Twenty-one-year old Sarah Fechtel is in her third semester at St. Petersburg College studying vocal performance under the direction of Marilyn Michael. She's a gifted singer, with a coloratura-soprano voice, the highest range you can go as a soprano. She has the kind of voice that allows her to hit those high ethereal notes that can give you goose bumps.
"As a child I didn't grow up thinking I'm going to be an opera singer,'' says the Tampa native. "My first voice lesson was when I was 18. I was originally a piano major until I discovered how much I love singing and acting. It's really morphed into a growing taste for opera. Popping out those high bouncy notes is so much fun. God has gifted me with a voice really suited to classical music. It's been an exciting journey.''
In September, Fechtel performed at Opera at the Dali, a collaboration between St. Petersburg College
and the Dali Museum
on the third Thursday evening of the month. The performances highlight the talents of Michael's young opera students.
While the public browses through the gift shop in the lobby or enjoys the art in the Dali galleries, the singer appears unannounced on the museum's enormous spiral staircase. In a format similar to a flash mob -- surprise!, the singer belts out those opening notes that make everyone turn in surprise and then gather round.
"It was really surreal,'' says Fechtel. "There I was suspended on the spiral staircase singing opera. I could look up and see people coming out of the top galleries to listen and look down and see people watching from the lobby.''
"It's such a wonderful environment and the students really get into it, they grow tremendously from the experience,'' says Michael. "They get dressed up in a gown or tuxedo and have to sing from memory for about 20 minutes. It's lots of fun
for everyone and the Dali has been great.''
Summer Vocal Institute
Michael has been teaching vocal performance students full-time at St. Petersburg College since 1994. She also oversees the college's Summer Vocal Institute that draws students from around the country.
"I'm so much in the middle of it that I forget how remarkable it is that we offer these types of program here in St. Petersburg,'' says Michael. "We're lucky to have such wonderful students who are very serious and focused and who want to sing classical music. It's really the best kept secret.''
The college offers students a two-year associate's degree in vocal performance. Most students go on to earn their baccalaureate degree and then their master's, says Michael.
"Operatic repertoire is demanding and the voice takes time to physically develop so we just have time to give them the basic skills,'' says Michael.
Chris Romeo, 27, completed his bachelor's degree in vocal performance at the University of South Florida's School of Music,
and is now in the master's program there.
A trumpet player since sixth grade, Romeo didn't start singing until joined the USF music fraternity Sigma Alpha Iota.
"We sang four-part harmony all the time and some of my fraternity brother encouraged me to talk with the voice director for the music program.
"That decision completely changed my life,'' says Romeo. "My first role was in the opera Carmen and it was very intense.''
What makes opera so demanding?
"With opera, you are building your voice as an instrument,'' says Romeo. "It takes strength and coordination. I'm most own worst critic, but I'm happy with where my voice is going.''
Romeo is one of several young singers who is gaining performance experience through St. Petersburg Opera Company
's Emerging Artists Program.
The program recently received a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts with matching funds provided by the Florida Suncoast Opera Guild
Emerging Artists, Emerging Talent
Romeo has been an understudy in several of the opera company performances, including this year's productions of Samson and Delilah in January and Sweeney Todd this fall. According to Nancy Preis, chief financial officer and marketing director for the St. Petersburg Opera company, emerging artist are paid and receive extensive musical coaching, stage direction work and the opportunity to sing onstage with the full orchestra at one of the dress rehearsals.
"It's just a phenomenal experience,'' says Romeo. "We're able to work directly with the maestro for the whole season, as well as learn from the stage director. As an understudy, we’re also given the chance to sing at an orchestra rehearsal so we can record ourselves for audition tapes.''
The opera company has purchased a 10,000-square-foot building in St. Petersburg's Warehouse Arts District and will be converting it into space for rehearsals, offices and for a costume and set up shop.
Brad Diamond is an assistant professor of voice at the USF School of Music and coordinates the school’s opera program.
"Our primary focus is education, but we strive to achieve a high level of proficiency -- at a conservatory level,'' says
Diamond. "To reach this standard, we have to have a legitimate opera program.''
What makes today's students interested in what some may perceive as a very old-fashioned -- a performance typecast with sword fights and overweight aria singers?
"When the students come into the program, they're definitely much more interested in popular music, but by the time they leave, they all aspire to sing opera,'' says Diamond. "Opera combines drama, stage craft, dance and music. It's sophisticated, theatrical and entertaining with comedy and tragedy all combined into one art form.''
The school puts on two productions a year at the USF concert hall. Listen to a performance of La Cenerentola
Janan Talafer is a freelance writer in St. Petersburg, FL, who shares a home office with her dog Bear and two cats Milo and Nigel. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.