Growing up in San Francisco’s arts scene, Caroline Hewitt took piano lessons, but not because she wanted to. “Music started as a chore,” admits Hewitt, now an award-winning mezzo-soprano. “My parents made me go to the symphony, and we soon migrated to the opera house across the street.”
Since she’s already earned degrees in Voice and English Literature at Vanderbilt University, has received the Hirsch Endowment Scholarship at the University of Houston’s Moores Opera Center, and studied under renowned tenor Rick Christman, it’s easy to forget Hewitt is just 26. But like other precocious millennials traveling to Brevard Music Center for the summer institute and festival, she is spirited, undeniably talented, and very much ready to white-knuckle her way through the college’s rigorous semester-long program.
“I don’t mind the remoteness and I don’t mind the 14-hour days. There’s no challenge in the logistical stuff,” says Hewitt. “It’s the challenge of paying homage to some of the best opera productions in history.”
Together with vocal coaches and stage directors, she and 30 other students constitute the Janiec Opera Company, led by Director of Opera Dean Anthony. The company will offer summer performances of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, and Gioachino Rossini’s La Cenerentola. The latter is a comedic, though undeniably brooding, take on the Cinderella we all think we know. Hewitt will lead in the title role, studying under Susanne Marsee, famed New York City Opera mezzo-soprano and wife of BMC president/CEO Mark Weinstein.
Having mentored hundreds of aspiring vocalists at prestigious institutions including the American Musical and Dramatic Academy and Carnegie Mellon University, Marsee knows the ins and outs of voice coaching. “First and foremost, you must gain the student’s trust,” she says. And yet, the budding relationship with Hewitt is distinctive, if not complicated, in that Marsee mastered the role of Cinderella in the 1980s.
Marsee doesn’t seem to expect a true protégée, however. “You can’t be dogmatic in how you once interpreted the opera,” notes the veteran singer, who was cast as Cinderella, also known as Angelina, during her early days with the New York City Opera. “You must allow the student’s artistry to bloom.”
But there’s a place for tough love. Multiple times per week, each opera student takes the stage to sing and be critiqued by faculty. Oftentimes, the feedback concerns stage presence (e.g. posture, gestures, facial expression). Vocalists also receive private coaching on the more technical aspects of performance. These days begin early and end late, says Marsee. “I’m not sure I could’ve done it when I was younger. I would’ve fallen apart.”
However demanding, the summer tends to be life changing for those seeking a career in classical music. The intensity pays off. “When put on stage with the best of the best, you only get better,” Marsee says. “You rise to the occasion.”
Still, the most daunting aspect for Hewitt, a classically trained soprano, might be jumping feet first into what she describes as a “bread and butter, meat and potatoes” mezzo role. But with coaching from Marsee, she is settling into the headstrong, quixotic character of Cinderella. Cally Vennare, Brevard Music Center’s director of marketing and communications, sees a story parallel in the partnership between Hewitt and Marsee. “I think it’s somewhat of a Cinderella story for a talented emerging mezzo-soprano to have the opportunity to study with the NYCO mezzo who defined that role [in modern times],” she says.
But a near century after Rossini debuted the roulades and running scales of La Cenerentola, there’s a bigger question of relevance at play: is opera fading with its aging audiences?
Marsee offers a breathless answer. “In 2008, when the economy went down, several small opera companies closed because people weren’t contributing to [them] like they once were. Today, those houses are still recovering, and the National Endowment for the Arts continues to be cut, but opera is seeing an influx in young people,” she insists. “Young [classical students] choose opera because it’s multimedia. There’s a lot going on, and they’re attuned to that.”
But Hewitt, who showed a knack for musical theater in high school, picked the medium for more traditional reasons. “Opera showcases some of the most exquisite music ever written,” she says. “The music tells the story, and I’m over the moon about that.”
Brevard Music Festival presents La Cenerentola Thursday, July 12, at 7:30pm and Saturday, July 14, at 2pm in the Porter Center at Brevard College (1 Brevard College Drive). For tickets and pricing, visit brevardmusic.org.