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October 2014
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Chicago’s Incubator for Opera Singers

Ryan Opera Center bass-baritone Richard Ollarsaba as "Don Giovanni"

Ryan Opera Center bass-baritone Richard Ollarsaba as "Don Giovanni"

Broadcast: Monday, October 13 at 6:00 pm

Lyric Opera of Chicago has succeeded in cultivating an almost filial connection between Chicago and the young artists of its training program, the Ryan Opera Center. Indeed, some of the singers make it big – and take with them a bit of Midwestern pride. After all, they’ve given one to three years of their lives to Chicago, singing minor roles on Lyric’s main stage or even, as was seen by over 3,000 fans last week, making a last-minute appearance as the star of the show (more on that in a moment).


Opera Center Alum Susanna Phillips

Watching these performers blossom, from Millennium Park or Rush Hour concerts to major opera houses, gives Chicagoans a sense of “I remember when…” Counted among Ryan’s alumni are opera stars like Matthew Polenzani, Nicole Cabell, and Susanna Phillips.


Soprano Laura Wilde

The truth be told, members of the Ryan Opera Center are not that green. Many have post-graduate degrees and have done other young artist programs. All of them know how to give their Chicago fans a good show. This is not to say they feel ready for the actual challenges of an opera career. For the Ryan staff, which includes Lyric Music Director Sir Andrew Davis, Ryan Music Director Craig Terry, and executive director Dan Novak, it’s a matter of taking on singers who they feel they can help to the next level: the major opera house.

The process of helping the singers happens not only in the rehearsal room, but in performances at schools and venues across the city. Opera star Renée Fleming, who serves as an adviser to the Ryan Opera Center, likes to quip, “You’re only in perfect voice about seven days a year – and you’re usually off on those days.” One of the cornerstones of the Center’s program is the honing of the performer’s instincts through continual engagements in the community.


Mezzo-soprano J’nai Bridges

Opera singers constantly battle with the fact that they live inside their instruments; tension, muscles, health, nerves – all sorts of things can interfere with consistency. They need technique, experience, and all manner of tricks to overcome the body’s roadblocks so they can do their job when they are called upon to do it.

Additionally, by their mid-twenties, singers are refining acting skills, musicianship, diction, and interpretive choices; not to mention acquiring the ability to sing like a native speaker in French, Italian, and German. Sometimes a singer is just waiting for the stars to align; for readiness to have a meeting with opportunity.


Ryan Opera Center Music Director Craig Terry

One of those chance opportunities happened last week when Ryan’s second-year bass-baritone Richard Ollarsaba, who was the “cover” for Don Giovanni star Mariusz Kwiecien, got the call at 10:00 am: “Mr. Kwiecien will not be able to sing today. You’re on.” He had four hours until curtain.

“The instant I got the call, adrenaline shot through my system, but after the initial shock I immediately went into work mode and the only thing I could tell myself was ‘Just do your job, and get it done.'”

For such a big break, Mr. Ollarsaba had a greater support system than most understudies. He had sung the Don in a workshop with the Ryan Opera Center last summer; a minimally staged production in the William Mason Rehearsal Room, backstage at the Civic Opera House. For this, the Ryan ensemble worked with diction coaches, voice coaches, a native Italian speaker, as well as stage director Matthew Ozawa. Mr. Ollarsaba and fellow Ryan ensemble members performed the entire opera for an audience of journalists and benefactors. “I do have to admit, due to the workshop ROC put on this summer – and I did have a couple opportunities to rehearse [the main stage production] – all in all I felt very secure and never felt more prepared to go on for a role at short notice.”

Throughout the season, the Ryan artists have master classes and play supporting roles with the stars on the main stage; but that nurture gets magnified when one of them gets bumped into the spotlight – especially for the Don’s role. As the character around which the others orbit, the entire cast has a stake in his success. According to Mr. Ollarsaba, “I couldn’t have worked with a nicer, more courteous and supportive group of singers. Everyone was so accommodating and helpful. I felt incredibly comfortable sharing the stage with them.”

By 5:30 pm on Wednesday, October 8, the Don Giovanni cast had taken its bows. The Ryan Opera Center’s Richard Ollarsaba had sung the libertine Don opposite Ana María Martínez, Marina Rebeka, and Kyle Ketelson. Mr. Ollarsaba’s Facebook page was flooded with congratulations.


Ryan Opera Center Recital Series host Colin Ure

WFMT is proud to host the 2014-2015 Ryan Opera Center ensemble in a series of recitals on the first Monday of each month (save October, which was delayed due to the live opening night broadcast from Lyric of Strauss’s Capriccio). The ROC broadcast season opens with a duo recital of Laura Wilde and J’nai Bridges in duets from Mozart’s Così fan tutte and Bellini’s Norma, and solo pieces by Brahms, Ravel, and Peter Derose. They’ll be accompanied by the Ryan Opera Center’s Music Director, Craig Terry. Colin Ure is the program’s host. This broadcast recital will be repeated on Sunday at 11:00 pm.

See the stars of this month’s Ryan recital, Laura Wilde and J’nai Bridges, in video from this summer’s celebration Make Music Chicago:



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