John Riesen first met Jay Lesenger at the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. Lesenger, who was the general and artistic director of Chautauqua Opera Company at the time, gave Riesen an Encouragement Award and told him to audition for the company’s Young Artist Program.
At the time, Riesen was playing baseball in college and was just starting to focus on voice training. He had never heard of a Young Artist program, but he was accepted to Chautauqua Opera for the furst time in 2013.
Since then, Riesen has returned to Chautauqua three times and attributes his increasing success to the opportunities he was given that first year.
More than 1,000 people have been a part of Chautauqua Opera’s Young Artist Program in its 50 years, including Daniela Mack. Mack was at Chautauqua in 2006, and since then has gone on to perform at the Royal Opera House and the Metropolitan Opera. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the program, Chautauqua Opera’s Young Artist Week will present a variety of events featuring its 24 artists.
Prior to the conceptualization of the Young Artist Program, Chautauqua Opera started in 1929 as a community group known as the Chautauqua Opera Association. When the Young Artists Program was formed in 1968, Chautauqua Opera primarily brought in students from Eastman School of Music in Rochester.
The current format of the Young Artist Program is broken down into two groups: Studio Artists and Apprentice Artists. Studio Artists hold recitals and are part of the chorus or secondary roles in mainstage performances. Apprentice Artists have the chance to be in leading roles and are part of the American Guild of Musical Artists’ union. Chautauqua Opera didn’t adopt this separation until 1982.
Lesenger said this Young Artist Program is special because it is performance-based. There are mainstage productions, recitals, late night open mics and invasions.
“The focus isn’t just on chorus parts,” Lesenger said. He said another perk is the tight-knit community.
During his time at Chautauqua, Riesen’s friend and family circles have gotten bigger. The Chautauqua Opera Guild’s Adopt-an-Artist Program paired him with a family that he has been with every year, and they even attended his wedding.
Riesen said this will be his last season in the Young Artist Program. He is booked through 2019 in mainstage performances, including the world premiere of Evan L. Snyder’s A Capacity for Evil with Opera MODO. Everything came full circle for him, Riesen said, because Lesenger, the man who hired him for Chautauqua Opera in 2013, is directing him as the title character in Candide.
“It’s kind of like coming home.”
-John Riesen, Young Artist, Chautauqua Opera Company