May 03, 2024

A Center of Excellence

by Alana Guggenheim

The high-caliber training offered at The Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center helps emerging talent become ready for star turns on the international stage.

The Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center at Lyric Opera of Chicago nurtures the talents of some of the most promising operatic artists of each generation. Their journey begins with the highly competitive audition process involving hundreds of applicants from around the globe. It’s a major achievement to be invited to join the program’s prestigious Ensemble — but that’s just the first step. 

From day one, Ryan Opera Center members dive into the hard work they are here to undertake — the rigorous and comprehensive training required for emerging artists to develop international careers on the opera stage. Those multifaceted activities, centered backstage at Lyric, include individual coachings and group sessions; voice lessons; acting, movement, and audition classes with distinguished instructors; intensive language instruction; and repertoire coaching from resident faculty and staff as well as visiting experts. It is not uncommon to hear the experience likened to that undergone by Olympic athletes; the singers arrive in excellent condition, and then elevate their abilities and artistry to a world-class level.

Of all the assets and expertise harnessed to support the Ensemble, none could be more important than the coaching and instruction provided by the Center’s Music Director Craig Terry and Director of Vocal Studies Julia Faulkner. Together, they make an extraordinary contribution in guiding, encouraging, and shaping the next generation of opera stars.

The Ryan Opera Center will mark its 50th anniversary in the 2024/25 Season, and boasts more than 300 artists (including the newer positions of pianist, conductor, stage director, and stage manager) as alumni. Over the years, support from the likes of acclaimed soprano Renée Fleming as Advisor at Large and exceptional donor generosity has enabled the Center to sustain its position as one of the opera world’s most renowned artist-development programs.

Ensemble mezzo-soprano Sophia Maekawa works with Julia Faulkner in a studio backstage at Lyric. 

Craig Terry has served as Music Director of the Ryan Opera Center since 2013, and before that spent 11 seasons at Lyric as an assistant conductor. He is an accomplished international performer as well, and recently added a Grammy Award to his extensive credits, winning for “Best Classical Solo Vocal Album” for his recording with Joyce DiDonato entitled Songplay. He also serves as artistic director of the Harris Theater’s popular Beyond the Aria series.

Terry’s pedagogy extends beyond the stage, emphasizing the need for artists to invest what he calls “150 percent” into every facet of their artistic life. He champions full emotional and artistic commitment, recognizing the intensity of the opera industry’s competition. “To have a successful performance career requires an incredible amount of dedication and effort,” says Terry. “The biggest thing for us to instill in our Ensemble is a love of learning and a love of the work. Because the work will only get harder, and there will only be more pressure as your career progresses. The stages get bigger and the expectations you put on yourself get higher.”

Terry helps shape artists’ repertoire choices, advising on artistic expression and fostering genuine connections with audiences. He emphasizes authenticity, urging artists to shed insecurities and express their truth through music, words, and characters. Terry’s coaching sessions, tailored to artists’ upcoming commitments, focus on refining the myriad of details to the highest possible level. The guidance spans language, musical interpretation, and encouraging uniquely personal perspectives in character portrayal. The diverse repertoire studied by Ryan Opera Center members, from classical arias to pop songs, challenges the artists to showcase versatility beyond traditional boundaries.

Craig Terry works with Ensemble pianist Michael Banwarth, tenor Travon D. Walker, and bass Ron Dukes. 

Terry’s own fulfillment comes not just from working with current Ensemble members, but also in maintaining relationships with alumni, offering enduring support and witnessing their subsequent successes. “Not many days go by that I’m not contacted by an alum. Whether it’s a question or just hello or seeking advice. And that’s really fun. I love watching them continue to succeed and make their dreams come true.”

Julia Faulkner, Director of Vocal Studies, wholeheartedly echoes those sentiments and likewise fosters relationships with Ryan Opera Center artists that continue well past their Ensemble tenure. A soprano who enjoyed a successful international career, Faulkner developed a passion for teaching and has become one of the most sought-after voice instructors in the country. Her journey from accomplished performer in Europe to tenured professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison eventually led her to the Ryan Opera Center in 2013. She too emphasizes not only vocal and musical excellence but also the development of well-rounded performers ready for the professional stage. With an unwavering commitment to nurturing emerging artists, Faulkner’s impact extends beyond the studio, fostering a community of support and artistic growth.

Weekly vocal lessons with Ensemble singers are a cornerstone in addressing various facets of singing, artistry, and performance. Breath management, dramatic elements, language, style, and professionalism — all are covered in depth during the sessions. The overarching goal is to transition artists from academia to full-fledged professional artists, instilling trust in their instincts and enabling them to discover their unique artistic gifts. 

For Faulkner, it is magical seeing Ensemble members fulfill that goal and make their debut in a variety of roles on the Lyric Opera of Chicago stage. “I enjoy going down into the theater and seeing them in action, which is such a wonderful aspect of the training,” says Faulkner. “You spend time in a room together, working on various aspects of good singing and artistry, and then you go and try it out on an actual stage with some of the best singers in the world next to you. Witnessing and participating in that experience is what’s incredibly fun about my job.”

Baritone Ian Rucker has a coaching lesson with Julia Faulkner.

Indeed, Lyric audiences are accustomed to seeing the rising stars of the Ryan Opera Center not only in the Ensemble’s own concerts, but in prominent roles on the main stage. The singers are also invaluable to the company as understudies, frequently stepping in on short notice for roles big and small. (On closing day of the 2023/24 Season’s Jenůfa, for instance, Ryan Opera Center soprano Kathryn Henry sang the title role on short notice to great acclaim).

The Ensemble members are ready for these opportunities because of their training — and also because of the Center’s intentionally familial environment. Faulkner and Terry — alongside Vice President and Director Dan Novak and the Center’s Manager, Susanna McNatt — foster a positive and supportive atmosphere. 

Through all facets of its operation — and with the help and support of numerous faculty, staff, and generous donors — the Ryan Opera Center aims to ensure the future of opera by nurturing the talents and skills of its Ensemble. It’s deeply rewarding work. “This is truly the best job I have ever had,” Faulkner adds. “I get to keep sending young people out into the world and watching their amazing progress. I’m surrounded by people who are invested in making something beautiful.” 

Provide the stars of tomorrow with your support today

Provide the stars of tomorrow with your support today

The Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center prepares emerging artists for careers in opera by providing unique, comprehensive training. Your gift helps offset the expense of maintaining the high quality of Lyric’s stellar professional artist-development program.

All photos: Andrew Cioffi