When bass-baritone singer Jan Opalach came to the Eastman School of Music 15 years ago, he had been a principal opera singer with the New York City Opera for 30 years. New York City Opera at the time was going through fiscal troubles (and eventually folded) and coming to Eastman “just dovetailed into what had happened in my career, which was less and less work, the business had changed, and I was older,” he remembers.
Even though his wife, who works as a copyist for musical theater, planned to stay in New York City, “we decided that this was too important an opportunity for me to not take advantage of it or not accept it,” he says. Plus, he would get to work with past colleagues in the opera world: Carol Webber, Katherine Ciesinski, and Kathryn Cowdrick, among others. “It was a very friendly atmosphere, and it still is, for me to consider and accept the position.”
On Sunday, April 16, Opalach gives a final concert on the Faculty Artist Series to wrap up his teaching career at Eastman. The concert celebrating his retirement will be in Kilbourn Hall at 3 p.m.
Although a veteran performer, when he came to Eastman, he had little teaching experience.
“It was sort of like jumping out of the kiddie pool and into the Olympic pool,” he says. “So, it was a little bit of adjustment on my part, but I found my colleagues here have been very supportive of me over the years, they’ve guided me, and they are very open and willing to help out. And as a relatively new teacher, in an academic situation, I had a lot of questions. And my colleagues have been and are very supportive of any roadblocks that I might come up against. So, it’s been a very valuable learning curve and learning experience for me.”
The challenge, he says, was to communicate the bodily, felt sensations of singing to young students. “One of the biggest challenges we have as teachers is that we are teaching the students to rely on sensation rather than sound. Obviously, what they are producing vocally is not necessarily what they’re hearing, because it’s a different chamber, it’s vibration. So, I talk a lot with my students about trusting the sensation, not the sound.”
Opalach’s success in his teaching is evidenced by his students out in the professional world, such as Tamar Greene, who plays the role of George Washington in the Broadway production of Hamilton, and Jamal Moore, an industry singer in Los Angeles working with Kanye West, Beyonce, and others.
The concert on Sunday is titled Bits and Pieces and will feature two guest performers: Erik Behr, the principal oboe player in the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, who joins for Bach’s Cantata 56, Endlich wird mein Joch; and Professor of Double Bass James VanDemark, for Mozart’s concert aria “Per questa bella mano.” Associate Professor of Vocal Coaching Alison d’Amato will be his accompanist.
Unusually, the song texts will not be printed with the concert program. Instead, Opalach will recite the text translation first, before each song. It’s now a hallmark of his concerts, which he started doing after a recital he once gave where the venue refused to print the texts. “I was doing foreign languages as well as American songs, I was faced with well, how do I communicate the texts to this audience? And I recited the poems. … A lot of people came up to me after the recital, saying how much they enjoyed hearing the text because they were able to make the emotional connection.”
Opalach and his wife frequently make the 700-mile round trip back and forth from Rochester to New York City, but Opalach is looking forward to finally being in the same city as his wife. He hopes to establish a private studio in New York City. But he’ll keep his condominium in Rochester and plans to be back—when the weather behaves.
Click this link for a livestream of the concert.
-Written by Anna Reguero, Senior Writer & Editorial Manager