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Arts

Jennifer Johnson's star keeps rising

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: October 7, 2008 - Opera lovers across the region, especially in Festus, should get a lift from this happy "local girl makes good" news.

Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson, who dazzled audiences when at the last minute she stepped into the cast of "The Tales of Hoffmann" at Opera Theatre of St. Louis last May, has been awarded one of the opera's biggest opportunities.

Johnson has been admitted to the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, under which the Metropolitan Opera company will nurture and polish her considerable gifts. The Met's top music directors, diction coaches, acting directors, foreign language experts and costume designers will share their expertise and opera enthusiasm with her.

It's not the Fenton native's first big win. Last February she won one of the top five prizes in the Metropolitan Opera National Council's annual auditions and was on of its nine "finalists."

"No one from St. Louis has ever been accepted into the Lindemann program," said an ecstatic Midge Eddy of Ladue as she waved the Met's announcement letter before smiling music lovers Monday night at the John Donald Robb Tribute Concert at the University of Missouri-St. Louis's Touhill Performing Arts Center.

Eddy is a former Metropolitan Opera National Council board member who, for 33 years, volunteered as director of the Met's National Council St. Louis District auditions.

"Not even Christine won the Lindemann," she said referring to the world renowned and universally beloved soprano Christine Brewer of Lebanon, Ill. "This is such an opportunity for Jennifer."

Those chosen for the Lindemann are guided through their early steps as professional singers with individual training and advice suited to each singer. In addition to the Met's artistic staff, a staff of renowned master teachers will be available to her. The award includes an annual stipend for living expenses in New York and funds private lessons with "approved teachers" from outside the Met staff.

Jen - as her family and friends call her - got her first opera job as an Opera Theatre of  St. Louis usher. She loved it because she could see operas night after night for free. At the time, she was a Webster University student working with her singing teacher, St. Louisan Carole Gaspar.

Johnson won't have to stand as an usher to hear opera. She will have a comfortable chair at any Metropolitan Opera production rehearsal she chooses to attend. She will have opportunities for small roles and other performances at Lincoln Center. During the year that a singer participates in the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, he or she may only perform at the Met or at "outside engagements approved by the Artistic Director," according to the program's policy statement.

Perhaps most valuable, Johnson will have wide opportunities to make connections with opera insiders. Her one-year award has an option for two more years.

Early Impressions Were Wonderful 

Some St. Louisans hold dear their memories of hearing her in the 2005 district auditions for the Metropolitan Opera at the St. Louis Art Museum.

"I remember being so impressed with her voice, that wonderful red hair and how poised she was," said Carol Gaskin, who with her husband, Fred, is now codirector of the Metropolitan Opera National Council's St. Louis District auditions. "Jennifer was so mature for her age that, after she sang, I checked to be sure she really was just 21."

That year Johnson went on from St. Louis to finish third at the Met's regional auditions.

Gaskin also remembers a couple years ago when Johnson's contact lens then popped out during a Met audition. It didn't faze her.

"She finished singing and afterward gracefully leaned over and picked up the lens," Gaskin said. "You know, you are not supposed to applaud at Met auditions but we all applauded her poise."

In 2006, Johnson's senior year at Webster University, she sang in the school's Opera Studio production scenes of "Die Fledermaus" and "Orfeo ed Euridice." In addition to her college work Johnson spent the spring of 2005 and 2006 in Opera Theatre's nurturing apprentice program: the Gerdine Young Artist program. She sang in the company's chorus and in several small roles. In 2007 she moved to center stage in the minor role of Emma Jones in Kurt Weill's "Street Scene."

Last February Johnson was one of top five winners among nine finalists the Metropolitan Opera National Auditions and performed live on the contest's annual national radio broadcast. The orchestra coincidently was conducted by her long time mentor Stephen Lord, Opera Theatre's music director since 1992.

By the time Johnson was honored in the Met auditions, Opera Theatre of St. Louis already had her under contract to sing the role Kate Pinkerton in "Madame Butterfly" last spring. Then, in the late winter the soprano scheduled to sing the Muse/Niklausse in another of Opera Theatre St. Louis' 2008 season productions "The Tales of Hoffmann" was told she was pregnant - with twins. On doctor's orders, the singer Patricia Risley cancelled.

Lord asked Johnson to sing the Muse/Niklausse. She had two weeks to learn the role before the company's first rehearsal. One reason opera singers are signed two to four years in advance of a performance is to allow ample time to learn the roles with their coaches. The muse appears in virtually scene of the opera.

"Jen's a wonder," said conductor Lord. "She was ready. She'd learned the role in just two weeks."

Her charming unpretentious manner made her a favorite with audiences. Her reviews were treasures. Dallas Morning News music critic Scott Cantrell wrote about "Hoffmann": "The real standout is Jennifer Johnson, who sings gloriously as the Muse/Niklausse."

After a year at the Met apprentice program, Johnson's opportunities and reviews are apt to get even finer.

Want to hear more singing by opera stars of tomorrow? Attend the Metropolitan Opera District auditions Saturday, Nov. 15, at 11 a.m. at the St. Louis Art Museum auditorium. The event is free.

Patricia Rice is a freelance journalist who has long written about opera. 

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