Alan Held vividly recalls the day in 1985 when he and his wife had their car packed and ready to leave Wichita State University, where he received his master’s degree in opera performance.
“Someday,” he thought, “we’re gonna come back to Wichita.”
“It took us 30 years,” he says now, “but we did.”
During those three decades, Held developed an international reputation for his bass-baritone prowess, performing with opera companies and orchestras from Berlin and Paris to Chicago and Cleveland.
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So when he got a call nearly four years ago from Rodney Miller, dean of Wichita State’s college of fine arts, to return to his alma mater, “It wasn’t a hard choice to make,” Held recalled.
This fall, Held was promoted to chair of the opera department – only its third in the past 50 years, succeeding George Gibson and Marie King at the helm of the program.
Held, who taught master classes at Yale for 16 years, said he would have considered fulltime teaching “someday,” but if it wasn’t for the call from WSU, “I might not have done it as soon.”
“I always wanted to be a teacher,” he said after a recent rehearsal. “My degree was actually in music education. Singing just got in the way.”
Held is one of many successful Wichita State alumni in the opera world, including Joyce DiDonato, Myrna Paris, Beverly Hoch, Richard Markedly, James Billings – and his current teaching colleague, Samuel Ramey.
“I’ve come full circle,” Ramey said. “We both have.”
Ramey, who had frequently been a guest instructor at his alma mater, said his work individually with opera graduate students was an ideal situation.
“As my singing career started to wind down, I wanted to find something to do,” the 75-year-old said. “It’s the first place I thought of.”
Ramey said he enjoys the teaching experience.
“I find it quite thrilling. I’ve never thought I’d be doing this, but I’m having a really great time,” said Ramey, a Colby native. “They keep you younger, they really do.”
Held, 57, says that between himself and Ramey, they bring more than 80 years of professional experience to the university.
“We have the experience of having worked with great directors and the greatest conductors. And we have been singing actors ourselves. That is extremely rare,” Held said. “I don’t know of any other school that has the experience that we have. I don’t think it’s close, to be quite honest.”
As director of the opera program at Wichita State, Held already is making changes, beginning with a pair of performances Thursday and Saturday. It will be a “staged concert” version of Donizetti’s “L’elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love).”
Although Held said many staged concerts don’t normally have much movement or costumes, this performances will include both from the main characters, while a student chorus of 30-35 will back them.
“The concert opera is a whole art form in itself and even major orchestras are doing concert operas every year now,” he said. “It’s a different style to do concert opera than fully staged opera.”
In the spring Held will introduce a concert of opera scenes connected with a narrative storyline, a first for the program.
“I’m doing these scenes so that everybody among the undergraduates get solo lines as well. If we don’t get our younger singers performing, they’re not going to develop into the singers we want them to be,” Held said. “Why do we want them to go somewhere else for graduate school when they can stay here and build on the experience they’ve gained?”
The department will also stage its first full opera under Held, “The Marriage of Figaro.” It has sentimental value for both Held and Ramey. It was the first opera that Ramey performed and Held’s first performances as an undergrad at Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois.
“We hold on to those traditions because they influenced us both, and now we add our own,” Held said.
With Wichita State’s blessing, Held has continued his in-demand work as a soloist with opera companies and symphonies around the world. During the rehearsal time for “L’elisir d’amore,” for example, he makes two trips to Vienna and one to Luxemburg.
“The university is great about that and I appreciate it,” he said. “But wherever I go, whether I’m teaching or singing, the Wichita State brand name goes with me wherever I go. And it helps me.
“I’ve always said that singing makes me a better teacher and teaching makes me a better singer,” Held added. “It’s really true, because I bring that experience back.”
Held said he sees the future of the department as “doing more with less.”
“We’re going to have very clean productions of dramatic skills and fine singing,” he said. “I like grand productions and big productions, but there’s ways they can be done without spending the national debt.”
Held also wants to emphasize being singing actors, a skill he’s been noted for worldwide.
“This is where I learned to do that,” he said. “I think it’s important to develop a total singing actor.”
Held’s name and experience are what drew students such as Aaren Rivard to the graduate program. Rivard plays Nemorino, a bumpkin seeking love, in “L’elisir.”
“I wanted to grow as a performer, so having people who are performance-based and lived their lives on stage was very important to me, to fit and stew in that environment,” said Rivard, a Portland, Maine, native. “They bring a great level of musical integrity, not giving into the stigmas and negative stereotypes that come with pursing opera sometimes. Letting the music speak first. As such big performers on stage, they can give us so much on stage technique, how to act on stage.”
Several of the soloists in the upcoming staged concert are from out of state, Held said, but a majority of the chorus are Kansans.
“We draw well, but we would like to do better” in the state, Held said. “I think we’ve got the best music program in Kansas, and we’ve got the right to get our full share.”
Held and Ramey, who joke that the music department’s home in Duerksen Fine Arts Center hasn’t physically changed that much since they’ve left, have a solid foundation and tradition that they want to build upon.
“A lot of great singers have come out of here. A lot of people are talking,” Held said. “They say Wichita State is really doing something.”
‘L’ELISIR D’AMORE (THE ELIXIR OF LOVE)’
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Saturday
Where: Miller Concert Hall, Duerksen Fine Arts Center, Wichita State University