July 21, 2013

Bob Keyes: Opera strikes a chord in young artists

By Bob Keyes bkeyes@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

click image to enlarge

Michelle Johnson as Mimi and Jeffrey Gwaltney as Rodolfo rehearse a scene from “La Boheme.” The PORTopera production opens Wednesday at Merrill Auditorium.

Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer



WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Friday, and 2 p.m. July 28

WHERE: Merrill Auditorium, 20 Myrtle St., Portland

HOW MUCH: $41 to $105 through PortTix, the Merrill box office; 842-0800 or porttix.com

INFO: portopera.org

Michelle Johnson as Mimi also relates to her character.

"As artists, I think it's almost a rite of passage. You have to go through that rough patch of not knowing when you are going to get the money to pay the rent," she said. "You rely on a core group of friends to help you through the rough times."

She grew up in Philadelphia, and saw her first opera when she was 8. She said that experience was mesmerizing and captivating, and made her want to sing from that early age. She studied voice in Boston, and has had a strong start to a young career.

She won the 2011 Grand Prize at the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, and has played the title role in "Aida" at the Glimmerglass Festival. This is her first time as Mimi, one of the great roles in all of opera.

Gwaltney, as Rodolfo, laughed when I asked if he could relate to his character.

"The Bohemian life is inherent to being an artist," he said. "Every singer finds something in these roles to relate to."

He grew up in the rural South, playing guitar and singing in church. He did not discover opera until age 18, and found it fascinating.

He said he fell in love with the art of singing, which is to say, he loved having the ability to control his voice in such a way to move people to tears.

He attended community college, then enrolled at Indiana University, which is known for its vocal program. He performs regularly with the Washington National Opera, and has sung at Glimmerglass and with the Baltimore Symphony. He lives in North Carolina.

And finally, we introduce you to Ed Parks. PORTopera fans may remember him from last year's production of "Madama Butterfly." He has appeared with the Metropolitan Opera, the Michigan Opera Theater and the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra.

He grew up in Indiana, Pa., the son of a coal miner. He began voice lessons at age 8, and bought his first Pavarotti CD when he was 13.

Since then, singing opera is all he has ever wanted to do. That he has accomplished his goals is gratifying beyond words.

He too relates to the struggles of his character. He is not struggling now, but he remembers what it felt like when he was.

He takes nothing for granted.

"I know what it feels like to think that way," said Parks, who lives in Queens, N.Y. "We all go through the ups and downs in this life of singing that we choose. You are only as good as your last performance."

So true. After this run of "La Boheme," he has his eyes on various opportunities. He auditions for roles two dozen times a year, and his life is about balancing opportunities and accepting the best offer that's out there at the moment.

There are no long-term contracts in this career.

"I come from a blue-collar family," he said. "I always knew I was going to sing when I was young. This is what I want to do. I never had a back-up plan." 

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:


Twitter: pphbkeyes


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