In 2012, the Albuquerque Journal featured the Land of Enchantment Opera on its front page.
GALLUP – This is a town built on the railroad, and trains still rumble through downtown several times an hour.
So as recent Rutgers University graduate Jessica Tomasella worked her way through the pleading “Signore, Ascolta” aria from Puccini’s “Turandot” and raised her voice to a ringing high C in a second-story meeting room of the old train station, she competed with the whistle of a passing freight.
And as soprano Linda Roark-Strummer coached Laura Scandizzo through some comic pacing in the Fiordiligi aria in Mozart’s “Cosi Fan Tutte,” a couple more trains roared by.
Gallup is known for many things – that railroad, Route 66, red rocks, silver and turquoise jewelry, politics played as a contact sport. Opera has never made the list.
But, this summer, Gallup is awash in baritones, sopranos and tenors and swelling with arias as the Land of Enchantment Opera Institute alights for a four-week summer camp. It’s the fourth summer that opera students and opera teachers have settled into the Route 66 town for intensive training and occasional performances that bring a rarefied cultural vibe to a town more accustomed to Indian dances and rodeos.
This odd couple – high culture and reservation border town – started as many good things do in small towns, with a couple of locals who wanted to change the scenery a little bit.
Jeremy Boucher, the director of the Gallup Cultural Center, was looking for some new attraction to spice up the summer and happened to know a couple of opera singers. The women – both sopranos – agreed to make a trip to Gallup, and they teamed up with Jason Winfield, a local kid from Vanderwagen who had trained as a baritone and dreamed of an opera career. They persuaded Julian Reed, then the chorus director of the Arizona Opera, to lend a hand, and they all spent a few days preparing and put on a couple of shows.
The people of Gallup ate it up, the performers had fun and the idea of a proper summer institute was born. It has grown to include a faculty of seven, a student body of 23 from around the country and the world and performances all over Gallup and, beginning this summer, on the Navajo Nation.
When Reed crossed the border into New Mexico for that inaugural Gallup opera summer program in 2009, it sure wasn’t the piano that persuaded him to stay.
Reed wouldn’t even call the drop-action spinet at his disposal a piano. He referred to it as a “piano-shaped object.” “The sound could clean the tartar off your teeth,” he said.
But besides that sorry little piano, Reed was impressed by the warm welcome and came back. He now accompanies singers on a nice grand piano.
The institute has grown since then to one of the best-kept secrets of the increasingly competitive opera world.
“It’s phenomenal. It’s been amazing,” said Sarah Lockwood, a mezzo-soprano with Kansas City’s Lyric Opera. She’s 28 and that rarest of young women – a working singer. Despite cracking the job market, she knew she could benefit from a few weeks of coaching by some seasoned pros.
Most of the institute’s students are either completing their undergraduate degrees in vocal performance, attending graduate school or leaving school and preparing to audition for opera companies.
They say the individual attention they receive at the institute is incomparable. “We get one-on-one time every single day, either with a voice teacher or a coach,” tenor Elliott Deasy told me. He estimated he sings and gets feedback for three to four hours a day.
The instructors who take rooms at El Rancho hotel for the four-week summer program are big-league performers. Mark Armstrong is the principal pianist of the Tulsa Opera. Steven Crawford recently retired as a conductor of the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Co-artistic directors Roark-Strummer and her husband, Peter Strummer, both have storied opera careers. Roark-Strummer sang soprano title roles in opera companies throughout the world, and Strummer is a well-reviewed bass-baritone who came to Gallup directly from performing in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Rome opera.
Their aim, the Strummers told me, is to prepare promising singers for the rigors of auditions, where one mispronounced French vowel or awkward gesture can mean losing a spot to someone who is better-prepared.
While the institute is still small, it is growing steadily and becoming known in academic vocal programs. Students this year came from Los Angeles, Oklahoma, Kansas, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Texas and Australia.
And what about Gallup? Institute students will be performing in the Gallup High School auditorium and the Elks Lodge this summer. They’re staying in dorms at Rehoboth Christian School and eating their way through downtown (chimichangas and burritos for lunch, I’m told, do not contribute to stellar vocal performances in the afternoon). And they have learned to ignore the trains that try to interrupt morning critiques.
“It’s a random place,” 22-year-old high soprano Jennifer [K]oljack told me. “But the people are phenomenal and the mountains are beautiful and you know that everybody here is trying to make you better. It’s the most supportive group of people I’ve ever been around.”