When the curtain goes up Saturday evening on Minnesota Opera’s “Flight,” the company’s head of music, Allen Perriello, will be even happier than usual.
Onstage at the Ordway will be no fewer than four current members of the opera’s Resident Artist Program, which Perriello runs. Two alumni also figure: countertenor Cortez Mitchell in the pivotal role of the Refugee, and stage director David Radamés Toro.
All told, English composer Jonathan Dove’s 1998 opera offers a formidable demonstration of Minnesota Opera’s commitment to nurturing new and emerging talent.
“We’re looking for somebody we’re excited by, somebody who has something special to say,” Perriello said. Typically straight out of college and inexperienced in the music business, “most of the applicants are 23 or 24 years old, ranging sometimes into their mid-30s.”
The aim is to put artists on a fast track to a sustainable career in the world of professional opera.
Recruitment to the Resident Artist Program, established more than two decades ago, is ferociously competitive. “We aim to take five to seven singers per season, and this year we had 655 singer applications,” said Perriello, who oversees the singer and pianist component of the program (there are also positions for an assistant director and assistant technical director).
“It’s tougher to get into one of these resident programs than it is to get into an Ivy League school.”
Auditions are relaxed but rigorous, he said. Each singer has a seven-minute slot to sing in, typically performing one or more operatic arias. But technical excellence is not the only factor.
“They say the audition starts when you walk in the building,” said Perriello. “Personality matters. We’re looking for somebody we want to spend nine months with. Somebody we feel comfortable taking into the community for the engagement events we do.”
‘You get a living wage’
Soprano Lisa Marie Rogali was one of the lucky ones.
Since joining Minnesota Opera as a resident artist in 2018 she has had prominent parts in Puccini’s “La Rondine” and Rota’s “The Italian Straw Hat.” She plays Tina in “Flight,” and will feature in the forthcoming world premiere of Paola Prestini’s “Edward Tulane” (adapted from Kate DiCamillo’s children’s book) and the company’s final show of the season, Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.”
Rogali is full of praise for the company, and the learning opportunities it offers.
“It’s one of the top programs in the country — it has that reputation,” she said. “And I love Minnesota Opera’s commitment to new music and to diversity.”
Opportunities to perform in main stage productions are of course invaluable, but Rogali also points to the help that resident artists are given behind the scenes.
“We get a lot of individual coaching, where we can work on our own repertoire,” she says. “And the coaching is of an incredible quality.”
Not all resident artist schemes are unqualified successes. Dark tales circulate of vulnerable young singers being paid a pittance by companies to fill bit parts cheaply, with no meaningful commitment to career development.
Minnesota Opera is not like that, according to Rogali. “You get a living wage here, which is another perk.” She smiled. “What you get on some of these programs is unlivable. Here I can pay my rent and be comfortable.”
A crucial launchpad
“Flight,” inspired by a real Iranian refugee who lacked proper documentation and ended up living at Paris’ De Gaulle Airport, is a tale of stranded travelers forging an impromptu community.
“It’s uncanny how what’s happening now in the U.S. aligns with this character and his struggle,” said Mitchell, who sings the central role. “So many people nowadays are just trying to get away from terrible situations, and are faced with so many obstacles. It’s scary.”
Mitchell entered the Resident Artist Program in 2006 as its first ever countertenor, and exited straight into a job in San Francisco with the storied male vocal ensemble Chanticleer.
He views his year at Minnesota Opera as a crucial launchpad. “The footing and exposure I got here was very important, the stage performances and the language coaching,” he says. “I don’t know how much more valuable a hands-on experience you can get.”
Despite the program’s success, Perriello said the opera is always looking for ways to make it better. “This year we brought in a financial consultant for the first time, to really address how you plan your life as a freelancer.”
Although the program requires a substantial investment of time and money, Perriello does not see the company’s commitment wavering.
“It’s absolutely at the core of what we do,” he says. “There’s a lot of exceptional young talent out there, and it’s great for our audience to be able to say they’ve seen these really special people at the beginning of their career journey.”
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune.