An incubator for opera greats

As the 2007 International Opera Workshop in Tel Aviv comes to a close, some of its top voices reflect on the growing experience.

opera300.88 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Natalie Bergeron, Yonghoon Lee and Scott Beardon boast big, beautiful voices. This year they are first, second and fourth season participants at the 2007 International Opera Workshop (IOW), an annual treasure-chest of beautiful operatic voices that prides itself on attracting new, promising singers. From its inception in 1988, the IOW "was built around a core group of singers," says its executive artistic administrator and language coach, Hemdi Kfir, "and every year, especially here in Israel, we add [more]." The operas, scenes, arias and ensembles "are usually constructed around singers who need to sing a particular role, perhaps because of a debut in a professional opera house. The IOW is a safe environment to try it." "I've acquired an enormous amount of confidence vocally through the coaching, the opportunity to perform and from the people I've performed with," says Bergeron, 30, a native of Birmingham, Alabama. She's working on her doctorate at Memphis University, saying cheerfully that she's "stayed in school because I was in pretty poor vocal shape and [continuing my education] was the best way of getting my lessons paid for." Bergeron, who is a prize-winning dramatic soprano, started out as a business major who took singing lessons. That changed eight years ago when her singing teacher told her that she too could become an opera singer, provided she wanted to. She wanted to. For baritone Scott Bearden, 40, the desire to sing and grow in his chosen art is intrinsic. The workshop is about "the range of age, ability and experience," he says. "The fire in the younger singers' eyes renews my own. We need this because we need to know that we have to keep growing as singers to the end of our lives. It's something the young singers don't know that, but they will." The Michigan native has always wanted an opera career, and he's been coming to IOW for four years. Like the rest, he'd heard of the program but couldn't afford it. Then, four years ago, they needed a singer for the title role in Verdi's Falstaff, a role Bearden had sung. The match was made, and he's returned ever since, summer after summer. "When you find somebody who can offer you the experience and insights that Joan [Dornemann, founding artistic director of IOW] has, we singers latch onto it," he says. A fine actor as well as singer, Bearden has sung only in the US and now feels ready for the world outside. But making a career in opera requires much more than a voice. "You've got to be intelligent, musically and with people," says Bergeron. "You need a sense of self," adds Bearden as Bergeron nods in agreement, "because the opera business - and it is a business today - has become such that an artist gets chewed up and spit out. It's up to us. We have to love what we do and retain that persistence, patience and desire to grow in the art form, to be touched by it, and to touch." This sense of self includes the smarts to protect and preserve the voice, something Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee may have to struggle to accomplish. His is the kind of voice that comes along a couple of times, maybe, in a generation, and already he's been signed "by the biggest agency in the world," he says with justifiable pride. He unrolls a series of contracts that have him singing major roles all over the world every couple of months next year, starting with Cavaradossi in Tosca at the Royal Walloon Opera in Liège in November. "I told my agents that I wanted to sing just enough so that I can always enjoy my singing, and they said 'no problem,'" he says ingenuously. Lee came to Dornemann's attention through a fellow singer. She heard him and invited him to the IOW two years ago. Lee never intended to be a singer. He was studying theology, intent on being a missionary and singing in the church choir when a friend told him that he needed to become a singer." I prayed, and God said 'sing'. It's His gift and I'll sing for His glory." And because his voice is a gift, he intends to take care of it. Bergeron, Bearden and Lee appeared in the Verdi concerts this year. They'll be appearing on Saturday at the gala concert at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center, which concludes the 2007 IOW. Bergeron will be singing the Countess role in the famous sextet from The Marriage of Figaro. The two men appear in mostly Verdi arias and duets. See you next year in Tel Aviv. The IOW gala concert with the Israel Chamber Orchestra conducted by Paul Nadler will take place on Saturday at 9 p.m. at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center. For tickets (NIS 69-179) call Hadran at 03-521-5200 or log on to