Skip to main content

Chester County Press

A lifelong love of music leads to career on the opera stage

10/07/2015 10:08AM ● By J. Chambless

Stephen Powell and his wife, Barbara Shirvis.

By John Chambless
Staff Writer

The legacy of music that stretches through Stephen Powell's family – from his grandparents to his teenage sons – has been a constant inspiration and a lifelong companion.

During an interview at his home near Longwood Gardens, Powell traced the career path that has led him to immortal roles on some of the world's greatest opera stages. Despite the accolades, Powell is relaxed and humble about how he got to this point in his long and distinguished career.

Sipping his morning coffee from a Metropolitan Opera Company ceramic mug, Powell said, “I was born and raised in West Chester. My father loved big bands, and my mom was the classical and opera fan. Her parents, my grandparents, had season tickets to the Academy of Music, so that started back in the 1940s. They saw all the greats when the Met used to tour. My father played saxophone and clarinet, and he played in big bands in his youth. My mom played the piano a little bit. They were great music lovers and appreciators.”

When Powell was young, his older sister and brother schooled him in the pop and rock acts of the 1960s and 1970s – “Chicago, and Loggins & Messina, and the Carpenters and Motown. So my family had a good saturation of different styles of music. I really still enjoy all of them,” Powell said.

Singing wasn't always part of Powell's goals, however. “I started playing piano at 6. I studied all through high school and entered Northwestern University as a piano major,” he said. “I always sang for fun. I had a rock band in high school, I was in the school choirs and musicals at Stetson and Henderson.

“So I got to Northwestern, and realized I loved the piano but not as much as the other piano majors, who spent eight hours a day practicing. I quickly realized that it was not really a fit for my personality. So over the next three or four years, I graduated with a degree in theory and composition. It wasn't until I was 25 when I went down the path of treating it as a vocation. When I started actually taking voice lessons, I didn't have any bad habits from previous teachers. I was fairly raw, which turned out to work to my benefit. My first voice teacher was basically my mentor – Norman Gulbrandsen was his name.”

Early in Powell's career, at the New York City Opera's opening night of the 1995 season, he filled in for an ailing singer in the kind of showbiz moment that is only supposed to happen in the movies.

“I was what they call a weekly singer, so I was paid weekly rather than per performance,” Powell said. “To do that, you participate in quite a few operas at the same time. So I was understudying the lead role in Hindemith's 'Mathis der Maler' for William Stone.

“So as luck would have it, he injured one of his vocal cords during a rehearsal. This was about two weeks before the premiere, and the opening night of the season. I didn't know the staging, since I had not done the rehearsals, so he walked the part on stage and I sang from the orchestra pit. That was a strange and rare occurrence.

“It was a convergence of large, dramatic events,” Powell said. Out of that same production, not only was his career launched, but he met his future wife, soprano Barbara Shirvis.

Powell's biography is packed with dozens of roles that would be any baritone's ultimate goal. He has been able to enjoy “just about all of the roles I've wanted to do,” he said thoughtfully. He especially enjoys Bach's compositions, “because he wrote great music for the voice, not just oratorios.”

The rigorous demands of opera – being able to act the role while projecting a vocal performance of peak quality – is both the challenge and the satisfaction of doing what he does, Powell said.

“Opera is a live, acoustic art form,” he said. “You don't get the same effect from the voice by watching it on TV or listening to a CD. You must be in the theater to experience it properly. There's no other way to feel the instruments in the pit, and to feel the voices. There are no microphones. I am a strong opponent of them. There should be no impediment between the voice and your ears. It takes a lot of study and a lot of time to get the technique that you need to do that. It's about the integrity of the performers, who have worked for years and years to present you with that sound.”

While outdoor concerts do require amplification, Powell said, “opera house acoustics are meant for this kind of music, and you have to be able to do the job without enhancement.”

The power that must be summoned for a performance can be taxing, but Powell said if proper care is taken, a vocalist can perform into their 60s. Many legendary singers go longer, with varying results.

“Some of the roles you do may change slightly as you age,” Powell said. “Your voice lowers as you grow older. But if you've trained well and your cords are still healthy and you have the muscle, you can go that long.” Placido Domingo, who is in his 70s, made his career as a tenor, but now he's singing baritone roles, Powell said.

The popular misconceptions about opera set up barriers between the art form and prospective audiences, Powell said. “The barriers are language, and perception, which has to do with lack of familiarity and education. It's not fostered in our school system. The classical arts are not given their proper place in our lives as a whole.”

Operas also require large casts and often spectacular staging, which makes them cost-prohibitive to present, and consequently raises ticket prices, leading to a spiral that makes opera even less accessible to broader audiences. Still, the global popularity of “Les Miserables” and “Wicked” in recent years proves that there is an audience for productions that are essentially operas.

Powell said he can perform lyrics in French, Italian and German. “I can understand when people speak to me in German, but the grammar is slightly different than Italian and French,” he said. “Those two languages, I have. I'm afraid if I went to Italy and lived there for a month or two, it might take me a while to converse. But we could talk about opera,” he added.

Some opera companies try to lure new audiences by performing operas in English, but Powell objects to the sometimes clumsy translations necessary to change the lyrics. “I was once asked to do 'Eugene Onegin' in English, but I said no thanks. I had killed myself to learn it in Russian and I was not going to do it in English,” Powell said, smiling.

Concessions to audiences, such as supertitles projected above the stage during performances “help with the language barrier a great deal,” Powell said. “I wish they weren't necessary, but I suppose they help more than they hurt.”

What Powell has found is that, when people see an opera staged properly, they are impressed. “Anyone who has never gone to an opera, when and if they finally do, they say, 'Oh, I had no idea,'” he said. “I have lots of friends who are not musicians, and they come to see me and are pleasantly surprised. It's novel to see someone on stage who they usually see out mowing the lawn.”

While Powell's resume is studded with star-making performances, he doesn't mention any of his celebrity acquaintances unless asked. “I've worked with Renee Fleming, Placido Domingo, Samuel Ramey,” he said. “They're lovely people. No diva about them at all. From my experience, the people I've worked with at that level are not divas. They don't need to be. They're at the top of their game.”

As a professional singer, Powell has a repertoire of baritone roles he knows well enough that he can step into productions with minimal rehearsal time. He has performed the role of Giorgio Germont in Verdi's “La Traviata,” for instance, well over 100 times. He reprised the role for the Opera Philadelphia production from Oct. 2 to 11.

“I usually am asked a year in advance to do a role,” Powell said. “For this one in Philadelphia, I got three weeks of actual rehearsal.”

To keep well-worn roles interesting, he said, “it helps to work with new people and young singers. There's a freshness about that. It's up to me to approach it that way, and not come in like an old codger, saying, 'This is what I do here.' It's my job to present the best performance every night.”

To build a career, opera singers can be booked all over the world, something reflected in Powell's resume. But with two boys at home – 15 and 17 – “My family has been a priority,” he said. “But even so, I am gone an average of six months a year, but there are other singers who are gone 10 months a year. I've endeavored to take jobs that are closer to home. At this point, going to Europe is too far away and it's too long a time.”

For that reason, Powell and his wife have created recital programs that they perform together at local venues. They sing with orchestras or other musical ensembles, performing classical and pops selections. It's a chance for them to see each other and share the music that they both love to perform. “We also do master classes with young singers,” Powell said. “And I do classes at opera companies where I'm singing. I'm going to begin teaching at the New School of Music in New York this fall. It's a transitional period. Now I'm the older one in the room, where I used to be the younger one in the room. I used to be looking up to learn, and now I'm looking back to pass along what I've learned. But it's gratifying.”

As for his sons continuing in the family career, Powell said, “when they were 5 or 6, we got them each an iPod and we loaded them with music we liked – Motown, Aerosmith, Billy Joel, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Chicago, Elvis and the Beatles and Chuck Berry and all that. So now, when they hear some of this newer stuff, they're like, 'Ugh.' I wanted them to know what good pop-rock is. My younger son is in band, playing that kind of classic rock. They're both in the jazz ensemble at school. Now they listen to music with ears that are trained and knowledgeable.”

At this point in his career, Powell said, “I have to say that music was my first love. It's what drew me initially, and truly fulfilled me in the arts. I've been very fortunate.”

To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email [email protected].