Arts & Entertainment

Americans head to Austria for crack at opera world

Amada Dominguez of West Covina practices an aria during an opera staging class at the American Institute of Musical Studies in Graz, Austria this summer.
Amada Dominguez of West Covina practices an aria during an opera staging class at the American Institute of Musical Studies in Graz, Austria this summer.
Susan Valot/KPCC

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Hitting the right notes in an opera isn’t easy. And it isn’t an easy to break into a career in opera, either. So some Americans are heading to Europe to try to get their foot in the door. One summer music program in Graz, Austria, is designed to help those music students.

About a half dozen American students – most in their 20s – stand in an Austrian school classroom. The windows are open. Traffic streams by outside.

The students practice acting under the guidance of Cal State Northridge music professor David Sannerud.

"Let’s do another one," Sannerud says. "How about, 'Get off my back?' Get off my back. Let’s try it. Just repeat it – it doesn’t have to happen at the same time – in neutral a couple times. Get used to the phrase. Go."

The class begins to repeat the phrase "Get off my back" in various tones. They say it with a different kind of emotion each time.

This is the warm-up in Sannerud’s opera staging class at the American Institute of Musical Studies in Graz. It’s a 40-year-old annual summer music workshop.

Sannerud says American students flock here each year, trying to break into the field.

"It’s almost like if you’re a jazz artist and you go to New Orleans. There’s just something in the DNA of those people," Sannerud says. "I was a student in Austria in a different program and it changed me. To hear Vienna Philharmonic symphony members playing in the pit of a Mozart opera in Salzburg, I just went, 'Okay, that’s the way it’s supposed to go.'"

Here in the Graz classroom, it’s a smaller scale. Sannerud has the class move chairs into a configuration for an audience.

Then he calls up Amada Dominguez. She’s a 27-year-old substitute teacher from West Covina.

She begins to belt out an aria as the "Queen of the Night" from Mozart's "The Magic Flute."

After one round, Sannerud gives Dominguez some tips. She sings the aria again and again, each time, tweaking it a little.

Sannerud tries to help her focus on the parts that are the most dramatic.

"What is your goal with Tamino at this point?" Sannerud asks Dominguez.

"I want to convince him to go get my daughter for me," she says.

"Right. And what are you portraying yourself to him as?" Sannerud probes.

"I’m a suffering mother and I’m helpless," Dominguez replies.

"Yeah, you’re the victim. Sarastro’s the bad guy. You’re the good guy," Sannerud says.

Dominguez nods her head in agreement, "Yes."

Dominguez didn’t start singing opera until eight years ago. But she says she’s always loved music.

"I was always a really shy child – still am shy – but in fourth grade, my teacher thought I was mute because I didn’t like to talk," Dominguez says. "But he found out I liked to sing. So we made a deal. If I participated more in class, I could sing to the class at the end of the week. And then after he heard me sing, he told me I should become an opera singer."

That stuck with her. Years after those fourth grade singing sessions, Dominguez took up music in college.

She says she hopes the Graz music workshop will get her foot in the door of the European opera world.

"People are much more involved here with opera. Everyone seems to know about it here. It’s just more accessible in Europe," Dominguez says.

Sannerud says in Europe, it seems each town has its own opera house. He says in the U.S., many opera houses are struggling, especially in the tough economy.

"When people can’t pay their rent or their mortgage, they’re less likely to give to organizations, charitable organizations and arts organizations. And there’s been such a dip in giving. And that can really sink a company," Sannerud says. "There’s Opera Pacific that has lost its battle to stay in existence in Orange County. And it’s happened across the country."

But Sannerud says there’s a silver lining.

"What I’ve seen in the last 10 to 12 years in living in California, is this interesting beginning of these kind of community, smaller companies," Sannerud says. "There’s even one that was started by alumni of Cal State Northridge, where I teach. And it’s done really well. It’s called Center Stage Opera. And these are young people or people in the community who’ve said, 'Hey, I’m going to start my own company.' And there’s literally about a dozen now in existence. They’re fantastic for young singers to get their feet wet and to get into performing when they can’t necessarily get hired at L.A. Opera right away."

Substitute teacher-turned-opera singer Amada Dominguez hopes the opera startups will have as dramatic an impact as her entry onto the stage as the "Queen of the Night."

She also knows it will take a lot of work.