Arts & Culture

Opera stars Samuel Ramey, Alan Held to join Wichita State music faculty

Opera star and Wichita State graduate Samuel Ramey works with WSU student Andrew Simpson in 2012.
Opera star and Wichita State graduate Samuel Ramey works with WSU student Andrew Simpson in 2012. Courtesy of Wichita State University

Samuel Ramey and Alan Held, international opera stars who have performed with the best musicians in the best music palaces in the world, have joined the Wichita State University music faculty, WSU officials announced Tuesday.

They plan to teach voice and opera starting in the fall of 2014.

This puts WSU’s vocal music program in a prominent position nationally and enhances the art and culture of the Wichita community, said WSU’s fine arts dean Rodney Miller.

“For us in fine arts, it’s equivalent to WSU getting into the Final Four in basketball,” Miller said.

That got a chuckle out of both singers.

“It’s a nice comparison,” Ramey said.

“I was singing in Japan last year when WSU got into the Final Four, and had to get up at 6 or 7 in the morning to watch those games,” Held said. “And it was well worth it.”

What this will do for vocal music at WSU, Miller said, was demonstrated dramatically last week in New York when WSU graduate students Andrew Simpson and Lily Guerrero sang in the opera scenes category in a competition sponsored by the National Opera Association. They had only a week and a half to rehearse and prepare the seduction scene from Carlisle Floyd’s “Susannah.”

But Ramey prepared them. Against the best in the country, they won.

At that competition, Simpson said, the news about Ramey and Held coming to WSU impressed the country’s finest opera teachers and students.

“The news about WSU bringing them in as teachers really raised eyebrows” at the New York gathering, Simpson said. “They can see that WSU is really putting their name out there.

“For me, this is just gold,” said Simpson, 24, who hopes to make a career in opera. “I’m a bass (singer) and now two of the world’s finest bass-baritones in the last 40 years are coming to WSU to teach.”

Both men have traveled the world, and both are WSU graduates. Ramey, Miller said, is now in his 70s; Held is in his 50s, and both men are still “at the very top of the food chain” in the world of opera, Miller said.

Working with young singers

Ramey has been teaching a few weeks a semester at WSU for the past two years. And while he will still be classified as part-time, he will be on the campus a lot more. Ramey, whom WSU calls “the most recorded bass in history,” will be a near daily presence on the music faculty.

“I’ll still have some singing jobs in the future, but without as much travel,” Ramey said Monday.

He will move his family to Wichita before the fall. His part-time teaching job at WSU has included master classes, coaching students, directing and even singing in opera productions.

“I enjoy working with younger singers; they are so enthusiastic,” he said. “I’m ready to start another chapter in my life.”

Part of that chapter will involve Ramey performing again with the Wichita Symphony Orchestra. Anne Marie Brown, operations manager at the symphony, said they are talking with Ramey about a future project for the next symphony season, which begins in September.

Among Ramey’s international achievements, Miller said, are more than 80 recordings, including complete operas, arias, symphonic works, solo recital programs and popular crossover albums on every major label. The recordings have garnered nearly every major award, including three Grammy Awards, WSU officials said.

‘Love the university’

Held will become a full-time, tenure-track professor, Miller said.

“His primary duties will be teaching voice to our vocal majors, although he will also teach other courses as needed,” he said.

Held is an Illinois native who got his master’s degree – and met his wife – at WSU in 1985. Like many others who have lived in Kansas and lived elsewhere, Held says he occasionally has heard questions about why anyone would want to live and work in Kansas.

One answer, he said: “WSU has always had one of the outstanding music schools in the country, and the quality of singers who have come from here would be the envy of any music school in the country.

“I like the people, I love the university,” he said. “Until you’ve met the people, you really don’t know Wichita.”

Held is also an international star in the opera world. A bass-baritone, he is one of the few opera singers who can meet nearly every physical challenge of range and vocalization, Miller said.

He has appeared in major roles in the world’s finest opera houses, including the Metropolitan Opera, Vienna State Opera, Covent Garden in London, Paris Opera, La Scala in Milan, Lyric Opera of Chicago, San Francisco Opera and Washington National Opera, WSU said in a statement. He has performed with the world’s leading orchestras, including the Berlin Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Paris Symphony Orchestra. He also has appeared at the Salzburg and Tanglewood festivals, the WSU statement said.

Simpson, fresh off his win in New York, said he came to WSU as a Sam Ramey scholarship winner. He has since become friends with both men.

He and Miller, the fine arts dean, said that one key to understanding why these two performers are so venerated is to understand that the human voice is the greatest and most subtle musical instrument in the world. And opera, because of the vocal range it requires, is by far the most demanding physical and artistic challenge to that instrument.

A rule of thumb about opera, Simpson said, is that even if you are genetically blessed with a great voice, “It still takes 20 years to learn how to sing.”

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