There is often a very special high energy about startups — all types of startups. That’s what I felt when I arrived at the RESONANZ opening gala. A non-profit organization, RESONANZ is starting its first year as a new three-weeks program for young singers in Albany, N.Y.
How do you start something in the midst of recession times, in a domain that’s not the most popular genre on the planet, in a city that’s not a destination for tourists, in a Summer season where the town has been emptied from its regular students and retinues of the State’s elected officials? How can you even think of doing this when performing arts in the region essentially means the Tanglewood Festival in the Berkshires, the Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, the Bard College Summerscape… to name just a few famous centrifugal forces? “Well, when you want to do something,” says Heidi Skok, the founder and Artistic Director of RESONANZ, “you don’t sit on all the reasons not to do something, you look at all the reasons to do it, and for me, all these reasons boil down to one: I live in this community, I am happy to live here, and I want to contribute to the life of this community as meaningfully as I can. My thing is music, and more specifically opera. So, I can do two things: bring people to Albany, both students and faculty, who would have never known how great this town is on the one hand, and bring opera through young voices to people who don’t know they could enjoy it. After years of performing in various places, years of teaching voices, I have come to the conclusion that the vast majority of people don’t like opera simply because they know nothing about it, but the minute you bring it to them, they readily admit that they didn’t realize they could enjoy it. If every classically trained singer were to bring opera back to his/her community, the performing arts wouldn’t be in any form of crisis whatsoever. I completely agree with what Russell Willis Taylor said in an interview you posted on your blog earlier this year. Just as any professional, we have to do a better job of showing the unique value we add, and reach out to our own communities if we want them to come to us.”
The project started as a an idea in Heidi’s kitchen, in Glenmont, just seven miles away from downtown Albany, as she was speaking with a student, Katherine McDaniel who had come from Texas for private lessons last Summer. The idea matured quickly and by February, the company was incorporated as a non-profit, had a Board of Directors, an Executive Director, Diana Hernandez, a budget and a fully-fledged program, and a Web site — created by another student, Jessica Utset. Think of the rush to get students, build up a faculty, find a place and a few grants to be up and running on July 19th! The result is that students signed up from various parts of the country (and not simply students Heidi knew from before, as was the case for my daughter, Sophie, whom she taught at the New England Conservatory). Heidi and Diana found a great location: The College of Saint Rose (how many voice programs have access to an Olympic swimming pool?), and were able to attract the interest of the Albany community on a definitely short notice. What I saw at the gala is that the donors had already made the program theirs. Heidi has assembled a remarkable faculty, including Susan Harwood, Sheryl Woods, Bill Neill, Jeremy Frank, Martin Hennessy, Roger Malouf, Arlene Shrut, as well a meditation guru, Lance Brunner (also Associate Professor of Musicology), MaryBeth D. Smith from the Feldenkrais Center of Houston, and local yoga instructor Susan Hoffman. Incidentally, William (Bill) Neill, who has traveled the world, taught and coached many well-known singers (including Ben Heppner), a Don José who spoke to Carmen in multiple languages, did admit to me that he had never visited Albany… and not yet its most famous restaurant, Angelo’s 677!
The program, coupled with a Concert Series of seven performances open to the public, is noticeably different from what is most customarily offered to young singers. “Young singers, singers altogether, aren’t just machines that you crank up and bang! they sing. They have a body, they have a soul, they are human beings, and the voice is the expression of who they are as a person. It’s unfortunate that schools and conservatories rarely include meditation, yoga, Feldenkrais, and sports as part of the curriculum as I believe they should. I want the students to be in a situation where they can give the best of themselves at any stage of their personal development. It’s just as hard to be a singer as it is to be an athlete. We have to help them build a personal discipline, care for them.” And it’s clear that RESONANZ cares. In fact, I was very surprised to find out that the site doesn’t only provide bios for the Faculty, but also for the students! In short, they are not simply anonymous entities paying for tuition fees.
Heidi Skok and Diana Hernandez are already outlining their strategy for the months to come and definitely plan to continue this Summer program.
For more information:
About RESONANZ: http://resonanz-rasif.com/Home.html
About Heidi Skok: http://www.heidiskok.com
Heidi refers to a post that I wrote in March 2009. Russell Willis Taylor is the CEO of National Arts Strategies: http://delbourg-delphis.com/2009/03/the-recession-an-awakening-experience-conversation-with-russell-willis-taylor/