Arts & Culture

Opera great Samuel Ramey performing with Wichita State students in ‘Susannah’

Samuel Ramey has performed in “Susannah” at the Metropolitan Opera, the San Diego Opera, New York City Opera, and Lyric Opera of Chicago. Later this week, he will once again sing in this classic American tale at Wichita State University – but this time with students.

Ramey is helping WSU undergraduate and graduate opera students realize their potential as they perform side-by-side with Kansas’ very own opera legend.

Ramey, a three-time Grammy winner, is a distinguished visiting artist at Wichita State University, his alma mater. He is performing the role of Blitch in “Susannah” on Friday and Sunday.

“It’s one of my favorite parts,” Ramey said. The recording of “Susannah” that Ramey appeared in won a Grammy Award in 1995. He is said to be the most recorded opera singer in history, with more than 80 recordings and numerous television appearances.

Ramey’s voice teacher at WSU, Arthur Newman, was in the first professional production of “Susannah” at the New York City Opera in 1956. He played Elder McLean, baritone.

“I remember him (Newman) telling us about it,” Ramey said. “I bought my original score in Wichita 45 years ago.”

That original score has accompanied this opera legend worldwide. But this time he is using the score as a teaching tool. Along with the score, the opera’s composer, Carlisle Floyd, will fly into Wichita from Florida and speak to the opera students and the audience about his award-winning opera that has become a part of the standard repertoire.

“I think it’s a very ripe time for American opera and opera of all kinds,” Floyd said. “I’m very encouraged in what I see in this generation.”

Floyd, the son of a Methodist minister, grew up in rural South Carolina. While teaching at Florida State University, he composed his most famous opera – “Susannah.” The opera was first performed in 1955 by students at Florida State.

“Susannah” is based on the biblical tale of Susannah and her elders from the book of Daniel. Floyd set the piece in the mountains of Tennessee and used a combination of folk tunes, hymns and classical music. The women in the small town are jealous of the beautiful Susannah. When they discover that she is bathing naked in the creek, they ostracize her. The charismatic, traveling preacher Olin Blitch, played by Ramey in Friday and Sunday’s performances, seduces Susannah. Overcome with guilt, Blitch tries unsuccessfully to change the community’s views toward the young woman.

“This opera is an extraordinary piece,” said Marie Allyn King, the director of this performance and of opera at WSU. “It’s very accessible.”

King decided to produce “Susannah” because of Ramey’s willingness to share his expertise with her opera students in an annual residency. This is his second year as a distinguished visiting artist.

King said the students’ interpretation and delivery rises due to Ramey’s presence.

“He is the kindest, most gentle man,” King said. “He is such a wonderful artist.”

Isabel Velazquez, a recent graduate and Texas native, plays opposite Ramey.

“It’s such a privilege to be performing with someone of his caliber,” Velazquez, a soprano, said. “It’s surreal at times.”

Ramey grew up singing bass in the Methodist church choir in Colby and later attended WSU. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in music performance in 1968 and made his debut with the New York City Opera in 1973 at age 31. He is one of the top basses in the world and has sung lead roles at the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera, the Paris Opera and the Vienna Opera. In 1995, he was awarded Kansan of the Year. Three years later, he was awarded a high honor by the French Ministry of Culture.

In January, Ramey appeared in a production of “Turandot” at the Metropolitan Opera. Although this world-class bass continues to perform, he holds a special spot in his heart for up-and-coming stars. He wants to show them that with hard work, they can reach their dreams.

In the 1990s, Ramey started an endowment at WSU to help music students. This year, Andrew Simpson, a bass, who plays the part of Blitch on Thursday and Saturday evening, is the recipient of the fellowship.

Ramey is so thrilled to be helping students at WSU that he said he is thinking of moving back to Wichita. Ramey’s wife was brought up in South Dakota.

“It’s great to see how the program (WSU-opera) has developed,” Ramey said. “I’m happy that I’m able to be a small part of the opera program here.”

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