A month after singing the role of the charismatic backwoods preacher Olin Blitch in the Baylor Opera Theater production of "Susannah," baritone David Pershall found himself in a far different world.áNo theatrical stage, but a glittering reception room overlooking the Providence River in Providence, R.I. No characters in costumes, but operatic arias performed in evening attire. An audience in the dozens, not hundreds, made up of demanding opera judges and wealthy donors of the Bel Canto Vocal Scholarship Fund Inc. And, outside of fellow competitor and Baylor voice major Keron Jackson, no supporting cast, but enormously talented young singers eager to make their mark in opera.
For the 21-year-old Belton High School graduate, the moment capped years of musical training, first in private study at the University of Mary Hardin Baylor, then four years at Baylor.
That night proved an even more momentous milestone for Jackson. Only five years earlier, Jackson had no college plans and was living out of his car while trying to make it as a stage performer in Fort Worth. He and two older sisters largely raised themselves from their teen years on. His singing talent led him to Panola College, then to Baylor. Here he's received the Glennis McCrary Goodrich Music Scholarship, the V. Edward and R. McCrary Endowed Scholarship and an anonymous scholarship for students from Panola County, Texas.
The 25-year-old found itáhard not to be dazzled at the Bel Canto, from the well-to-do audience and the high caliber of his fellow performers to a deep realization that I can do this. "It was like a dream come true," he says.
Jackson and Pershall found themselves in the company of opera lovers, both in peers hoping to establish themselves in the field and in the Bel Canto foundation. Rhode Island vocalist and opera advocate Annamaria Saritelli-DiPanni started the Bel Canto Vocal Scholarship 19 years ago, initially to support promising Rhode Island singers, but later broadened to a national search. In almost 20 years, the foundation has awarded approximately $400,000 in scholarship awards.
Soprano Jeannette Vecchione, a Juilliard School student, took the Bel Canto's top prize, but the two Baylor students returned to Waco as national finalists - something the 300 other Bel Canto contestants could not say. Their recognition proved the latest feather in the cap for the Baylor School of Music's vocal program, which has trained opera singers across America and in Europe. Pershall and Jackson were two of the only three competitors still in college, competing against older singers already in the professional world.
For Pershall, the triumph came after a draining role in Carlisle Floyd's "Susannah" and the National Association of Teachers of Singing's Texoma regional vocal competition, in which he tied for first in his category. Jackson considered scratching the Bel Canto audition after a disappointing fourth place in the Teachers of Singing contest, but decided to go ahead instead of wasting his $35 entry fee.
Pershall and Jackson found themselves that semifinals weekend among singers from the University of Texas at Austin, the University of North Texas and the Houston Grand Opera.
As in many operatic and vocal competitions, contestants in the Bel Canto - Italian for "beautiful singing" - come with several arias prepared. The singer picks one, then the judges choose one. Pershall sang "O Carlo, ascolta" from Giuseppe Verdi's "Don Carlo," and "Si corre dal notaio" from Giacomo Puccini's "Gianni Schicchi." Jackson's sections were "Come dal ciel precipita" from Verdi's "Macbeth" - "It's a big boy aria," he says, his eyes twinkling - and "Vecchia zimarra," the famous bass "Coat Aria," from Puccini's "La Boheme." The semifinal judges obviously were impressed with the Baylor students' performances: The two were the only ones from the Austin auditions picked for the national finals.
News of their finalist status delighted Baylor University voice teachers John Van Cura, who has taught Pershall for his four years at Baylor, and Rob Best, Jackson's voice teacher for 14 months.áVan Cura, who retired from Baylor in 2006 but continues to teach his Baylor students, describes Pershall's voice as one offering many shades of interpretation. "David has multiple colors in his voice. He's a very easy Verdi baritone," Van Cura says. "He has wonderful levels of emotions in his voice as well as his countenance. His ability's like a 35-year-old."
Pershall is on full tuition scholarships provided by three endowments: The Virginia Furrow Singers Music Scholarship fund, established in 1992 by Virginia S. Furrow for junior and senior level students who participate in Baylor choirs; the Ted and Sue Getterman Endowed Scholarship Fund in Music, established in 2005 by Ted and Sue Getterman; and the Mary Etta Mason Memorial Scholarship Fund, established in 1982 by Dr. and Mrs. R. Burgess Mason of Louisiana in memory of their daughter, a graduate of the Baylor School of Music. The scholarship is awarded to students studying voice.
The broad-chested Jackson boasts a lower, powerful bass-baritone and a charisma that flavors performances across genres, from opera and musical theater to spirituals, gospel and pop music. "Both are singers with an amazing amount of potential," Best says.
With no graduate vocal program, Baylor voice teachers concentrate on shaping that raw product into a solid, fundamentally sound foundation that grounds a singer's career.á Even now, former Van Cura students employed with the Zurich Opera, the San Francisco Opera and the Lyric Opera of Chicago sometimes journey to his Salado studio for a vocal tune-up.áWhen a singer stands before an audition panel, everything he or she has learned goes on the line. Pitch. Diction. Tone. Volume. Breath support. Phrasing. Fluency with foreign languages. Posture. Stage movement. Ability to communicate the text. Appearance.
All of these things are compressed into a three- or four-minute song, usually with an unfamiliar accompanist. One other thing: Sing relaxed.á"You not only have to be good, you have to make it look easy. It's like what was said about Ginger Rogers: She did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards," Best says.
For those in operatic contests, there's the additional demand of projecting the persona of the character whose aria one sings, whether it's a loyal, dying friend, a brash bohemian or a self-confident schemer - all in the span of minutes onstage.á
Van Cura knows how a competition victory can change a career. His University of Iowa student Michelle Crider found her European career transformed after she won the grand prize in the 1987 Geneva International Competition, a triumph that opened the door to plum roles with the Paris Opera and the Vienna Opera. Another student, Marjorie Owens, placed first in last year's Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and sings with the Lyric Opera of Chicago's residency program, the Lyric Opera Center for American Artists.
Still, many singers' voices won't mature until their late 20s and early 30s. "I tell my students, 'Don't get so caught up in this competition,'" he says. "Many really talented people give up early."
After the Bel Canto, what next?á Jackson returned to Waco affirmed in his talent and refocused on the goal at the end of his studies, switching to Deborah Williamson's voice studio in January. "I was able to peek over the fence and feel that, truthfully, this hard work is paying off," he says. "My God-given talent placed me in a place I shouldn't have been yet."
He's open to singing a wide range of repertory and venues, from opera and musical theater to oratorio and churches. He's sung at the 2005 funeral of distinguished Waco jurist Bill Logue and last year's investiture of Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals Justice Priscilla Owen, a Baylor law graduate. Sundays find him in demand as guest soloist in many churches. In addition to his junior year recital, his spring may include Young Texas Artists Competition, auditions for "Porgy and Bess" at the Utah Opera Festival, a Savannah, Ga., opera competition and activities in conjunction with the National Day of Prayer. With his ringing, rich bass voice, Jackson knows he's destined for more than a few villainous roles in the opera repertory, but that's all right. "People always remember the villains," he says with a laugh.
Pershall's Bel Canto success presaged additional good fortune when the Virginia Opera hired him outright to cover (understudy) the role of Enrico in its 2008 production of Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammemoor." As part of his Virginia Opera position next spring, Pershall will perform at the opera's preview and tour with a soprano from the company. This spring he sings at Indiana University's prestigious School of Music with that school's Dean Emeritus Charles Webb before Pershall's own senior recital.
As a young artist early in his career, the handsome, clear-eyed baritone has no fear of entering a dying field, but he acknowledges competition is stiff. "The jobs are already taken," Pershall says. "You've got to find your edge and work your way in."
Graduation this spring won't be the only major change in Pershall's life. In August, he and soprano Kathleen Horn, another Baylor graduate, will marry in her hometown of Utica, N.Y. Juggling two beginning careers in music will be challenging and he says they agree about one thing.á"We're going to stay out of competitions where we might face each other."áá