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Times Colonist of Victoria, B.C. 


Preview of Vivace's Don Giovanni

July 26, 2012

These days, Victoria's summer classical-music season offers a huge range of music - for solo voices and choirs, organ and piano, chamber groups, brass and string ensembles, and orchestra.

It seems only a matter of time before someone decides that our "off-season" is sufficiently "on" to justify the staging of operas.

In the meantime, three chamber-scaled concert performances of Mozart's Don Giovanni will be given here next week under the auspices of an opera workshop run by a visiting American musician.

His name is Luke Housner, and he works as a vocal coach at the prestigious Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia and as a keyboard player for the Philadelphia Singers. A native of Massachusetts with music degrees from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Housner, 40, has lately been involved in operatic work of various kinds around the U.S. and elsewhere, including directing staged but conductor-less productions for which he also plays piano (standing in for the orchestra).

In 2009, Housner was a guest coach for the Vancouver Academy of Music and the Vancouver Summer Opera Workshops, and he has since returned annually to Vancouver to lead workshops culminating in concert performances of a Mozart opera. This year, he has added a workshop here, too, running from July 24 to Aug. 2 - hence this venture's name, Opera ViVace, an acronym derived from "Victoria and Vancouver Coaching Experience." (He also runs an annual summer workshop in Portland, Oregon, and will launch one in Toronto in August.)

"I am a one-man operation," Housner says. "I am not affiliated with any local organizations."

Local contacts help him with the logistics, but he requires no advertising beyond word of mouth: "There are many singers who have been frustrated by the lack of opportunities for being coached in and performing an entire operatic role."

The numbers bear him out: His inaugural Victoria workshop has attracted 16 singers, from as far away as Toronto and San Francisco. Most are graduate-level students, or young professionals just starting their careers and looking to boost their repertoires and résumés.

Soprano Sarah Vardy, for instance, who will play Donna Anna in Don Giovanni, is a Langford resident who holds a bachelor's degree from the Vancouver Academy of Music and already has considerable experience singing opera on stage. Vardy, 32, worked with Housner last summer in Vancouver and Portland and attended his Vancouver workshop earlier this month to play the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro. Housner, she says, offers immensely useful coaching of a calibre rarely available here: "He is like a singer's best friend. I wish I could carry him around everywhere in my back pocket."

The participants vote in advance on what they will perform. Housner says he has offered alternatives to Mozart - Die Fledermaus, Hansel and Gretel - but "Mozart always is victorious!" Fortunately, he says, "Mozart offers singers extremely valuable tools - vocally, musically and dramatically - which they can apply to virtually any other role they choose to undertake."

The 10-day workshop, divided between the University of Victoria and private homes in Langford, includes at least a week of intensive daily work, six hours or more per day, with participants coached, individually and as an ensemble, in various skills needed to interpret an operatic role, all the while preparing the chosen opera.

The three performances of Don Giovanni, to be given in a large rehearsal room at UVic's School of Music, will be concert-style, not staged, accompanied only by Housner on the piano, but they will include the complete opera, in Italian with projected English supertitles. Some roles have been double-or triple-cast in order to provide performance opportunities to everyone.

"I would certainly be interested in returning to Victoria in 2013," Housner says, though that may depend on whether he gets good audiences for Don Giovanni (as he routinely does in Vancouver). He evidently has no trouble attracting singers, anyway, and Vardy says her colleagues universally share her enthusiasm for his coaching.

Some singers follow him from city to city to take his workshops.

So he has demonstrated a need, or at least a desire, for his expertise here, and has won admirers in the process of addressing it. It seems a good bet that he will be back.

- Kevin Bazzana 

The Courier Post 

"Fingers of steel"

Unlike previous marathon performances, Cherry Hill pianist gets an intermission in AVA's 'Vanessa'

Luke Housner has a symphony orchestra in his fingers. You can hear that digital orchestra when the Cherry Hill pianist accompanies a cast of talented singers in performances of Samuel Barber's Vanessa at the Academy of Vocal Arts this week.

Vanessa is the latest in a series of rarely performed operas Housner has prepared and accompanied on the piano for AVA. Anyone who heard his performances of Strauss' Elektra three years ago knows the pianist has fingers of steel.

Housner played Strauss' gargantuan, 100-minute score without a break. He surpassed that feat last year when he led from the keyboard the first Philadelphia performance in decades of Wagner's Das Rheingold, a one-act opera that lasts 150 minutes.

In comparison, Housner says Barber's three-act romantic melodrama "is easy." He actually has an intermission during the two-hour performance.

As the opera opens, an aging aristocrat has been waiting for several decades for the return of the lover who deserted her. Anatol shows up, but he turns out to be the son of Vanessa's lover. He seduces her niece and then falls in love with Vanessa.

"The characters are marvelous," notes Housner, who serves as a vocal coach at AVA. "But it is easy to turn them into caricatures. (Stage director) Dorothy Danner and I are working hard to make them human."

Housner calls preparing an opera "a slow-brewing process."

He has been working with the cast since last fall. After coaching the singers one-on-one as they learn their roles, Housner begins an intense period of rehearsal for the full cast leading up to the opening night.

"As a vocal coach, I work on the notes, but I also help the singers with language, diction, musical interpretation and shaping the music," he explains.

"Unlike instrumentalists, singers do not begin to train their voices until they are 16 or even older. Most are not as musically developed as instrumentalists who begin their studies much younger. They need coaches to help them make music."

Housner began to study the piano seriously at 10. He entered Oberlin College Conservatory of Music as a piano performance major. After accompanying singers, he switched to a double major as accompanist and soloist.

"I enjoyed the collaborative aspect of working with singers in recitals," he explains.

After earning his Bachelor's degree, Housner enrolled at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, where he studied vocal accompanying and coaching with John Wustman, a pianist who accompanied such legendary singers as Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Luciano Pavarotti.

A decade ago, Housner joined the AVA music faculty and the Curtis Institute of Music opera department. He now concentrates his work at AVA, but also performs as pianist, organist and harpsichordist and rehearsal pianist for other Philadelphia musical groups.

He has served as coach at opera festivals in Utah and Colorado. Two years ago, he prepared the singers for the Philadelphia Orchestra's concert performances of the third act of Wagner's Parsifal.

"The art of coaching really consists of learning to breathe with the singers," explains Housner. "Singers are unpredictable by nature. When the unexpected happens -- and it does -- we have to be ready to support them."

Housner loves working with vocalists but he married another pianist. His wife, Carmelita, is a native of Hong Kong. The couple is homeschooling their children, -- son Simon, 7, and daughter Faustina, 5.

"They both love opera and they both love to imitate opera singers," says Housner, who adds that his son wanted to be a giant in Das Rheingold. Both children will appear as peasants in AVA's production of Vanessa.

"Vanessa is challenging the singers and me," says Housner. "The libretto is in English, but I have to make sure all the accents in the cast -- Long Island, New Jersey and Rhode Island -- match but don't sound too affected. Performing an opera like this in an intimate theater with piano accompaniment is a gift for the singers. They have the chance to push themselves and grow."

- Robert Baxter 

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