Boise may seem isolated and a long way from the spotlight of national opera stages, but it’s a leap that an increasing number of young opera singers appear to make with seeming ease. Under the leadership of general manager Mark Junkert, Opera Idaho has become a stepping-stone for talented singers with their eye on the ultimate brass ring: the Metropolitan Opera. “We’ve become a farm team,” said Junkert, who joined the organization in 2008.
A good example is soprano Cecilia Lopez. Named one of opera’s “25 Rising Stars” by Opera News, she turned in a passionate and vulnerable performance last winter as the doomed Violetta in Opera Idaho’s production of “La Traviata.”
She grew up in the farm town of Rupert, Idaho, the daughter of Mexican immigrants. As a girl, she learned mariachi from her mother as they hoed fields of sugar beets and moved irrigation pipe. She remembers hearing Beverly Sills (the Renee Fleming of the 1970s) on Sesame Street. As a teenager, Lopez became a popular mariachi singer for rodeos and quinceañeras but didn’t study music formally until she entered the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.
She won the Freddie Award for Excellence in Opera at the prestigious Martina Arroyo Foundation (an organization that trains opera singers) for her Violetta while a student there. A critic from the New York Observer opined, “[Her] performance is among the loveliest I’ve witnessed on any stage. Her cool, shimmering soprano easily vaulted the coloratura hurdles of the first act.”
Last year, Lopez understudied the role of Sylvianne in the Met’s production of the “Merry Widow.” After performances as a soloist in Vivaldi’s “Gloria” at Carnegie Hall, reprising Violetta at Ash Lawn opera last summer and undertaking the role of Micaela in “Carmen” at Michigan Opera theatre this fall, she returned to Boise this month as the soprano soloist in Handel’s “Messiah.”
“When I audition a singer, I can tell in 30 seconds if this is someone I want to keep listening to,” said Junkert. “At the end of the audition, after two or three arias, if the singer is tiring, the high notes won’t be as good. About 15 seconds into Cecilia’s audition, I went, ‘Oh there we go!’ She had the same quality that she has now; she gets on stage and just lights it up.”
Junkert, who has served as a judge for the Metropolitan Opera National Council District Auditions (a pathway for aspiring singers), said that the singer he’s hired who has had the most success in the U.S. to date is Christopher Job. Job, a handsome bass-baritone, sang the role of Olin Blitch in “Susannah,” one of a series of modern operas that Junkert staged at Opera Idaho. He recently graced the stage of the Met’s Live in HD series as Sir Walter Raleigh in the opera “Robert Devereaux” by Sir David McVicar.
What is star quality? “It’s hard to describe, but I know it when I see it,” said Junkert. “It’s an ease of performing, and the voice has a quality that makes it stand out. I hear a lot of good voices but a rising star has that something that makes you perk up and really listen, and there’s something about their demeanor that makes you want to watch them.”
Eleni Calenos, a Greek soprano, clearly has that indefinable “something” that captivates audiences and critics alike. After appearing in the title role in “Tosca” at LOFT Opera in New York City last summer, she will reprise the role at Opera Idaho in February. The Wall Street Journal said this about her previous performance: “The real standout was Eleni Calenos’ searing performance as Tosca—passionate, mercurial, heart-on-the-sleeve, with all the necessary vocal range stamina and fire.”
Calenos has appeared in several leading roles at Opera Idaho, working under conductor Steven Crawford, a friend of Mark Junkert’s from his New York days. She sang Mimi in “La Boheme” in 2012, Cio-Cio San in “Madame Butterfly” in 2011 and Micaela in “Carmen” in 2014.
Junkert keeps a file on singers he hears at various auditions, and, as he has the next four seasons planned out, he says he can listen for voices that not only fit the 673-seat Egyptian Theatre venue, but those that may fit an upcoming role.
This file and his memory for good talent yielded the names he needed for the November 4 and 6 productions of “Die Fledermaus” with an all-Idaho cast. He first heard soprano Jessica E. Jones of Pocatello at her Met Council audition in 2011. She sang Rosalinda. Madison Leonard, a soprano who hails from Coeur d’Alene, first came to Junkert’s attention when she sang at the Merola Opera Program in San Francisco. She recently won first place at Houston Grand Opera’s competition for young singers. Baritone Curtis Crafton, the son of Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, studied at the College of Idaho and is currently pursuing a doctorate in voice at Indiana University in Bloomington. The cast was rounded out by local favorite baritone Jason Detwiler. Detwiler and his wife mezzo-soprano, Michele Detwiler, moved to Boise to raise a family, but both maintain a presence on national stages.
“It’s a sign of how far this state has come for me to be able to cast an opera with singers who are all from Idaho,” said Junkert. “I couldn’t have done that eight years ago.”