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Chautauqua Opera Company’s Young Artists share personal stories at Afternoon of Song Recital

Opera’s landscape is vast.

If the contrast in their favorite opera moments is any indication, the Chautauqua Opera Company’s Young Artists performing in the Afternoon of Song Recital at 3:15 p.m. Friday in the Athenaeum Hotel Parlor will show just how broad that landscape is.

Tenor Omar Najmi has been the hero.

Singing in the chorus of a Boston Lyric Opera production of La Bohème, Najmi was thrust into the spotlight. The show did not cast any covers or understudies, so when the artist playing the lead tenor role of Rodolfo left suddenly during rehearsals because of a family emergency, the production team called on Najmi to fill his spot.

“I got a call from my boss saying ‘Can you learn this role, bring a score, come in today, and sight-read it on book for our first full run?’ ” Najmi said. “So I did that, and then we heard that he wasn’t coming back for a week. So they immediately put me into rehearsals. At this point I’d had the score for two days.”

He went on to perform in tech rehearsals, commit the entire role to memory in five days, and perform in final dress rehearsals. At which point the original Rodolfo returned just in time for the show’s opening.

“It was exciting to have that opportunity,” Najmi said. “I like being in the position of saving the day like that.”

Omar Najmi

Soprano Emily Michiko Jensen has been the enchanted little girl.

When she was young, Jensen’s father often worked as a supernumerary actor in opera productions. After leaving early in the morning for his full-time job as a high school chemistry teacher, he would then attend evening rehearsals that often kept him away from home until late at night. Jensen’s mother insisted that he find a way to spend more time with his daughters. His solution: bring them along to a casting call for a production of Madama Butterfly.

The 8-year-old Jensen found herself cast as a child in a super role in the opera.

“I was really excited because we’re dressing up and it’s this story about Japanese characters,” said Jensen, who is half-Japanese. But she admits that she was too young to fully understand what opera was.

“The next season, they were doing Carmen and my father took me to see the show,” Jensen said. “I see this group of kids run on stage and start singing and I asked my father, ‘Kids can sing in opera?,’ and he told me, ‘We have a lot to teach you.’ ”

She was hooked.

Emily Jensen

Baritone Spencer Reichman has thrilled and surprised child performers.

Reichman recently played the character of Frank Maurrant in a production of Street Scene, an opera with a sizable children’s chorus. At the beginning of rehearsals, Reichman and the children’s chorus worked separately, with the children’s coach singing Reichman’s part.

Reichman’s character Maurrant, a violent, wife-beating drunk, makes his debut on stage by way of a verbal assault on his wife, a scene immediately followed by a song from the children’s chorus.

One day, Reichman overheard the children practicing this section of the opera when he had a realization.

“They had never heard me,” Reichman said.

He decided to change that, and from the back of the music hall belted out his own part over the voice of the children’s coach.

“I hit that high F at the end and they all turned around just shocked and startled,” Reichman said. “Any time you hear how everything clicks in, especially when it’s with kids, is a lot of fun.”

Together, these three Young Artists will bring their own unique love of opera to a program themed “Flora and Fauna.”

“Some people will hear flora and fauna and ask ‘What are we coming to see?’ ” Jensen said.

Spencer Reichman

According to Chorus Master and Music Administrator Carol Rausch, those attending the recital will see a type of music-making that is much more intimate than traditional opera.

“You get a feeling of the personality of that singer,” said Rausch, who will be accompanying the Young Artists on piano at the recital. “(They’re) not a nameless face. (They’re) a known quantity.”

For Jensen, this means giving Chautauquans the chance to put a face and name to opera.

“They can say, ‘We know them, they’re part of the company. They were really nice. Let’s see what they’re doing,’ ” Jensen said.

Vocal coach Dorothy Randall, who will also serve as an accompanist at the recital, acknowledges this accessibility as a byproduct of the emotional element of the recital performances.

“Art song is a very different vocabulary than opera, which is more overt in its emotional content,” Randall said. “These are painting smaller, more intimate pictures that allow the singers to explore their different ways of dealing with the emotional content. They draw you in in a different way.”

While the small, intimate pictures being painted fit well into the small, intimate setting of Athenaeum Parlor, Najmi, Jensen and Reichman will venture into an emotional landscape that is much larger.

They will sing pieces they would not be able to sing at auditions throughout the year, pieces that deeply move and interest them.

“Some of the pieces we’ve performed before, so getting to revisit them, no matter how long it’s been since we last performed them, is exciting,” Jensen said. “All of us are presenting pieces that we absolutely love.”

Tags : Afternoon of Song RecitalAthenaeum Hotel ParlorChautauqua Opera Companyweek twoyoung artists
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The author Nathan Healy

Nathan Healy is a second-year graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He is pursuing his M.A. in professional writing. Following his undergraduate studies, he spent eight-plus years teaching at an all-boys private school for court-adjudicated youth. In addition to writing and reading, Nathan enjoys traveling, eating at new restaurants, spending time with his niece and nephews, and being physically active.

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