Philadelphia’s Role in the Future of Opera

Academy of Vocal Arts gives the next Pavarotti a shot.

“One should be crazy to choose this career,” says 28-year-old booming bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana. He left his native South Africa in 2010 to study at Spruce Street’s Academy of Vocal Arts, which has quietly produced some of the brightest stars of the opera stage since its inception in 1934. Musa, who understandably goes by just his first name, would seem to be right. These days, orchestras are struggling to fill the seats for such crowd favorites as Tchaikovsky and West Side Story. When was the last time you just had to go see an opera?

Still, each year a dozen or so Musas from all over the world are accepted for AVA’s 100-percent-free postgraduate four-year education in operatic vocal training—at a cost of about $100,000 per year, per student—supported largely by private donations from local arts patrons. AVA even kicks in a monthly stipend to cover rent and groceries, so future Maria Callases and Pavarottis don’t have to pour lattes at La Colombe.

One student who didn’t come from quite as far away as Musa is Blue Bell’s Youna Jang (seen below performing “Un Bel Di” in Madame Butterfly), a 28-year- old Korean-American who began her studies on September 5th. The soprano says her immigrant parents weren’t all that thrilled that their daughter’s biggest goal in life was to sing at the Met, but once they saw her receive a standing ovation for the title role in Madame Butterfly at age 23, they were swayed enough to put her through Temple’s voice program. She says she was shocked that AVA accepted her.

The draw of AVA isn’t just the free ride, but the fact that the studies are so laser-focused on opera. “Unlike Curtis and Juilliard, we teach only voice, and only operatic voice at that,” notes AVA director Kevin McDowell. And he promises that the art form isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. “Opera is actually the least affected of the classical performing arts,” he claims, pointing to its multimedia nature (singing meets theater meets classical scores), the relatively recent addition of projected supertitles, and, yes, the Three Tenors as keys to its survival.

Whatever the prospects for a real career in opera, Jang says it’s not like she had a say in whether to pursue it. “It’s a fate-like thing,” she explains. “You don’t choose opera. It chooses you.”

This story originally appeared in the October issue of Philadelphia magazine.