Opera sprang to life in Italy in the 16th century and has produced some of the most iconic musical pieces from the biggest names, like Mozart and Beethoven. For years, the public would line up to watch these wonderful performances, but as time has gone on, opera has taken a back seat to other types of entertainment.
Luckily, not everyone gave up on the opera; students like Andre Chiang are studying this musical form to keep it alive. Chiang didn’t always know he would go on to study opera in college, but fate stepped in to show him the path he was meant to tread.
“Opera singing sort of found me,” Chiang says. “I sang in church all my life; after deciding on my undergraduate school and receiving a scholarship, I decided to double major in music and accounting. The long and short of it is that I was involved in a production of ‘La Bohème’ and it made me see the power of opera as an expressive art form.”
With any career path, there are stereotypes and opera singers have a lot of them. “I think people still think opera singers only scream and are fat. Many opera singers I know are the fittest people I’ve met,” says Chiang. “I would say screaming is not what we do.
“Sure, it is loud, it has to be because we sing without amplification over entire orchestras, but it’s through years of training that we can do that. I want people to know that opera isn’t stuffy; it’s filled with humanity and spectacle. I love movies, but operas have much more drama and comedy in them.”
Choosing what you want to do is only half the battle. The other half is what university would be best for your degree and for yourself. No one would expect that Louisiana State University, home of Cajun food and football, would even be on the radar of an aspiring opera singer.
However, Chiang knew something no one else did. “The school has a rich history of producing great opera and great singers. I’ve found many opportunities to spread my wings and experience many new things while at LSU, including an operatic concert in Carnegie Hall.”
After being at LSU for a couple of years, Chiang has interacted with many kinds of people, but he found one of his favorites in his opera program professor, Dennis Jesse. “I love my primary teacher at LSU,” says Chiang. “It has been a wonderful experience working with him on a regular basis and bouncing ideas off of him to help improve aspects of my teaching and singing.”
Having a support system has made Chiang really fall in love with his chosen school. He made a case for why this year would be one of the best, and it’s pretty solid.
“I won the National Association of Teachers of Singing Award in New York earlier this year,” Chiang says. “This competition is offered biennially and includes multiple rounds and requirements for the repertoire. The prize includes a recital appearance in New York City, cash and other opportunities.
“I also took on the toughest role yet: the title character in Verdi’s ‘Falstaff’ at LSU. This experience has made every role since seem much, much easier. I sang my first complete ‘Messiah’ and did the solos in ‘Carmina Burana’ this year. On top of school, it’s been a busy semester!”
Though there has been a lot of highs in his career thus far, Andre Chiang has had to face the ultimate struggle. “For the past seven years, I haven’t had a firm place I could call home. Singers enjoy a vagabond life in some respects, and while it’s great to see the world, it’s not great for pet ownership. I enjoy having my own apartment and my two dogs now.”
Pushing through struggles is not the only part of the journey towards any career goal. It also includes finding someone who does what we want to do: a role model. “I have always looked up to Canadian baritone, Gerald Finley. He has sung all the roles I would love to sing and be a part of many new productions, like ‘Doctor Atomic.’ The way he emotes in his singing and the silvery tone is worth a listen.”
Combining his talent and his ability to stay focused on his end goal, Chiang has been able to participate in many operas, but of course, like anyone, one show stands out from the others. “I loved being Il Conte in ‘Le Nozze di Figaro’ during my masters. It was a great chance for me to really stretch my acting chops and vocal chops. Also, Mozart is a complete dramatic and comic genius.”
Even though he has been in many productions, Andre Chiang still has a dream role he has yet to fulfill. “I really want to be in ‘Eugene Onegin’ as Onegin one day. It’s a beautiful show, and the journey his character goes on is incredibly touching,” Chiang says. “The music is also evocative and lush. Singing and acting the role would truly knock something off my bucket list.”
Being involved in the opera singing world for years now, Andre Chiang has seen it evolve and hopes this style of music continues on the path it is currently headed. “I hope opera continues to speak to the masses and produce shows that really involve regular life,” he says. “Many recent shows have tackled issues such as PTSD in soldiers, the death penalty and the reality of living in a world where you’re not free to be yourself.
“I hope we continue and enhance the art of the singing actor. I think there are many aspects of musical theatre that can enhance opera, and only through study and aggressive desire to improve can opera keep up.”
Going to school for a bachelor’s, master’s and now a doctorate degree, Chiang’s post graduation plans are nothing short of amazing. “I dream of landing a great tenure-track position at a university and running my own opera/theater company. I want to help develop a program and curriculum to produce engaging, self-reliant artists who will bring the art form to even higher heights.”