"The Juilliard School seeks students whose talent and commitment to excellence promise future achievement in their chosen areas of major study.” Thus, under the heading “Admission,” runs the opening paragraph of the catalogue for 2005–06. Drill down to discover that excellence in a chosen area of study is no longer enough, and that excellence as defined a generation or two ago may no longer even be the goal.
At 100, Juilliard towers as the flagship for training in the performing arts not only in this country but throughout the world. Over the past century, its mission has broadened beyond recognition. Known from 1926 to 1969 as the Juilliard School of Music, Juilliard traces its origins to the Institute of Musical Art, founded in 1905 in the former Lenox Mansion at Fifth Avenue and Twelfth Street by Frank Damrosch, supervisor of music in the public schools. In 1951, the school established its dance division; the drama division would follow in 1968. In 1957, Juilliard accepted an invitation to join Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts as the new institution’s educational constituent.
With the move (its third) to its permanent home on West Sixty-fifth Street, the name that had served for more than four decades was abbreviated to The Juilliard School — more accurate as well as more general, for by this time, Juilliard was the operative term, shorthand for excellence in the performing arts. By now, the school has even been showcased on American Masters, the prize-winning PBS series primarily devoted to individuals, from Lucille Ball to Andy Warhol, Satchmo to Julia Child.
Beginning last May with the 100th commencement and continuing for a full twelve months, the calendar of centennial performances and events constitutes nothing less than a year-long festival. Current Juilliard students, alumni and faculty will claim their place in the spotlight not only in New York but on tour nationally and abroad. The extensive list of commissions includes Miss Lonelyhearts, an opera after Nathanael West’s scathing classic, with music by Lowell Liebermann and a libretto by J. D. McClatchy.
Hats off to second-generation bassoonist Joseph W. Polisi, twenty-two years into his tenure as president of Juilliard. At fifty-seven, he still cuts an unassuming, affably paradoxical figure: square, curiously apologetic, yet starry-eyed and hard-nosed all at once. The title of a new anthology of Polisi’s talks and articles, published by Amadeus Press, captures his philosophy in a nutshell: The Artist as Citizen. The job is to serve as broad a community as possible.
The Polisi ethos has transformed a venerable institution into a progressive one. Once the world’s supreme commuter school for classical musicians, Juilliard now is home to an interdisciplinary community in which classical musicians rub elbows with their counterparts in jazz, dance and drama — a community in which ideals of leadership and inclusion are instilled less by precept than by example.
The old yardsticks of success — crudely, fame and fortune — no longer serve. Polisi has been saying for years that a back-chair string player may have as much to contribute to the general welfare as the latest Heifetz, Jr., and live as happy a life besides. Of course, fallback positions, whether conventional or newly invented, vary from discipline to discipline; it pays for creative people to be adaptable. This may be the place to mention that scholarship funds, which Polisi is laboring mightily to increase, are awarded solely on the basis of need. The school has lost no outstanding applicants as a result of this policy, he says: families recognize that a Juilliard education is a solid investment, even — or especially — when conventional job opportunities in the arts are scarce.
The focus here, of course, will be on opera, which has figured on the Juilliard agenda since Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel in that fateful year of 1929. Under Peter Mennin, president from 1962 until his death in 1983, Juilliard set up the American Opera Center, offering anything from The Rake’s Progress to Un Ballo in Maschera. Often, the productions were lavish. But the showcased artists were young professionals not otherwise affiliated with the school.
In the meantime, the American Opera Center has been superseded by the pre-professional Juilliard Opera Center, the final leg of a journey that begins with two more general programs in vocal arts: a four-year bachelor’s and a two-to-four-year master’s. (The total enrollment of the vocal-arts department stands at seventy-five.) The bachelor’s requires more than 160 credits in some thirty subjects, from voice to movement, from Alexander technique to the history of singing, not to mention diction and repertoire in five languages. The watchword is versatility. Last spring, the first half of an evening of scenes included such expected fare as the duet for Leoncavallo’s Nedda and Silvio in Pagliacci, while the second was devoted entirely to Rodgers and Hart. And a quartet of voice majors recently enlivened Smetana’s The Bartered Bride with their dances on pointe.
“The concept of the singing actor isn’t new,” Polisi admitted in June, days before commencement, “but extra skills are part of the package for American singers now. Historically, American vocal education has tended to be thorough and precise, with due attention paid to music theory, ear training, historically informed performance techniques. We need to give our students tools. If you have no understanding of harmony, it has an impact on how you learn new music. As for the extra stuff, plenty of people say, ‘Don’t burden them with that. Just teach them to sing. The coaches will work out the rest.’ But that way, young artists don’t have the freedom to work things out on their own.”
In spring 2004, to bring focus to an increasingly diverse (not to say diffuse) menu of offerings, Polisi appointed Brian Zeger to the newly created position of artistic director of vocal arts. Clearly, the two are on the same page. “I’m convinced,” Zeger says, “that for singers to contribute to the field in the strongest way possible, they have to find their individual voice and personality, because those are what they need to draw on. They are the things that create a three-dimensional singing actor. Joseph’s real innovation for Juilliard is to have created an overview of the curriculum. In designing it, we wanted to offer the students a huge tool kit. Not all will pick up all the tools. But people with a real desire to grow can find the tools they need. At Juilliard, the resources are there.”
Over the decades, Juilliard has produced its share of opera stars, first and foremost Leontyne Price, in a league of her own, who occasionally emerges from seclusion in caftan and turban for a master class. The full list of graduates in voice is in the neighborhood of 5,000. But as an eclectic subset compiled for this article by the school’s press office reveals, a high percentage have made their names in fields remote from opera. Alphabetically, the list runs from Edie Adams (“yes, that Edie Adams”) to Robert White (the former child star known to Fred Allen’s old-time radio audiences as Little Bobby White). In between, we find Ronee Blakley (best remembered from Robert Altman’s Nashville), Jan DeGaetani, Faith Esham, Simon Estes, Lauren Flanigan, Anthony Dean Griffey, Paul Groves, Hei-Kyung Hong, Barbara Hendricks, Frank Lopardo, Florence Quivar, Neil Shicoff, Diana Soviero, Tatiana Troyanos, Shirley Verrett and Veronica Villarroel.
Supposing unneutered male sopranos ever take off as countertenors have done, thanks from the brotherhood will no doubt be due to the stratospheric Michael Maniaci (Monteverdi’s Nerone for Houston Grand Opera, Handel’s Medoro for Glimmerglass); the estimable tenor Jon Villars, not yet a household name in this country, should get a shot next month with his Met debut as Richard Strauss’s Bacchus in Ariadne auf Naxos. Alumni notes just in: Susanna Phillips (M.M. 2004) takes a first prize at the Operalia competition; Sari Gruber (M.M. 1995, Juilliard Opera Center 1996–98) wins the Naumburg International Vocal Competition.
Of artists in full bloom, the most glamorous on the alumni roster are surely Audra McDonald, the sensational misfit, and Renée Fleming, textbook diva for our time. This from Fleming, in a blurb for The Artist as Citizen: “While the Juilliard School has always had an excellent reputation for educating musicians, actors and dancers, it is under Joseph Polisi’s leadership that the Juilliard community has been able to identify and address the expanding needs of the twenty-first-century artist. Throughout the book, Dr. Polisi maximizes the power of the arts by fortifying the position of ‘artist as citizen.’”
Note, in passing, Fleming’s emphasis not on service but on the artist’s expanding needs. In her own recent volume, The Inner Voice: The Making of a Singer (Viking), she lets readers know exactly what she has in mind. “I often feel I’m the chairman of the board of Renée Fleming, Inc.,” she writes. “In some respects it is a company we’re talking about, and all of the salient marketing principles apply.” Further on, she adds, “These days, it sometimes feels as if I spend more of my time on the logistics of singing than I do on the art and performance of it.”
These were hardly lessons she learned at Juilliard, but they are lessons being taught there today, notably by Fleming’s publicist, Mary Lou Falcone, a former mezzo-soprano whom Polisi recruited to the Juilliard faculty in 1995. Falcone’s mandatory fourteen-week seminar “Completing the Singer” (pass/fail, active participation required, no more than two unexcused absences permitted) focuses on such vital topics as personal style, résumés, headshots, managers, publicity, critics, taxes, competitions. Big-name guests drop in. Students are encouraged to ask all the questions they may never have the chance to ask again: What do you really look for? Why are you so mean? Have you ever changed your mind?
“The greatest need for a singer today,” Falcone says, “is to be active beyond the stage. Twenty years ago, you could sing your performance and go home. It wasn’t advisable even then, mind you. But today it’s impossible. You have a responsibility to meet your audience, your sponsors. And the next day, it’s on to a school or a senior center — whatever the presenting organization needs. Engaging with the community is key to developing audiences — and to maintaining the audience that is there.”
Many factors narrow a classical singer’s chances of success: the absence of music in the schools, the absence of live music at home, the all-submerging tide of pop culture. “Today’s artists are being trained to be entrepreneurial,” says Falcone, and sure enough, what other hope is there for them? “The age of the diva and the divo as we knew them is over,” Falcone concludes energetically, cheerfully, apparently immune to nostalgia. “It’s the age of the diva as human being.”
Here she touches a sensitive point. It’s all well and good for divas to be human beings offstage. Onstage, we still want magic. And while Juilliard may excel at turning out expert musicians, the yield of truly spine-tingling artists has never been high. “If a diva is a diva in school,” Polisi remarks, “it could create problems with the educational process. A student has to absorb information, to grow. We have to walk a fine line. If we see a real operatic personality, we don’t want to squelch it. But we need to see that they learn.”
And where, we might ask, is the contradiction between temperament and the thirst for knowledge? Maria Callas, for one, was never too much of a “diva” to learn from an Elvira de Hidalgo, a Serafin or Visconti, a Zeffirelli or Bernstein. Could it be that the truly blazing talent is better off at that little repertory company in the Germany of cliché, thrown to the sharks, learning on the job? “That depends on the blazing talent,” Falcone cautions. “Does the blazing talent have a secure technique? If not, the blazing talent should stay in school. If yes, and the blazing talent has the smarts to be a self-starter, I say, ‘Go for it. Be a doer.’ There’s no way to learn to be a stage animal except by being onstage.”
Catching the wave: there’s the art. One can wait too long. School can become habit-forming. “At Juilliard,” Mennin once said, “the objective of the curriculum has been to combine breadth with depth. There is no doubt that this presents the best of all possible worlds. However, it is also true that it is impossible to accomplish this during the short period of your life that you are under the guidance of the school. That is why the real objective of education remains to teach you how to learn, so that, ideally, your education becomes a continuing process for the rest of your life.”
Amen. But these days, even as the opera world laments the premature burnout of countless promising newcomers, actual accomplishment is deferred longer and longer. Might there be a connection? Callas sang Tosca (and Renata Scotto sang Violetta) while still in her teens. A strange fact of life today is that the Juilliard vocal division, once the springboard to real jobs, now serves to propel students into young-artist programs.
This trend has not escaped the notice of pianist Steven Blier, Juilliard faculty member and artistic director of the dizzyingly eclectic New York Festival of Song. “It used to be that a master’s program was the final step,” he says. “Now at auditions and especially at competitions, people seem to need the imprimatur of an opera-house program. Without that, you are often looked on as sort of a street person.”
As a teacher, Blier puts the spin of the born outsider on the artist-as-citizen party line. “I didn’t go to music school. I was terrified of music schools, because I thought they’d get in the way of my quirky, personal musical process — and I think I was probably right. But actually I emerged as something of a purist. What I try to do in my teaching is to help young artists develop, to hold on to their passion for music, which schools can destroy. Young singers always want to have their ‘five arias’ showing they can do ‘everything,’ but I don’t want to breed generalists. I want students to make a very strong personal connection to words and music, to be courageous and individual, but grounded in style and tradition. Everyone wants performers who take charge of their performance space. But it’s hard for students to take charge — at that point in their lives, they’re always auditioning. Any tiny flaw will disqualify them — or so they think. That makes them careful. They’re not in charge. In the end we have to help students not to be students.”
Polisi’s civic ideal of artistry combined with citizenship, Fleming’s vision of the artist as corporate shark on the side of the angels, Blier’s commitment to the artist simply as artist — centrifugal as they seem, do these models converge at all? Yes: from the vantage point of giving back, maybe they do. Obscurity in itself is no virtue; fame in itself no sin. The greater an artist’s visibility, the greater that artist’s potential as an ambassador for the art. Revel in the possibilities. It’s a question of enlightened self-interest. The quest for excellence, Juilliard-style, encompasses all this.
Perhaps Blier puts it best: “Self-realization is a political act. That’s my sense of artist-as-citizen — someone who uses music to communicate passionately with the world.”