With voices raised in song, four students from SUU's Department of Music commanded the stage at the National Opera Association's annual conference in Portland, Oregon, leaving the audience and judges in awe and returning to Cedar City with a second place national finish that speaks volumes of a small but mighty program that outshines the nation's biggest and best.
The cast, vocal students Alex Byers, Taliah Byers, Shaye Leavitt and Christina Meikle, accompanied by Sasha Bainson on the piano, impressed the distinguished panel of judges in the final round of the competition with their 10-minute scene from Gian Carlo Menotti’s chamber opera, The Old Maid and the Thief. According to their mentor, Carol Ann Modesitt, director of SUU Opera and Voice, the quartette "sang beautifully and represented SUU’s mission, vision, and its commitment to excellence."
Just five schools were selected to compete in the final round of competition, after first being judged by a DVD submission of a 10-minute scene in fall 2012.
What's more, explained Modesitt, the SUU contingent sang proudly in the face of daunting opponents. Of all the other schools in the finals, SUU's students came from a notably smaller school, pitted against vocalists from schools with considerably more students and far bigger music programs. Aside from SUU, the remaining four schools in the final round of competition have students enrollments that range from 11,000 to 31,000. And two of SUU's four competing universities in the competition have dedicated schools of music (akin to an academic college here at SUU) instead of smaller departments of music.
In addition, the SUU team had just a few weeks to practice with a new group member—Taliah Byers—after their original cast mate who recorded the video submission graduated and moved on to graduate school, rendering her ineligible for competition. Modesitt received word the team had made it to the finals just after the Thanksgiving break, she then worked with the students only until the semester's end, and the group did not meet back up until they reached Portland for competition in the new year.
The SUU quartette sang on, unfazed—truly standout representatives for their Thunderbird community.
That they were able to work through one of contemporary opera's more challenging pieces with so little direct preparation says much about the training and experiences each of the four students had accumulated up to that point.
Of the experience in Portland as he wraps up his time at SUU as a senior, the quartet's lead male, Alex Byers, said it was very reaffirming of his original choice to study music in Cedar City, explaining, "I really feel this competition was an excellent indication of the training and expertise of the faculty in the SUU Music Department."
Said Modesitt, who travels the country in performance and academic circles, "Most of the time people don't know where SUU is, and students don't know that we have as high a quality faculty and as many opportunities as we do. While our vocal program may seem small when compared to those of much larger universities, we has some of the most talented and dedicated professors in the field who are able to do much more for every one of their students on an individual level. That makes for a very meaningful education."
"That we're a smaller program means every one of our students have many more opportunities to work on stage and to gain performance experience," She explained. "Those things cannot simply be taught in a classroom setting, they have to be experienced firsthand to truly develop as a performer."
Of her students who have moved forward in their craft and of the quartet of singers who now bring SUU a second place national title, Modesitt simply beams. "I am so proud of our students."
In addition to support from SUU's music department, the performance group received funding from the SUU Student Senate to travel to the conference. Said Modesitt, "This support is so vital in getting the university and its music department better known throughout the region and the nation."
While at the conference, SUU's students also had the opportunity to attend workshops, and participate and perform in master classes and concerts, surrounded by some of the nation’s most respected opera professionals and faculty.
This victory early in the new semester is a wonderful foreshadowing for SUU Opera's spring 2013 production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s classic Don Giovanni, an SUU Music Masterworks event. Scheduled for March 6-9, the opera will be performed at Cedar City’s Heritage Center Theater accompanied by full orchestra.