What can secondary school students do if they love both theater and classical singing? Typically, these teenagers are forced to choose between their talents, according to soprano Sarah Cullins.
“Either you focus on your classical voice and only sing along,” she said, “or you sacrifice your technique and do musical theatre.”
Originally from Burlington, Cullins studied vocal performance in the Tufts University/New England Conservatory of Music dual degree program and at the Mannes School of Music. Now she offers a third option to students: opera, which requires high levels of acting and classical singing. Opera voice training alone requires supreme support of breathing, diction and the ability to sing in many languages.
Since most students are unfamiliar with the art form, Cullins has developed an informal network of chorus and voice teachers in northern Vermont who refer their most talented singer-actors to him. In turn, Cullins invites teenagers to participate in the non-profit organization she founded, the Youth Opera Company of Vermont.
This weekend, the YOC shows its exploits with an abbreviated act by Johann Strauss II Die Fledermaus, which the company calls “Orlofsky’s Ball”. The showcase act includes arias or solo songs from the company’s nine singers, as well as numerous choral songs inspired by the Viennese waltz. The performances – sung in English with repeated verses in German – take place at Congregational Churches Charlotte and Waterbury this Saturday and Sunday, April 30 and May 1, respectively.
During a rehearsal last Wednesday night at Rice Memorial High School in Burlington, eight of nine students, fully masked, took a walk and sang the show with piano accompaniment from Evan Allen. (Mary Jane Austin is the performance accompanist.) Their casual attire, including ripped jeans and vintage finds, contrasted with their mature voices.
Cullins took a break to coach the band on 19th century acting. “I want you to practice ridiculous salutes,” she told Rice sophomores Connor Trombly (singing Eisenstein dressed as a Marquess) and Gabe Thompson (Frank, a prison warden posing as a knight).
Cullins then led Count Orlofsky, sung by Montpelier U-32 high schooler George Lane, to watch his guests with a host’s eye. Lane, who is non-binary, sings a “pants role” – a male lead performed by a singer with a traditionally female voice. Strauss wrote it for a mezzo voice.
Lane, who also sang the trouser role of Cherubino in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Figaro’s wedding with YOC, later said over the phone, “I’ve never really been super inspired by leading ingenue roles. There’s a lot of really cool opportunities to explore how the genre fits into the world of the opera, which made me feel incredibly welcome in these spaces.”
“Die Fledermaus is particularly suited to the genre fluidity of our times. That’s one of the reasons I cast him,” Cullins said in a phone call before the rehearsal. Cullins also cast Dr. Falke, a prankster and Eisenstein’s best friend, in a role as pants; Ambrose Cusick, a transgender student from Burlington High School, sings the traditionally baritone part transposed an octave up for his soprano voice.Mezzo-soprano Memphis Phillips, a non-binary graduate student from Essex High School in 2021, sings Faustine.
Cullins founded what she originally called the Youth Opera Workshop of Vermont in 2019 as a satellite program of the Middlebury Community Music Center. Organized around a semester of studies culminating in a collective performance, the first workshop gave rise to a performance of selected scenes from operas by Mozart, Claudio Monteverdi and Henry Purcell.
Collaborations with Barn Opera in Brandon and Saint Michael’s College Chorale in Colchester followed. When the pandemic put an end to indoor singing, Cullins organized a virtual study and the Serenade Summer Project, in which YOC singers stood outside Chittenden County aged care facilities and sang for the residents. Last summer, the company relaunched live performances with Gilbert and Sullivan’The Penzance Pirates.
Although it has existed mainly during the pandemic so far, the YOC has produced two singers who have focused on vocal performance in college. One is Sam Thompson (Gabe’s older brother), a voice specialist at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. In fact, Cullins got the idea for “Orlofsky’s Ball” from Sam, which has sang during the AUC’s performance of the act last year.
Wanda Sullivan, a senior at Harwood Union High School in Waitsfield, plans to study vocal performance but hasn’t decided on a college yet. (She was accepted to every school she applied to.) In high school, Sullivan performed in her school musicals. and sang in an honor choir while studying voice with a private teacher.
When she became Cullins’ student last year, Sullivan said, she learned to produce “effective, consistent sound – not forced, but using the breathing aid and your full [body’s] muscles to sing rather than just your throat.
“I love it. I absorb everything I can,” Sullivan said of Cullins and the YOC.
“Plus,” the soprano added, “it’s opera, which, I mean, I never did until last summer,” when she sang in pirate. “I don’t really know much about opera, but I’m drawn to it. Sarah took us to the Middlebury Town Hall Theater for the screening of Candid“, a video production by the Opera Company of Middlebury. “It’s literally the only opera I’ve seen.”
“Usually if there’s no Sarah it’s left to the music teacher, and if they have no opera experience it doesn’t happen,” Kevin Ginter commented, head of Rice’s music department and vice chairman of the YOC board. Four of his music students Rice – three of whom study voice with him privately – perform in “Orlofsky’s Ball”: Trombly, Thompson, Ramsey Stephenson and Lili Diemer.
Ginter, a tenor from Huntington, attended Mount Mansfield Union High School. He sang in musicals and choirs, he said, but didn’t start taking voice lessons until he was a sophomore at Castleton State College (now Castleton University), where he earned a bachelor’s degree in music education. Inspired, Ginter went on to earn a master’s degree in vocal performance from the Brooklyn College Conservatory of Music.
“My singing teacher [at Castleton] was an opera singer,” he said, referring to Suzanne Kantorski. “It was my first exposure to the opera. The YOC, Ginter noted, “really gives these kids a leg up on a lot of people.”
Cullins’ own break came the summer before her senior year at Burlington High School: she was invited to sing in a Gilbert and Sullivan production of the (now defunct) Vermont Mozart Festival. After her training, she began a 10-year career as a teacher and performer in Bogotá, Colombia, before returning to Burlington in 2013.
“I don’t think a college student from Vermont sees opera as something they can sing or are interested in singing; it really has no context,” Cullins said. “So they need someone they trust to say, ‘I think you have the voice to do it. “”
The YOC, she added, is “the opportunity I wish I had.”