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Leading the next generation of opera singers

image from the Midwest Institute of Opera

Young opera singers from around the world will be on the Illinois State University campus this summer to stage works by Rossini and Ravel. They will be working with the Midwest Institute of Opera (MIO), which gives emerging professional singers the opportunity to perform complete operatic roles in their original languages, under the guidance of professional performers and directors.

Now in its fifth year, MIO was founded by School of Music Vocal Arts Coordinator and Associate Professor John Koch and Tracy Marie Koch, a Lirico Spinto soprano and voice teacher. Both seasoned opera professionals, the husband and wife team saw a real need for a program that helps young singers hone their skills.

“We both had experience with a summer opera program in another state that wasn’t run very well and didn’t provide a good learning experience for the performers,” said Tracy Koch. “We both realized that we could put something like that together and provide a great experience for emerging professionals.”

MIO’s summer programs are intense, no-nonsense affairs, but they offer a supportive atmosphere for developing talent. Performers joining MIO in the summer study under professionals from the Metropolitan Opera Company as well as voice and piano performers and teachers drawn from across the nation. Work on all aspects of the summer season begins months in advance so that singers can concentrate completely on the music, staging and character development once they arrive.

“We’re working with emerging artists,” said Tracy Koch. “We choose serious performers who are on their way to becoming professionals. We believe in the people we choose for the productions and we invest a lot of time and effort in helping them grow.”

image of John and Tracy Koch

John and Tracy Koch

The performances are staged in the University’s Center for the Performing Arts and include costumes, props and basic scenery to set the mood. “We add visual elements to engage the audience, but we’re really producing a full opera without the whole theatre setting and pit orchestra,” said John Koch. “Our performances are mostly done with piano accompaniment, but there is a very full sound. This year we’ll be incorporating a string quartet into one of our operas.”

Although MIO does stage some newer works, its repertoire is drawn mainly from the well-known, established canon of operas that will develop a singer’s performance résumé. “These are the valuable, enduring operatic roles that will give them the experience they need,” said Tracy Koch.

Past seasons’ performances included Bizet’s Carmen and Mozart’s The Magic Flute. This summer season, running July 18 to 30, will include Rossini’s La cenerentola, a Cinderella story; Ravel’s The Bewitched Child; and the world premiere of Sweets by Kate by Griffin Candey.

Every summer, about 40 performers participate in MIO productions. The performers include Illinois State voice students and some community members. A growing number of performers are chosen through auditions held each spring in New York City. “We’re getting more and more applications from the New York City area,” said John Koch. “This is a great opportunity for performers and a chance for them to network with other opera professionals.”

In addition to being opportunities for emerging opera professionals, the MIO summer productions are a great introduction to opera for local audiences. “The operas are in their original languages, but we have supertitles on a screen so the audience can follow along,” said Tracy Koch. “The shows are very entertaining and engaging and the tickets are also very reasonably priced.”

Making opera accessible to local audiences is another important mission for the Kochs. MIO’s scope has broadened to include performances for children that introduce opera and concert etiquette and give kids a chance to meet the performers. The Kochs have also received grant funding to stage performances for audience members with hearing impairment.

Performance opportunities have expanded to include the Music at the Manor series, featuring vocal recitals in the intimate setting of Ewing Manor; the formation of the MIO Children’s Chorus; and the Voices of MIO concert series in New York City, featuring the Kochs and alumni of the MIO summer productions. The Kochs are even exploring the possibility of taking opera outdoors with a performance staged at the Theatre at Ewing.

For more information about the 2015 MIO season, visit http://midwestinstituteofopera.org/.