George Ross Somerville, who has sung with the Metropolitan Opera, Opera Philadelphia, and some of the most exciting regional opera companies in the country, credits the Westminster CoOPERAtive Program with having changed his life.
“Frankly, before my first year at CoOPERAtive in 2011, I was having some personal issues,” he says. “I was at another young artist program and, due to many outside factors, I did not make the impression that I wanted to. Then I went to CoOPERAtive, which was the turning point that centered my focus, improved my singing, and put me on the right path to starting my career. It sort of brought everything together, and now that I’m returning as a member of the faculty, I hope that I can be a small part of a similar experience for the young artists.”
Somerville will be teaching diction as part of the three-week intensive training program offered by Westminster Choir College, beginning Sunday, July 2, and continuing through Friday, July 21. Talented singers and accompanists will convene at the college’s Princeton campus, hoping to condition themselves for the next big move in their operatic careers.
“CoOPERAtive is an opera boot camp,” Somerville says. “It takes you where you are as a singer, and it helps you to take the next step in your journey to have a career in opera. You could be an undergrad prepping repertoire for grad school auditions, or a singer who has done many young artist programs who is starting to sing roles at regional houses, and you will learn so much at the coachings, lessons, group classes, and performance opportunities. CoOPERAtive is a place where you get to learn with some of the best and most knowledgeable people in the opera world, and that experience is invaluable.”
Participants will appear in recitals, concerts, and master classes, which are free and open to the public.
Raised in Point Pleasant, where his father was a businessman and his mother a nurse, Somerville himself has benefited because of the program, having gone on to sing roles at regional companies such as Opera Saratoga, Des Moines Metro Opera, Sarasota Opera, and Opera Philadelphia. In addition he performs with the Opera Philadelphia Chorus and as a member of the Extra Chorus at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. “I am certain that the main reasons I have been able to start a career in opera are my participation in the CoOPERAtive program and my teacher, Laura Brooks Rice,” he says.
“When I was completing my masters at Westminster I was the graduate assistant for the diction department. I would give private coaching in Italian, German, and French, and as I got more comfortable coaching the languages in a one-on-one situation, I started to expand my teaching methods.”
Somerville always felt a natural affinity for his diction courses while an undergraduate at Oberlin Conservatory. In his own experience as a performer he was always fascinated by the different ways he could color and shape text for dramatic effect. However, he was also aware of the stigma attached to diction classes, which could all-too-often be viewed as pedantic and tedious experiences, especially for students frustrated in trying to become at ease with the characteristics of foreign tongues.
“I wanted to figure out a way to make learning diction as fun for my students as it was for me at Oberlin,” he says. “I honestly felt that I was able to make individual progress with each of the students through not just teaching them rules but also creating a safe environment where they could play with the language. Oftentimes I would see struggling students that seemed shell shocked by the amount of information they needed to understand and also apply.
“Through games, imitation of linguistic stereotypes, and other ice-breaking activities, I created a playground of sorts. Within a 30-minute session I would see students applying the rules that they had learned with the text in a monologue form. Sure, their applications were peppered with periodic mistakes, but we could fix them, and most importantly, the students were starting to understand the flow of the language.
“I have been hard pressed to find a book or teaching method that has been able to effectively accomplish linguistic flow, and I firmly believe that progressively teaching diction rules while creating a safe ‘playground’ space is the best way to do it. My goal as a diction coach at the CoOPERAtive Program is to work with the singers by applying and expanding upon these diction playground methods.”
Just as the Westminster CoOPERAtive Program has colored Somerville’s professional career, it has also changed the course of his personal life. “My wife and I met at our first year at CoOPERAtive. We started officially dating on Valentine’s Day of our first year of grad school, and we’ve now been married for almost a year. We went to undergrad in Ohio about a half hour apart, but we never actually met until CoOPERAtive. I don’t know if I can say that CoOPERAtive is the reason why we’re together, but I know that if I didn’t come to CoOPERAtive, I wouldn’t have gone to Westminster Choir College for my master’s degree, and we may have never met.”
Marissa Chalker is an operatic mezzo-soprano who teaches singing privately in the Philadelphia and Princeton areas. The couple makes their home in the Pennsport neighborhood of Philadelphia. They sing together in their work for Opera Philadelphia and are the tenor and alto section leaders at Princeton’s Nassau Presbyterian Church.
“Nassau is a very special place,” Somerville says, “and singing there is definitely worth the biweekly, 100-mile round trip to our home in Philadelphia. They not only have a fantastic music program, led by Noel Werner, but they also have a vibrant children’s music program with multiple choirs. I believe that when music is an intergenerational part of worship, it can be the lifeblood of a church. There is a strong sense of community among the choir and the church that is palpable, and it is something great that you just need to experience. It’s special, and we’re so happy to be a part of Nassau.”
CoOPERAtive’s series of free events start on Sunday, July 2, with free and open master classes with Susan Ashbaker, master coach and artistic advisor to the CoOPERAtive Program. It will be presented at 7:30 p.m. in the Robert L Annis Playhouse. Another free master class with Kathleen Kelly, coach/conductor of opera at University of Michigan, is set for Monday, July 17, also at 7:30 p.m. in the Robert L. Annis Playhouse.
The free performances of operatic aria concerts featuring young singers in performance of selections of familiar and lesser-known operas will take place on July 5, 7, 12, 14, 19, and 21, at 7:30 p.m. in Westminster’s Bristol Chapel. And art song recitals focusing on works by American composers, on Saturday, July 8; French melodies, Saturday, July 15; and lieder songs by Franz Schubert, Thursday, July 20, all are set for 7:30 p.m. in Bristol Chapel.
Westminster will also host a ticketed event, “An Evening of Divas, Divos, and Dessert,” on Monday, July 10, at 7 p.m., in the Robert L. Annis Playhouse. The event will include light desserts followed by a master class with CoOPERAtive Program director Laura Brooks Rice. Tickets are $15. Proceeds will support the CoOPERAtive program.