It's Good to Hear Your Voice

Michelle Williams coaches students at a master class. Photo: Phil Dembinski '08
Columbia partners with Lyric Opera to bring major industry leaders like Renée Fleming and Michelle Williams into the classroom.

Renowned opera singer Renée Fleming, jazz vocalist Kurt Elling and Grammy winner Michelle Williams were on campus last week to hear our Music students sing—and give them some feedback. A few Columbia students were selected to participate in master classes taught through Chicago Voices, a partnership with the Lyric Opera.

While Music student Anna Agosta was midway through the gospel song “The Hill,” Williams, who is pursuing her gospel career post-Destiny’s Child, stopped her. “I know what’s wrong,” said Williams. A natural teacher with the instinct to know when to back off or push in, Williams heard that Agosta was struggling with her high range and encouraged her to let go.  And when she did, the small but supportive room that included Williams, Fleming, Music faculty members and many students, cheered her on. Her face was flush—it was a breakthrough moment.
“It’s great getting feedback from other students, but it’s a whole other ball game when you are getting feedback from someone who’s been in the industry and really understands the ins and outs of being a professional performer,” says Agosta. “It brought it to a whole new level.”

Michelle Williams coaches student Anna Agosta during vocal master class.Williams (L) helps student Anna Agosta (R) master her voice. Photo: Phil Dembinski '08 

Chicago Voices is spearheaded by its creative consultant Fleming, who gave this year’s keynote address and both participated in and hosted the master classes held in our Music Center. This was Chicago Voices’ first year and Columbia’s first time partnering with the Lyric Opera. “I think for students to be on the same stage with these world-class talents is an invaluable experience,” says Music adjunct faculty member Joe Cerqua, who is also the creative director and producer for the department.
Cerqua reached out to senior lecturer Bobbi Wilsyn who chose students for the master classes that exhibited talent and comfort on stage—many of whom came in as a result of receiving the highest scores from the Fall semester’s Singers Showcase. Wilsyn is happy with the Chicago Voices partnership and thinks it could be something other departments could get involved in. “There’s an opportunity for our students to look over some of those shoulders who put this event together.”
According to their website, Chicago Voices seeks to showcase “Chicago’s vibrant vocal music culture.” Wilsyn, who has been teaching in the Music Department for 30 years, sees how Columbia students are the beneficiaries of the rich legacy of the city. “Chicago is our campus. The more we ally ourselves with all of the cultural events in the area, the better. It’s a win-win situation for all of us. In the classroom, we’ve got our noses stuck in the books, concentrating on posture and technique, but the more we’re exposed to the arts, the better artists we become.”