NICHOLE JIANG – STAFF WRITER
Marlena Malas first came to Chautauqua in 1979. Now, 41 years later, the chair of the Voice Program is back on the grounds after a three-year absence. The mezzo-soprano has graced stages all around the world including Boston, Miami, New York City and Washington D.C., and she has performed with the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Being back in Chautauqua stirred up a flood of memories and emotions for Malas as she reminisced on what brought her here in the first place.
“My father had this bar and grill, and I used to get up there and just sing,” Malas said. “It was a part of my family and a part of what he did. He remarried when I was about 9 years old, and I’m incredibly grateful to (my stepmother), as she saw to it that I used whatever musical talent I had. I began taking piano lessons but didn’t begin taking voice lessons until I was in my late teens.”
Once Malas discovered her love for singing, she attended the Juilliard Preparatory School, now the Manhattan School of Music.
“I just had to do this,” Malas said. “It was something I enjoyed very much. One thing led to another, and I ended up then auditioning for the Juilliard School and got in. I also got into Curtis Institute of Music and went there for seven years. I was just a sponge there. I took everything I could in because it wasn’t music I was really well versed in at the time. It was pop stuff I was singing as a little girl in that bar.”
At Curtis, Malas honed her talents and began her career singing with the New York City Opera.
Even though Malas has performed in places all over the world, there’s one performance that Malas will never forget.
“I first started off in Vermont. The very first opera I sang was by Mozart in a barn,” Malas said. “I remember that performance as if it was yesterday. I even remember what I was wearing, and I don’t even remember what I wore yesterday. That performance was the beginning.”
As Malas’ career flourished and her name spread in the world of music, she landed an apprenticeship and began to perform with the Santa Fe Opera Company. It was also here that Malas met her late husband Spiro Malas.
Spiro Malas, a renowned bass baritone, left a lasting impact on the music world, with roles in the Broadway revival of The Most Happy Fella and supporting roles with the New York City Opera and the Metropolitan Opera. His legacy is carried on by Marlena, their two sons, Alexis and Nicol, and five grandchildren.
Malas was eventually invited back to Curtis to teach in 1986. She also began teaching at Juilliard in 1989.
Amidst Malas showcasing her talents both on stage and in the studio teaching, in 1979, she came to Chautauqua for the first time with Spiro and her two kids.
“We had two wonderful sons, who I brought here because Spiro was singing here at the time. At that point, I was just here as mommy and wife,” Malas said.
Chautauqua made a lasting impression on Malas; from the atmosphere to her students and the community as a whole, Malas quickly fell in love with everything Chautauqua had to offer.
“Chautauqua is just wonderful,” she said. “It’s so very special and I’m so lucky. This is a big family that I’ve created here without even trying. I just adore the people here, this big family of people that all have the same interest, and each person brings something special that they have to offer.”
When Malas first came to the Institution all those years ago, she didn’t think she was going to be teaching here. However, her love of teaching quickly extended to Chautauqua.
“I got called into the office to teach, and at first I said no because I thought I didn’t have enough experience. But I was told to just try it, and I said alright,” Malas said. “I very often ask my students, ‘Why are you singing?’ It is the greatest instrument because it’s coming from inside. It’s so human and very much a part of the person. If they had a bad night or are going through a breakup, it all shows because it’s inside. They bring to it their own experiences at their own age. It’s very interesting to teach young people, because everyone has their own story and expresses it in their own way. I’m never bored.”
Throughout her teaching career, Malas has had students who have gone on to experience fame themselves. However, each and every student Malas has taught, no matter how famous they became, made a lasting impact on her.
“I don’t like to talk about my famous students,” she said. “Each one I’ve chosen to be here, each one interests me, and each one, I hope, has a goal. … I hope we’re able to fulfill all of their goals this summer. All of my students impact me in one way or another.”
Over the years, Chautauqua and the School of Music have changed significantly. For example, the Institution announced on March 19, 2021, that the Voice Program and the Chautauqua Opera Company will merge in 2022.
“I think the merge is a good thing. The singers in the school are different from an educational standpoint,” Malas said. “When they first came up with the idea I thought, ‘Why should we do this?’ Then we tried it a little bit. We wanted to give the students the basics. I have two students now that are covering major roles in the operas. These kids are having experiences they don’t normally have.”
Despite the changes over the years, there’s one thing that seemed to stay constant and that was the company. Malas praised the administration and all that they’ve done for the program, and said she’s grateful for the support of Sarah Malinoski-Umberger, manager of Chautauqua Schools of Performing and Visual Arts, and Deborah Sunya Moore, senior vice president and chief program officer (interim) and vice president of performing arts.
“Everyone’s just been kind and giving,” Malas said. “I’m so grateful to the faculty that have returned here for many years.”
Returning to Chautauqua for Malas is, in many ways, a bittersweet relief.
“This has been a very strange two years. Everytime I come through those gates I breathe a sigh of relief. There is something very special here. It feels wonderful to be back,” Malas said “It took me a little bit of time because my husband was the reason why I was here in the first place all those years ago. We’ve been coming here for so many years and he passed away in 2019. I thought to myself, ‘How am I going to handle this?’ It’s hard because I’m so used to him being here. He was a very special man, performer, husband and father.”
However, for now, Malas is thankful to be back with Chautauqua and the community that she calls family.
“There’s something about this place that I can’t describe until you’re here,” Malas said. “If you’re open to that kind of thing, you’ll feel it. The teaching, even though it’s my program, is wonderful. The group of people that have gathered here are great. It’s not about the money or fame, it’s about each person and it’s all about the music.”