By Kelly Schlicht, Development Manager
In its tenth season, the fruits of the Florentine Opera Donald and Donna Baumgartner Studio Artist program’s labors will be on full display in the company’s upcoming production of Venus and Adonis and Dido and Aeneas, with three alumni from the program showcased in principal roles.
Mezzo-soprano Colleen Brooks (2008-2009), Baritone Leroy Davis (2015-2017), and Soprano Alisa Jordheim (2012-13) have returned to their adoptive home company. Brooks portrays the Huntsman and the Sorceress, Davis plays Adonis and Aeneas, and Jordheim plays Venus and Belinda.
In the years spanning their tenures with the company, the Studio Artist program became the centerpiece of the Florentine’s community engagement and education efforts, as well as one of the most unique and respected young artist training programs in the country. With the move to the Wayne and Kristine Lueders Florentine Opera Center in 2009, and the opening of the Kate and Don Wilson Casa di Opera around the corner from it in 2013, the Studio Artists and the Florentine have become integral parts of the Riverwest community. Four singers (soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, and baritone) are selected each season. The variety of performance opportunities—from the main stage at the Marcus Center to the starring roles in an annual education tour—contributes to the holistic training and coaching the artists receive. The company now hires an additional Summer Quartet from its more than 200 applicants each year.
Davis concluded his time as a Studio Artist in that inaugural summer quartet in 2017, after two full seasons with the company. He said he doesn’t know where he’d be professionally if it weren’t for his time as a Studio Artist.
“If you had asked me five years ago, I never would have expected to be where I am. I don’t know if I would be singing if I hadn’t been here in Milwaukee,” said Davis, who said he was “stunned’ to be cast as the male leads in both pieces for the Baroque Double Bill.
Davis said that the rare opportunities presented to him through the program formed him into a better performer.
“Just to have that chance to observe and work with artists I looked up to and to absorb the knowledge and wisdom has been invaluable,” he said.
Since his time with the Florentine, Davis made his role debut as Papageno in the Magic Flute at the Shreveport Opera in Louisiana. He is now based out of Boston.
Brooks and Jordheim both chose Milwaukee as their home bases after their time with the Florentine. Their careers over the past decade have followed a somewhat similar trajectory. Both have achieved their doctoral degrees from Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, won the district Metropolitan Opera Auditions, spent summers with the Merola Opera program in San Francisco, and have taught as faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Brooks was in the first Studio Artist class. She went on to star in productions as nearby as the Skylight Theatre, and as far away as Bangkok. She has performed everything from traditional repertoire to highly experimental pieces, such as Songs from the Uproar with the Milwaukee Opera Theatre.
Jordheim was in the fifth class of Studio Artists. She left the program after one season for a Fulbright Scholarship to pursue her doctorate in Scandinavian song, spending much of 2013 and 2014 in Norway. Since she returned to the states, she said her favorite roles have been as Satirino in La Calasto by Cavalli (which also featured authentic period instruments), Micaela in Carmen, Sister Constance in the Dialogues with the Carmelites, Lulu in Elmer Gantry and Lola in Sister Carrie.
Both credit their time with the Florentine with helping them find such varied successes in their careers.
“Learning to become an artist, not just a singer,” said Brooks, when asked what portion of her training helped her the most. “Training gets compartmentalized, but it’s only in a program like this or in real world experiences like this where we are forced to put all the pieces together and be an artist. Because it steps away from the intellectual and goes into the exploratory, you find a different sense of confidence in yourself and a different level of artistry.”
All three singers said the value they found in their time in the Studio Artist program is unlike any other program of its kind in the country.
“It gives us an amazing chance to hone our crafts but expose the community at large to opera and to interact with the children in the community to go in schools nearly every day we build new audience hopefully,” said Davis.
“This program is truly keeping opera alive and relevant, not only for the new and younger audiences. It is also just imperative to have that training and transitional period in the life of an up-and-coming singer. It’s important to do this in between academia and the real world. When you have organized programs like this it makes life so much easier, straightforward, and fun to get the education you truly need,” said Brooks.
“It’s a very nurturing environment. I felt very safe to take risks and I was given opportunities to have mainstage opportunities as well,” said Jordheim.
The former Studio Artists said that the chance to do a Baroque opera, as opposed to the more widely-performed opera repertoire, is exciting. And doing it in a place they feel at home offers an additional support system.
“The people are very kind and the audience are very receptive. It’s always a pleasure to sing here because you know people will value the work you put in to the productions,” said Jordheim.
Brooks said that Milwaukee has been a place where she, and other artists, have been truly able to creatively flourish.
“The size of the city and that we have three companies doing opera is incredible, not to mention all the other forms of artistry. Culturally, it’s a hidden mecca. And we know how to have fun too!” she said.
Brooks, Davis, and Jordheim, along with current Donald and Donna Baumgartner Studio Artists Rachel Blaustein, Ashley Puenner, Edward Graves, and Nathaniel Hill, will perform in the Baroque Double Bill of John Blow’s Venus and Adonis and Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas on January 26, 27 and 28. Tickets for Friday and Sunday are nearly sold out! Call 1-800-32-OPERA today for the best available seats.
If you would like to support the continuation of the Donald and Donna Baumgartner Studio Artist program with the Florentine, consider making a gift. Call 414-291-5700 ext 225 to discuss your giving options.