.  School and community theatre
productions offer some performance opportunities, but the directors seldom have
an ear for opera and underappreciate the talents of many young singers.  Walter Huff is extremely knowledgeable and highly
revered in vocal programs and opera companies throughout the world, so we know
his advice and comments will help to hone our craft. Through the HSOI, high
school students have the rare opportunity to rehearse all the components of
opera—technique, diction, and emotion all combined into one art.   Fellow alumna Anne Stillwagon, currently a
vocal performance major at Oberlin Conservatory says, “There are no other
programs in Atlanta that give any comparable training,” and adds that the
program is especially valuable because it lasts a full school year, rather than
the majority of summer programs that are offered to high school students for
only four to six weeks.  Current
participant Mary Katherine Henry agrees, “I studied at Brevard for three weeks
last summer, and the High School Opera Institute is great because it offers
continued training throughout the year.”
The audition process for admittance into the HSOI is very
similar to auditions for vocal programs at universities and conservatories
around the country.  The formal audition
is especially worthwhile for seniors, who get a glimpse into the auditions that
will fill their winter.  I offered the
same repertoire for my HSOI audition as I did when auditioning for college
programs and having that prior experience definitely boosted my
confidence.  One of the first HSOI classes
is an audition workshop complete with advice about wardrobe, appropriate
repertoire choices, and a crash course on the merits of college vs.
conservatory.  The real-world application
of the HSOI prepares you to pursue opera at the next stage, and instills the
level of preparation that collegiate vocal programs and professional companies
expect of singers.
HSOI
singers are assigned their repertoires for the final program around October,
and expected to learn their music in a few weeks, be memorized shortly thereafter,
and ready to stage.  Likewise at Rice, I
am preparing to sing in an opera workshop performance next semester, and we are
to know and memorize all of our music before school begins in August.  In a few weeks, I will attend the Aspen Music
Festival with all pieces prepared and ready to coach and/or perform.  The HSOI instilled the expected standards of
learning music and preparedness that is present throughout the opera world.  The program is also very beneficial because of
the major incorporation of ensemble pieces. In scenes with multiple singers
everyone depends on each other to know their part, or the process is extremely
slowed down.  You never want to be the
singer who is unsure of their note, word, or rhythm, and my HSOI scenes helped
me realize that each singer must put in intense individual work before an ensemble
can truly come together.  In addition,
HSOI students are invited to the final dress rehearsals of each of the season’s
operas. The opportunity to hear and see professional productions can be as
important to young singers’ growth as voice lessons and coachings.  Rice voice majors also attend the final dress
rehearsals of all shows at Houston Grand Opera, so it was beneficial to be
exposed to these productions before starting a vocal performance degree.    
One of
the most enjoyable aspects of being an HSOI student is meeting the other
talented students from the Atlanta area. 
A common talent and love for classical singing tie you together, and I
always look forward to an event where I will see other alumni.  The singing world is extremely small, so it’s
always fun to say I know HSOI singers at schools such as Manhattan School of
Music, Oberlin, and Boston University. 
I’m sure I will eventually run into them at summer programs and graduate
school auditions, and it’s great to make peer connections while still in high
school, when aspiring opera singers can be a rarity.  While the students are great, the amazing
faculty is the cornerstone of the program that accounts for the success of so
many students.  “Working with Walter Huff
and Beverly Blouin is an incredible experience,” remarks Mary Katherine
Henry.   Personally, Beverly Blouin really
helped me to focus on dramatic intention and deliver a great performance.  She is truly a phenomenal dramatic coach.  I showed marked acting improvement and
confidence by the final performance, and I am very grateful to Mrs. Blouin for
her help.  Walter Huff is reason enough
to apply to the program.  His repertoire
choices and unparalleled musical knowledge guide singers to the next level, and
he is a great resource from everything to opinions about particular college
programs and voice teachers to questions about pronunciation.  He is an exceptionally kind man and a
fabulous connection for any singer. Anne is especially appreciative of Walter’s
guidance and connections as she attends Oberlin, his alma mater.  She says that every professor or musician she
meets there seems to know his name, and knowing him has helped to open doors at
school.
The High
School Opera Institute definitely enhanced my passion for
singing and confirmed I wanted to pursue an operatic career.  I am eternally grateful for the training I
received from amazing faculty, and the experience to see what working for an
opera company is really like, while still in high school.  I grew so much both musically and
dramatically, learned proper audition and rehearsal protocol, and was
introduced to the best young singers that Atlanta has to offer.  Most of the former HSOI students have become
voice majors, and I’m sure I speak for all of us when I say that the training,
resources, and faculty of the High School Opera Institute have greatly
contributed to our successes.

Whether
you are a die-hard opera fan or unfamiliar with the differences between Mozart
and Menotti, I urge you to come to the final performance at Morningside
Presbyterian this Sunday, June 9 at 4:00 p.m. to see the exciting and
entertaining culmination of a year’s work. 
There’s a great chance that you will be hearing stars of the next
generation of opera—and certainly one of the last opportunities you will have
to see them perform for free! 

To learn more about the Atlanta Opera’s High School Opera Institute, please click HERE.  Be sure to Tweet with us during the performance on Sunday, June 9 at 4:00 p.m. using #HSOI.

Kaitlyn and Walter Huff working together during the final dress rehearsal of the Atlanta Opera’s 2011 High School Opera Institute.

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