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'Prelude' program provides comprehensive prep for singers

7/7/2011, 11:13 a.m.

"It used to be that the opera singer was a distant figure, apart from everyone else, but that's not true anymore and that's good," said soprano Martina Arroyo, artistic director of Prelude to Performance, an intensive training program. For seven summers, singers have come from around the world to sit at the feet of this illustrious and refreshingly accessible artist, whose office door is always open.

"But the staff turns out the real goods," said Arroyo, a 2010 NEA Lifetime honoree. Stage directors Laura Alley and Ellen Rievman, conductor Willie Anthony Waters, makeup artist Steven Horak, costume designer Charles Caine and photographer Jen Joyce Davis have worked with the program since its inception. Pianist Ed Bak joined in 2006. "The family has grown and we are really proud of that."

From July 14-17, their young artists will perform Mozart's "Don Giovanni" and Puccini's "La Rondine" in full costume with an orchestra and sets at Kaye Playhouse, East 68th Street between Park and Lexington avenues. Call (212) 772-4448 for tickets.

Arroyo's is a New York story. Growing up in Harlem, raised by her Puerto Rican father and African-American mother, she learned piano and ballet and sang in the church choir. Studying education at Hunter College, she performed with the Opera Workshop. While attending NYU's grad school, working as a caseworker for the welfare department and teaching Italian at P.S. 45 in the Bronx, Arroyo also took voice lessons.

Then she won the "Auditions of the Air," now known as the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, and sang small roles there and bigger roles abroad. When leading Metropolitan soprano Birgit Nilsson fell ill one evening in 1965, Arroyo sang "Ada" to a standing ovation. Now she's a veteran of the world's most prestigious opera houses. Her voice can be heard on over 50 recordings.

Arroyo is also president of the Martina Arroyo Foundation. The tuition-free Prelude to Performance program is at the core of its mission.

The six-week curriculum includes foreign language, stagecraft, character development and libretto/scene study for about three dozen select singers. The administrative director is Mark Rucker, a Verdi baritone in his prime.

Recently, I sat in, with mezzo-soprano Jaime Hartzell being costumed by Caine as I arrived. A smashing purple peplum waistcoat, voluminous purple skirt, turn-of-the-century feathered hat-an upturned brim overflowing with extraordinary silk flowers-turned this beautiful young singer into an extraordinary bird.

"To develop a character, you've got to understand their social situation," said Arroyo, reminding a trio of women they'll have to stand further apart once they don hoop skirts. "Don't underestimate how much you have to support the voice!" she warns others. "The pianissimi need more than the forti."

Singers are instructed to avoid fatigue and sing light, but I can still hear the embers of a passionate and able instrument in the soprano of Yunnie Park, who will perform as Magda in "La Rondine" on July 15 at 7:30 p.m.

Notable for the attentive enthusiasm that Arroyo champions were sopranos Jasmine Thomas and Katelyn Parker. They perform July 17 at 2 p.m.

"Keeping your energy up can be more tiring than the singing," tells Arroyo. "And it has to be all of you all of the time, not some of you some of the time."

Tenor Marcos Vigil, a veteran of the program who is singing "Prunier" July 15, showed a complete character even in rehearsal mode.

At a recent preview, bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green, the 2011 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions winner, in his second summer with the program, "shook the house as Commendatore," says Arroyo. Don't miss him in "Don Giovanni" July 14 at 7:30 p.m.

"Use your imaginations, everybody...and try to have some fun!" said director Ellen Rievman in a libretto class, wherein everyone speaks and acts the entire libretto in staged scenes.

"You cannot drop out of the life of your character just because you are not singing at that moment," Arroyo instructed, just as she's instructed others like tenor Noah Stewart, who went on to an international opera career. "I need to see it in your eyes."

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