The Impact of Young Operatic Artist Programs: An Interview with Michael Heaston of the Washington National Opera and Glimmerglass Festival

Wm: This post is part of a series of interviews on the impact of Young Artists programs, both on the career of opera singers and the opera companies that offer them. The interview took place at the Glimmerglass Festival, whose facilitation is greatly appreciated.


[Below: Michael Heaston; resized image of a publicity photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]


Wm: Michael, you oversee the both the Glimmerglass Festival Young Artists’ program and the Domingo-Cafritz Program of the Washington National Opera. What is your musical background?

MH: I was born in Lincoln, Nebraska and raised in West Des Moines, Iowa. At age 11 I began piano lessons. In my teens I was fond of theater and of Broadway musicals.

I enrolled in Drake University, where my father is a professor of accounting in the College of Business and Public Administration. I pursued degrees in piano and in business and even considered law school as a path at one point.

Wm: Was it your interest in Broadway musicals that led to an interest in vocal performance?

MH: It was, but then I veered off course. As a pianist who could sightread well, I quickly found myself very busy at school. I would accompany many of the voice majors at Drake – attending their voice lessons, partnering them in recital, playing at competitions, etc.

I had no background in opera, art song, or classical voice up to this point yet, when it was suggested to me that I consider becoming a vocal coach, I found the job fit me like a glove. So I left my Broadway music director dreams behind and focused instead on a career as a vocal coach.

[Below: Michael Heaston at the podium in an “opera talk”; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]


Wm: How does one become a vocal coach?

MH: I went to the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, for graduate study as a collaborative pianist, where I mentored with my principal teacher, Margo Garrett. She was holding dual appointments at Juilliard and Minnesota at that time.

Margo introduced me to her Juilliard colleague, Brian Zeger, and has also helped guide me over the years. Although I was playing a lot of chamber music and instrumental sonatas, vocal coaching became my primary focus.

In the year 2006, I was selected to be a member of the Glimmerglass Festival’s Young Artists Program, and was subsequently asked to return as a principal coach the following season.

But in 2007, there was a personnel change, and, instead of my being just a principal coach that season, I was invited to also be the Director of the Young Artists Program.

I jumped at the opportunity, even though I was still quite young and hadn’t done many important training programs myself.

[Below: Members of the 2015 Glimmerglass Festival Young Artists Program; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]

GLIM YAP (425)

Wm: It seems to me that even among persons of demonstrable talent that work hard, there is still an element of chance – being in the right place at the right time.

MH: I absolutely agree with that. The key, however, is to be ready for a big break when it presents itself. If you aren’t prepared within an inch of your life, ready to deliver the goods, at all times, then being in the right place at the right time is meaningless.

At that time, I was still learning the operatic repertory, devouring it as quickly as possible at every regional opera house (sometimes big and usually small) that would hire me. Between those gigs I was also one of the score consultants on the Met’s Live in HD series, working with the broadcast director and camera team as the musical point of reference.

I started judging vocal competitions, most often for the Metropolitan Opera National Council. Whenever possible, I continued to collaborate with other artists in concert work and vocal recitals.

In addition, I worked with The Dallas Opera for six seasons as Head of Music Staff and Assistant Conductor, which included the world premiere of Heggie’s “Moby-Dick.”

Wm: By that time, you had impressive credentials, yet one could argue that your work with Glimmerglass Festival has had a special impact on your current career activities.

MH: This is my tenth season at Glimmerglass and I have had the great opportunity to grow immensely in my various roles with the company, and to work under three successive Artistic and General Directors: Paul Kellogg, Michael MacLeod, and Francesca Zambello.

Wm: Obviously, you have a close connection with Francesca Zambello.

MH: I do, and I am lucky to work with such a great visionary and champion of our art form in both of her companies. At WNO I am both the Director of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program and Advisor to the Artistic Director – consulting on artistic and musical materials, casting, and planning.

Here at Glimmerglass, Francesca has just named me Associate Artistic Director, which encompasses my duties related to season planning, casting, the Young Artists Program, and heading up the music staff.

Wm: It seems to me that you, as far as the Glimmerglass Festival is concerned, have a more comprehensive view than anyone I’ve spoken to of the interrelationships of the decision process for selecting a season’s offerings and for selecting the participants in the young artists programs. How do you start the process of figuring out what you need?

MH: We start with the casting grid.

Wm: Describe the casting grid.

MH: It’s an Excel document with multiple tabs (one for each voice type). As part of that process, I make up dummy contracts for, say, sopranos 1 to 7. I determine which role/cover assignments can be combined to create an interesting contract for a certain voice type.

I also look at which groups will need to rehearse together so that their production assignments are similar. For instance, this year our Three Ladies in “The Magic Flute” are also in “Candide.” If one of them had been, say, in “Macbeth” we would have had a rehearsal planning debacle.

[Below: Glimmerglass Festival Young Artists portray the Three Ladies in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”,  from left to right, Claudia Chapa, Aleksandra Romano and Raquel González; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]


Wm: Obviously, some of the roles will be sung by established artists and some by Glimmerglass Young Artists. I suspect it’s a major challenge when you are performing Wagner or Verdi operas that need the big voices.

 MH: Yes, having done Verdi’s “Aida” and “Macbeth,” and Wagner’s “Flying Dutchman” in recent seasons, it’s a special challenge to cast those roles and to have young artist covers for them as well.

Wm: Let’s get to the some of the technical questions I have about the Glimmerglass Festival’s Young Artists. First, what are the processes you follow in selecting the Young Artists?

MH: We start with an online application process. We currently have approximately 1200 applicants annually for our opera singer positions alone, from whom we select about 450 for a live audition.

Live auditions are held as part of a national tour, with stops in New York, Chicago, Cincinnati, and Houston. We generally only have room for 36-40 opera singers.

Wm: In those auditions, for what are listening?

MH: I am listening first, and foremost, for the quality of the instrument. The voices must be well-produced, technically solid, and make an artistic statement. I am listening for people who use words, interpret text, and have both a musical and a dramatic opinion.

Wm: And you find the technically solid voices you are seeking?

MH: Yes. I’m more than pleased in the lyricism of so many of the voices I hear. In fact, I’m ecstatic.

When you make offers to people like that to become Glimmerglass Festival Young Artists, you know you are helping them establish their careers.

Wm: The career track record of the Glimmerglass Festival artists, suggests that at least some of the members of the current Glimmerglass Festival Young Artists Program will have with major careers in their future.

MH: Very much so. Many contemporary major artists were members of this program in their early careers.

[Below: Michael Heaston, left, appears alongside former Glimmerglass Young Artist, soprano Christine Goerke; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]


Wm: After the Young Artists are selected, what happens next?

MH: We want them to know that they have the company behind them and that they are connected to us from the very beginning. We want to nurture and guide them as needed through their months of preparation prior to arriving at the Festival.

Wm: What do you do to nurture the young artists you have selected?

MH: There is a fair amount of interaction between us. We check in as they are learning their assignments for the summer and are always accessible for any questions that they or their team of teachers and coaches might have.

The Young Artists need to feel that they are entering a supportive atmosphere prior to the day they arrive in Cooperstown, home of the Glimmerglass Festival. That is very important to me.

Wm: I’ve reported [*see below] on the disastrous consequences that can happen when a major artist has to withdraw from a performance and there is no cover. 

However, American opera companies, including the summer festivals, seem to do a good job in replacing a major artist on short notice. Obviously, that takes a lot of planning, including the right young artists for cover positions. How do you do it?

MH: We have covers for every single role on stage, and all covers are members of our Young Artists Program.

There are quite a few examples of covers performing roles of varying sizes over the years. Just last week, our cover for the role of Macduff went on for an indisposed colleague. He usually performs Malcolm, so we actually had TWO covers go on in a single performance as we needed to replace him in that capacity.

Sometimes they take over an entire run if someone needs to withdraw, which occurred in our productions of Cherubini’s “Medea” and Bellini’s “I Capuleti e i Montecchi” in recent years.

Wm: The Glimmerglass Festival has invested in the training of some of its Young Artists to be both opera singers and dancers. When was this decision made? What has been the impact of training opera singers to dance on the Glimmerglass Festival and on the opera world in general?

MH: This decision was made when Francesca Zambello arrived and made a classic musical part of our annual planning. We usually have 6-8 artists for those opportunities, and about half of them actually want to have careers in musical theater and not opera.

This cross-fertilization of disciplines has been wonderful – our opera singers learn from the dancers and vice versa.

It is my frank opinion that singers have not had enough movement training in general, so I think that incorporating this at the young artist level will yield great results for people as their careers develop. No one ever complained about an opera singer moving too well.

[Below: Michael Heaston, left, works on a vocal score with two Young Artists, tenor Marco D. Cammarota and mezzo-soprano Julia Dawson; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]


Wm: In what ways do the Glimmerglass Festival and Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists programs differ? Do you have different methods for recruiting members of each?

MH: They are certainly different animals. The WNO program has 11 singers, two pianists, and is a nine month program. While I want to hire the most accomplished artists I can find at each program, the filter for entry into the WNO program is much more refined because of the level we are seeking and the very limited number of openings.

I am truly looking for artists of the highest caliber, with the most promise for a major international career upon completion. The WNO program should be the final training stop for its participants.

I recruit for both programs in a similar manner, but recruiting for WNO is certainly more hands on and involved. I am tracking dozens of singers for both programs at any given time—some artists might be for both and others are only for one of the two.

The WNO young artists do not participate in chorus assignments. Rather, their time is spent in equal parts training (with one of the finest faculties in the industry) and performance in WNO’s busy season.

Wm: You are still a young man with important responsibilities in opera administration. We seem to be in a period of transition in which the idea of an opera company being led by a “general director” is giving way to shared responsibility at the leadership level of many opera companies?

What is your assessment of the future of opera administration, and are you personally preparing for even greater responsibilities in the future?

MH: Those in my peer group, including myself, have a special challenge in that we have to think of not only how to sustain this wonderful industry, but also to identify the unique thumbprint each company can leave on its individual, local community.

There is no room for those of us in different opera companies to be in competition with each other. We have to work collectively to figure out how to sustain and further the art form. We have so much to learn from one another as we work to make our companies an invaluable part of our local cultural landscapes.

Wm: If one considers the vocal and dramatic talent that currently exists in the operatic community, the “supply” side for opera is in very good shape. I think that much more work has to be done on the “demand” side, but it’s a great product being offered once people come to understand and appreciate it.

MH: There is so much ingenuity and talent available to the world of opera performance, but we need to constantly look for all the possible ways of furthering the art form.

Opera is so important to culture. And culture should be central to our society.

Wm: Thank you, Michael.

MH: Thank you!


[*As an example of what can happen in a performance that has no cover, see: No Norina: A “Don Pasquale” Showstopper in Zurich – September 23, 2007.]