For Perry Lorenzo, the world of opera is a way of life. He has seen thousands of live opera performances. He has witnessed all 16 hours of Wagner's Ring Cycle 50 times.
Even early in life, as a precocious teenager growing up in Seattle, Lorenzo sneaked into Seattle Opera rehearsals just to get his fix. Once, when he was spotted at the back of a rehearsal hall, Lorenzo defended his actions to then director Glynn Ross by declaring his love for the art. Naturally, Ross let him stick around.
Lorenzo, now 46, runs the show today. As director of education, he is charged with organizing the Seattle Opera's Young Artists Program, one of the most highly regarded singer-training programs in the country. The six-month program, which concludes this year with performances of Mozart's Marriage of Figaro, is designed to be a steppingstone for 20- and 30-something opera singers.
"We're here to teach these artists how to do opera thoughtfully, how to behave in the arts world, be good colleagues, show up on time, and be there 100 percent," Lorenzo says. "We're here to help them figure out how to turn this into a career."
A mission to reach out
After his days as an opera-hungry teenager, the Bellingham native studied philosophy, Latin, and Greek at Gonzaga University. Lorenzo became a humanities teacher at Kennedy High School in Burien in 1982, and he took his students on field trips to the opera every year. Ten years later, when the Seattle Opera decided to launch an education department, general director Speight Jenkins invited him to be the director of education. Lorenzo accepted and made the switch.
But teaching opera to those who already appreciated it wasn't enough for Lorenzo; he wanted to take his passion one step further. So, within the first year of assuming his role as director of education, Lorenzo started planning the Young Artists Program, initially a 10-week workshop that ended with a full performance of Mozart's Così fan tutte. One of the program's goals: bring opera to underserved Washington communities.
In 2001 Lorenzo received a three-year, $1.25 million grant from the Wallace Foundation to expand the program. Since then it has grown into a full-fledged six-month fellowship, an immersion that focuses on just about every aspect of making an opera singer's career come to life. From New York's Metropolitan Opera to Italy's Teatro alla Scala, Seattle Opera's training is regarded as one of the most comprehensive young-artist programs in the industry.
"I wouldn't have thought about going anywhere else," says Edlyn de Oliveira, a 27-year-old singer from Porto Alegre, Brazil, one of this year's students. "Around the industry, what Lorenzo has done here speaks for itself."
For many young participants, the education turns a dream career into a reality. In addition to classes in voice, acting, language, diction, dance, and auditioning, artists receive training in professional management and are required to participate in seminars on everything from recruiting an agent to filling out Schedule C tax forms. Lorenzo says these classes are designed to prepare singers for "the real world" of opera as a profession.
For Carolyn Kahl, a current artist who has participated in the program since 2002, the seminars have done just that. "Talk about bridging a gap," says Kahl, 26. "Between the recital and all of the classes, the program has given me the confidence and knowledge I need to take my career to the next step."
But Lorenzo's favorite part of the program is sending singers to Seattle-area schools to teach opera to children. "It's amazing to get out there and perform opera for people who've never even thought about seeing it," he says. "You go and you expect people to react with skepticism, but they just love it, and they tell you how much they love it, and you realize that you've played a part in getting them hooked."
The job does have challenges. A major grant expires this summer, and if more funding doesn't materialize, Lorenzo may be forced to scale back the program. But he seems unfazed. "I'm sure all of us have heard the phrase 'The show must go on,'" he says. "So long as we're helping young artists achieve their goals, I think we're doing just fine."
Opera for beginners
Nobody knows opera better than Perry Lorenzo, but it's never too late to start studying. Here, based on Lorenzo's recommendations, are some of the best operas for beginners.
La Bohème. An inside look at Bohemian life in the 1850s, this Puccini opera inspired the hit Broadway musical Rent and is largely considered a masterpiece.
The Magic Flute. Filled with fantasy and imagination, Mozart's Die Zauberflöte features a bird seller, a dragon, angels, and, of course, a magical musical instrument.
The Marriage of Figaro. Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro features one of his most beautiful ballads. At the end of the second act, all of the main characters sing at once, a harmonious chaos that critics say gave birth to modern opera.
Rigoletto. The main character is a hunchbacked jester in this dark Verdi opera. Love triangles and curses result in a tragic ending.
The Ring Cycle. A four-part opera that served as the basis for Lord of the Rings.