In June, the Hillsboro High School and Tabor College alumnus, who has been accepted as a graduate student at Wichita State University, participated in “Canta in Italia,” a four-week opera-based program through WSU.
“I got accepted to WSU in March and decided I was going to use the ‘Canta’ program as a way of hopefully making a decision whether or not I wanted to do just vocal performance or opera performance,” he said.
One of the main differences between opera performance and vocal performance is the addition of acting and bringing a character to life, he said, as well as more emotion evidenced in opera.
“With opera, everything we sing is bringing it to life, trying to stylistically think of ‘OK, why is the music written this way? What is the purpose? Is there something in the music that ties in to the text? Stylistically is it supposed to bring on some kind of mood? How do you then show that with your body and put actions to it?”
Canta in Italia
Stepanek and the other students in the program—about 20 in all—spent four weeks in Lucca, the hometown of Italian composer Giacomo Puccini.
One of the main purposes of the program was to learn Italian, a prominent language in opera performance, in addition to French and German.
Students spent two hours each day, five days a week in language class, and learned from three teachers.
“The first week of Italian class was very, very frustrating,” Stepanek said, because he mainly lacked comprehension. But it gradually improved.
“Things started to pick up for me in the second week,” he said. “I started latching on to some words and starting to be able to understand.”
Stepanek said it’s important to have a basic knowledge of the languages in which he sings, which helps to understand the context as well as bring a character to life.
“In preparation for the program, I had to do a word-for-word translation of anything I was singing, so I had a solo and then my two scenes,” he said. “If I didn’t understand the language, I would just see words on a page.”
Following Italian class, students attended an acting class.
“Throughout the course of the month, each individual had to perform at least once,” Stepanek said. “We came with arias or art songs already worked up, or we were assigned different things to work up, and so you could just pick whatever you wanted to perform.”
In this class, the opera director worked with students on acting styles and bringing characters to life.
After that class, students participated in lessons or coaching sessions.
Four instructors—including two voice faculty from WSU—led the program, while five accompanists, four of which were Italian, also imparted wisdom.
“They helped a lot with diction,” Stepanek said of the accompanists. “That was a big thing. Americans, we have our American consonants and vowels. So there was a lot for us to work on in terms of that.”
Pronouncing words correctly was emphasized.
“Out of courtesy or regard for (the Italian audience), we try to pronounce everything correctly, and when you don’t, they lose interest,” Stepanek said. “It’s as simple as that. They almost feel slighted because it’s like you’re telling them you don’t care that much, when in reality maybe that’s not the case.”
Every Friday for the first three weeks, students had master classes with various vocal teachers. Additionally, each student was assigned a character from an opera scene.
“We rehearsed those all for the purpose of having two performances at the end of the month for the Italian public,” he said.
One scene Stepanek was in was from the Puccini opera “La bohème,” he said.
While in Italy, Stepanek also had the opportunity to visit Florence, Verona and Rome. He said he enjoyed the historical aspect of those places.
Stepanek anticipates a two-year program at WSU. His undergraduate degree in music helped expedite the process, he said.
While the “Canta” program was not a requirement for his degree, Stepanek chose to take it for credit.
The experience will give him a head start this fall.
“I’ve now had a month’s worth of lessons with my voice instructor that I’m going to have (at WSU),” he said. “We can just pick up from where we left off instead of her having to start to know my voice.”
In addition to studying Italian this summer, Stepanek studied French last spring at Hutchinson Community College. He plans to take a German language class at WSU in the fall.
“Anybody that goes through the vocal program at WSU is required to have the languages in their repertoire,” he said. “You don’t have to be fluent, but you have to have taken them and have an understanding of the languages.”
This fall, Stepanek will perform in the opera “Susannah” at WSU.
“It should be fun to work on something English, but because we won’t have the difficulty with the language, there’s definitely going to be difficulty with the music,” he said.
A Hillsboro High School (2007) and Tabor College (2012) graduate, Stepanek was involved in several musical productions.
While at HHS, he performed in “The King and I,” “Good News” and “Shenandoah,” and was part of the Spirit-N-Celebration ensemble.
In college, he was involved in “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Children of Eden,” “The Pirates of Penzance” and “Oliver!”
He also participated in two dramas at Tabor.
These experiences helped prepare him for his current path.
“Those shows prepared me even more than I thought they would because, really, opera’s the same as a musical—it just doesn’t have speaking roles, you sing everything,” he said. “It can be much more dramatic in some cases, but it’s all about bringing a story to life.”
After contemplating a degree in music education, he began to seriously consider performance even though he maintains a desire to teach.
“I want to teach private voice and have my own studio, but I also want to be able to perform,” Stepanek said. “So at this point, I’m going to pursue a master’s in opera performance. My end goal is to come out and be ready and able to perform, but also I still want to teach.
“I want to pass along the knowledge I have gained.”