Singing Their Praises

There won’t be any author appearances when Fortissimo, William Murray’s new book about the Lyric Opera Center for American Artists, comes out later this month. Murray, a former staff writer at the New Yorker and a onetime aspiring tenor, spent the 2003-’04 season at LOCAA, the Lyric’s prestigious little finishing school, went home to California to write this appreciative account of it, and died of a heart attack as soon as it was done. It’s a swan song worthy of the art form he loved, and the folks he profiled—notably LOCAA director Richard Pearlman, vocal director Gianna Rolandi, and their stable of emerging singers—will take the final bows and sign the books for him at a publication party and concert at the Cultural Center.

LOCAA’s already riding high on the celebrity of a recent alum, 27-year-old soprano Nicole Cabell, newly crowned BBC Cardiff Singer of the World. Vocal competitions are handily dissed in Murray’s book—he calls them “absurd” as a “dumb TV reality show”—and Pearlman, he wrote, found them meaningless except as a source of prize money. But when Cabell—who has the looks to match her extraordinary voice—triumphed at Cardiff and became an international media darling overnight, LOCAA began issuing press releases about the competitive prowess of its brood. In the wake of her victory, Pearlman, who first spotted Cabell, then an Eastman undergrad, in a class he taught at Chautauqua five years ago, allowed that he feels “like a proud papa.”

Actually, it’s been a banner year for the center all around. Cabell’s colleague in the LOCAA program, baritone Quinn Kelsey, and the only other American to make it into the Cardiff competition, took a silver. Soprano Susanna Phillips took a first prize in Placido Domingo’s world opera competition, the Metropolitan Opera auditions (where LOCAA tenor Rodell Rosel also was a winner), and the George London Foundation competition. Tenor Joseph Kaiser placed second in Domingo’s contest, first in the Elardo International competition, and has been cast in Kenneth Branagh’s upcoming film version of The Magic Flute. Absurd as competitions may be, Pearlman now says the many LOCAA victories are indicative of the high quality of the program. The center’s come into its own over the last five years or so—about as long as the tenures of Rolandi (who’s married to the Lyric’s music director, Sir Andrew Davis) and former Lyric artistic director Matthew Epstein.

LOCAA, started in 1974, has morphed from a larger, looser training center into a highly selective two- to three-year program for about a dozen performers. With an annual budget of $1.4 million and four full-time staff members (down from five after the Lyric’s cuts last spring), it’s a nonprofit entity separate from but supported by the opera company, which it serves as a convenient source of labor. (This year the 13 ensemble members are scheduled to sing 103 parts in Lyric productions.) Pearlman screens 500 singers from all over the country annually; final auditions are held in September, and just a few singers (usually four) are admitted each spring. Ensemble members get a union contract, a 12-month stipend (currently $32,500), training in voice, acting, and languages, supporting roles in Lyric productions, larger roles with the center’s educational outreach programs, and the occasional understudy’s big break—a chance to step in for an ailing star. They also get unparalleled exposure in a continual, nerve-racking parade of auditions for directors and agents who drop in at the center on scouting trips.

Murray’s book is subtitled “Backstage at the Opera With Sacred Monsters and Young Singers,” but the only sacred monster he encountered at LOCAA was Epstein. An adviser to Lyric since 1980, Epstein joined the staff in 1999, after 26 legendary years with Columbia Artists Management, Inc. Though he consented only to a single interview with Murray and had no official role at LOCAA, he’s a brooding presence in the book, an elusive, all-powerful wizard, usually glimpsed “dressed in his customary funereal black, rock[ing] back and forth in his chair,” brusque, overbearing, and, according to Rolandi, “the only agent I ever knew who could build a career.” Epstein met one-on-one with singers in the LOCAA program, told them what they should perform, what they should weigh, which tempting offers they should turn down, and got many of them (including Cabell) signed with CAMI. Murray wrote that Epstein “involved himself deeply in every decision made regarding the young singers” and wondered “if Epstein’s active involvement might cause problems, because he can be overruled only by [Lyric Opera general director William] Mason.” He also wondered how Epstein “could continue to balance all these possibly conflicting interests.” Epstein left Chicago abruptly last winter after it was announced that his Lyric contract would not be renewed and is now back at CAMI (which, after some defections, is not quite the powerhouse it used to be). What he may still orchestrate for LOCAA singers remains to be seen. Epstein declined to comment on Murray’s book but says he’ll be back to hear this season’s performances.

Nicole Cabell will appear in a free concert, “Stars of the Lyric Opera at Millennium Park,” on September 10; Quinn Kelsey and other LOCCA ensemble members will perform at the Fortissimo concert and book signing, also free, on September 15 at the Cultural Center.

Stars of the Lyric Opera

WHEN: Sat 9/10, 7:30 PM

WHERE: Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park, 100 N. Michigan


INFO: 312-742-4763 or

Fortissimo book signing and concert

WHEN: Thu 9/15, 6:30 PM

WHERE: Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington


INFO: 312-346-3278


The Poetry Center’s looking for a replacement for executive director Kenneth Clarke; he’s planning now to make his mark in the more lucrative field of fund-raising. . . . Charna Halpern says don’t blame ImprovOlympic (as it used to be called) or the Chicago Theatre for the big snafu at I.O.’s 25th-anniversary show last weekend. According to Halpern it was the fault of contractor Chicago Sound that hardly anyone beyond the first few rows could hear and that after a long delay the improvisers finally had to go on with hand mikes that cramped their style. Halpern says $13,000 in ticket sales had been given back before refunds were halted; she’s consulting with her lawyer, who was in the balcony. Chicago Sound says they did what they were hired to do. . . . Reader Toni Halker wonders if WBEZ really wants comment on its expansion plans; missives she sent to the e-mail address published here last week were bouncing back marked undeliverable. ‘BEZ says it must have been a problem with their spam filter.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.