When the Florentine Opera Studio Artist class of 2017-18 takes the stage in a few short weeks for its first @ the Center concert, you’ll hear three new voices, and one familiar mezzo-soprano.
This year will feature Soprano Rachel Blaustein, Mezzo-soprano Ashely Puenner, Tenor Edward Graves, and Baritone Nate Hill.
Puenner, whom you may remember from her role-originating debut as Mrs. Hurstwood in Sister Carrie last October, said she’s excited to return for her second season of the program. She hopes her new colleagues have as wonderful of an experience as she had her first year.
“We like to say that the Florentine is like a family, and that’s very true. Everyone associated with the company, from the donors and board members to the staff, was just so welcoming. It really was the most welcoming experience I’ve had in the performing arts,” said Puenner, a native of Crystal Lake, Illinois.
Puenner received her bachelor’s degree from Illinois Wesleyan and her master’s degree from the University of Kansas. During her time as a grad student, she had a few interesting performing experiences outside of opera.
“I once got to sing in a choir that backed up Josh Groban,” she said. “And I also got to perform the National Anthem for President Obama’s visit, when he came to our campus in 2015. I even got my own secret service man assigned to me for the day!”
While she wasn’t singing for dignitaries or celebrities this summer, Florentine fans were introduced to Soprano Rachel Blaustein at Colectivo concerts, Estabrook Beer Garden, and Festa Italiana, as she was part of the company’s inaugural Summer Quartet.
“I loved it!,” said Blaustein. “I thought it was great. It was really awesome to see all of the community brought together with all of the concerts that we did. It was a new challenge for me because I’m not used to singing outside with microphone, or not doing a full role in opera.”
Blaustein received her bachelor’s degree in vocal performance from Hofstra University, and her master’s degree from The Peabody Conservatory at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. She is a native of Olney, Maryland, which she describes as “a small town outside of Baltimore.” Her new colleague, tenor Edward Graves, also hails from Maryland—Oxon Hill, which is a suburb of Washington, D.C.
Graves earned his bachelor’s degree from Towson University, and recently completed his master’s program at Indiana University. He said apart from his audition for the Studio Artist program, he’d only been to Milwaukee once, on a Greyhound stop between Indiana and the Twin Cities. But, he’s excited to see what the city has to offer.
“I’m looking forward to exploring the city and trying all of the good food here, and learning more about it and hopefully finding community here,” he said.
Graves said he’s also taking the necessary preparations for his move to Wisconsin. “I’m also looking forward to buying a winter coat. I’ve heard I’ll need one,” he joked.
Preparing to live with two female singers as his roommates in the Casa di Opera will be no problem for Nate Hill. The baritone grew up with seven older sisters, in Defiance, Ohio.
“They are all still in the Midwest, as well as my parents. So, when I do shows that are closer, they are able to come. It’s nice to have that support system that’s nearby,” said Hill.
Hill has something in common with Graves: he also attended Indiana University, but for his undergraduate work. He has a master’s from Northwestern University. And unlike his new tenor counterpart, he’s all set for Wisconsin winters.
“I’ve been to Milwaukee several times and I do like the cold weather so that won’t be a problem. I’m excited to get to know the city a little better,” said Hill.
Blaustein, Puenner and Graves said they didn’t have experiences with opera until college, where voice instructors encouraged them to take a more classical route of study after seeing their potential. Blaustein began studying musical theatre; Puenner studied classical piano; and Graves wanted to be a music teacher.
Hill said his desire to be an opera singer began a little earlier, when he saw his first opera in high school.
“I saw Tosca at the Toledo Opera, and it just blew me away,” he recalled. “I remember every set piece and everything from the first note of that opera, and ever since then it was all I wanted to do.”
Their tastes in opera vary across eras of music.
“I really like every genre of opera but they all have their special quirks. I like early music, and I do like new music,” said Blaustein.
“I’m more of a traditionalist. I love Handel, Mozart, all of the Bel Canto rep, and Verdi and Puccini. But I’m open to new opera. I saw Dead Man Walking and it was really moving for me. When you find a good story and the music communicates that story effectively, I think it’s good,” said Graves.
“I’m just floored by American opera and we have some unbelievable American composers that are putting out beautiful new works each year,” said Hill, who lists the Florentine’s Carlisle Floyd Recording Initiative as one of the reasons the company was an attractive place to audition.
That project, which continues with Prince of Players in March 2018 also has interested Puenner. “I am excited about Carlisle Floyd and Prince of Players. It will be so wonderful to meet him, and I’m looking forward to working with him. New music is one of my passions, so this will be particularly exciting,” she said.
The Florentine Opera Studio Artists will appear in all four mainstage productions this season, in addition to headlining the @ the Center Concert Series. Additionally, they will perform the world-premiere children’s opera, A Busy Bee, in more than 60 school and community venues, for more than 15,000 children across Southeast Wisconsin. You can also see them perform at various community engagement events, such as the Florentine Off Stage, or concerts at area retirement homes.
To see these wonderful young performers live, contact the Florentine Opera Box Office at 414-291-5700 ext 224.