CHAUTAUQUA - In the Gospel According to Mark, Jesus says that a prophet is often not honored in his own country among people he knows.
A similar situation exists for educational institutions. People often are unaware, or even make light, of programs located right near their homes, failing to realize what greatness is happening just down the road. Chautauqua Institution is one such institution of learning.
I recently noted that in Chautauqua Opera's outstanding opening production of this summer - Mozart's ''Cosi Fan Tutte'' - five of the six roles were being performed by singers who started their careers right here among us. I decided to request interviews with the young artists and talk with them about opera today and the role Chautauqua had played in launching them. I couldn't reach one of these former students - Basso Derrick Parker - before the opera's performances ended and they headed off to other places, but I was able to speak with the other four.
Who is talking?
''Cosi'' is the story of two young soldiers engaged to marry a pair of beautiful Italian sisters. Given to boasting about their beloveds' beauty and faithfulness, they allow themselves to be drawn into a bet. They pretend to leave town to join their regiment in battle. Actually, they disguise themselves as two Albanian travelers and attempt to seduce each other's fiancee.
I was able to reach two young women and two young men:
n Emily Martin is a most attractive, patrician young soprano. This year, she sang the role of Fiordiligi, the sister who holds out the longest to be faithful to her fiancee. She studied at Chautauqua in 1997 and 1999.
During those years, she understudied the role of Zan in Blitzstein's opera ''Regina'' and the roles of Adele in ''Die Fledermaus'' and Norina in ''Don Pasquale." She performed the role of Gretel in Humperdinck's ''Hansel and Gretel'' and returned in 2006 to sing Casilda in ''The Goldoliers.''
Outside Chautauqua's Norton Hall, she has sung the role of Suzanna in ''The Marriage of Figaro'' at the Academy of Vocal Arts; Musetta in ''La Boheme'' at Opera Birmingham; Violetta in ''La Traviata'' in Amarillo Opera; and Liu in ''Turandot'' at Nevada Opera; to name just a few. Her resume lists 32 operatic roles and almost as many performances with symphony orchestras, including ''Messiah'' at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall.
n Nili Riemer is a freckled and charming soprano who studied at Chautauqua in 2006. This year, she sang the role of Despina, the maid who serves the two sisters and is hired into the plot to seduce them. As an apprentice artist, she covered the role of Lauretta in ''Gianni Schicchi'' and sang the roles of Barbarina in ''The Marriage of Figaro'' and Suor Genevieve in ''Suor Angelica.''
Beyond Chautauqua, I count 24 operatic roles on her resume and a similar number of concerts with symphony orchestras, including soprano soloist in Leonard Bernstein's ''Chichester Psalms,'' Carl Orff's ''Carmina Burana'' and Francois Poulenc's ''Gloria.'' Her operatic roles include the Queen of the Night, Mozart's ''Magic Flute'' at Longwood Opera; Rosina in ''The Barber of Seville'' at Binghamton; and Mabel in ''Pirates of Penzance'' at Lyric Opera, Kansas City.
n Jason Karn is a handsome young tenor who was an apprentice artist at Chautauqua in 2004. In ''Cosi,'' he was Fernando, one of the boasting young soldiers. His Chautauqua resume includes the roles of Federico in ''Stiffelio;'' Fyedka in''Fiddler on the Roof;'' and Elder Gleaton in ''Susannah.''
Outside our area, I count 24 operatic roles. These include Romeo in ''Romeo et Juliette'' at DiCapo Opera Theatre, Tamino in ''The Magic Flute,'' at Granite State Opera, and Lt. Cable in ''South Pacific,'' at Opera Boston.
n Raymond Ayers is the tall, noble baritone who served an apprenticeship at Chautauqua in 2003 and 2004. In ''Cosi,'' he sang the role of Guglielmo, the other young soldier eager to be sure of his lady's faithfulness. His past Norton Hall roles include Motel the Tailor, in ''Fiddler on the Roof;'' Elder Ott, in ''Susannah;'' and he covered the roles of Valentin and Wagner in ''Faust.''
In the great world beyond Chautauqua Walls, he has sung leading roles on three operatic albums, and is about to make his debut with New York City Opera in ''La Boheme,'' singing the role of Schaunard. He debuted the role of Henry Wooten in the new opera ''The Picture of Dorian Gray'' at City Center Opera, and sang the role of Chou En-Lai in ''Nixon in China,'' with Minnesota Opera. I count 27 roles on his resume.
While anyone with some raw talent might get himself or herself hired to do a single role, earning a living as a singer is hard work. It requires many skills in addition to singing, including learning both words and music, catching the director's attention in auditions, acting, keeping the books and documenting the tax return, traveling from city to city and living within the paycheck - all these, to name just a few.
There probably isn't a school at which you can't find four recent alumni to tell you the school was successful. Finding four who have traveled miles down the road to success and who still think their training was a success is a different event, altogether.
Study at Chautauqua
The Chautauqua Opera Young Artists Program was created by Leonard Treash in 1968. All young artists must be at least 21 years old, and range in age up to approximately 35. Over the past four decades, the program has boosted the careers of more than 1,000 young singers.
Among the most successful have been Douglas Ahlstedt, Lauretta Bybee, Julia Lovett, Shuler Hensley, Mimi Lerner, Julie Newell, Jane Shaulis, Marietta Simpson, Tracey Welborn and Keri Alkema. If you know opera, these are familiar names.
Nearly all participants have their bachelor's degree, and most have a master's degree from some of the finest conservatories and universities in our country. All receive coaching in singing from top coaches who come from around the world. They also have master classes by singers, teachers and directors who have made major successes in their fields. Some Young Artists are hired as Apprentices, and others are hired as Studio Artists.
All receive training in movement, combat, makeup and acting, and all appear in the choruses of the four mainstage productions of the year in which they participate. Most perform in the cabarets, recitals and concerts with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra and Music Festival Orchestra.
Apprentice Artists sing in all major productions, often including major, minor or comprimario roles. They perform at outreach performances and are hired under a union apprenticeship contract, which makes it easier for them to join the American Guild of Musical Artists. To audition for most opera companies around the world, singers must belong to the guild. To join the guild, they must be hired under a union contract at a union wage. Apprentice programs are one way to bridge that difficult Catch-22.
Studio Artists perform in musical revues, art song recitals and a program of opera scenes. They may also be assigned to cover major roles in actual productions or sing comprimario roles. They are hired under non-union contracts.
All young artists are provided housing, a weekly stipend, and a travel allowance to get them to Chautauqua and return them home.
Chautauqua Opera invites representatives of top artist management agencies and opera companies to come to the institution and audition young singers, and attend the two concerts which Young Artists perform, each season, with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra. Each season, there is one program or opera scenes, and one of ''pops,'' perhaps Broadway songs, operetta or similar opportunities.
According to the Chautauqua Web site, in 2007, nearly 800 young singers applied and sent a tape or other recording. Of those, 600 were invited to audition. From these, 10 Apprentices and 16 Studio Artists were selected.
And they said ...
I asked each of the four young singers how it differed being a full professional artist, compared to being a Young Artist at Chautauqua. All replied, in some form, that as professional artists, they work very hard to put together professional productions in a relatively few days, but they still have some free time for themselves.
Jason Karn said, ''Whenever I think back on that year, I want to kick myself, because I lived, surrounded by theater and ballet and painters and sculptors, but when I got a few minutes of free time, I didn't take advantage of the chance to participate in them. I wanted to lie down or do some laundry or something like that. Being here, I look at these young people getting up very early and working until midnight or later, and it reminds me why I made that choice.''
Nili Riemer said similar things. She said she is glad for the intensity of the Chautauqua program, because it has taught her to learn new music very quickly. ''At our stage in operatic careers, we often get our jobs on very short notice. Someone wants us 500 miles away, the day after tomorrow. It's less upsetting and much more possible because of the work load at Chautauqua. ''
I commented that in many decades as a teacher, I had experienced a vast prejudice against the art form in which they have chosen to make their livelihoods. People say rude things about opera and insult those who love it. Publications are increasingly refusing to cover it at all, and while network radio and television was once filled with programs like ''The Voice of Firestone,'' the famed broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera, and people like Beverly Sills and Luciano Pavarotti were once household names, but recently newspapers, magazines and networks seem to pride themselves on ignorance of the artform.
Why did these four very good looking, intelligent young people, who could have made a success in many other fields, decide to go into opera?
Emily Martin responds that she grew up in an atmosphere which was sheltered from the popular wisdom of negativity.
''I started playing the violin at age 3 and singing at age 9,'' she said. ''I started college at 16, as a music major, specializing in voice studies. I've heard other people talk about all this pressure, but truthfully, I've never felt it.''
Karn said, ''I didn't really choose opera, it chose me. I did a lot of musical theater when I was young, and I sang with a rock band. But, I'm the sort of person who wants to take whatever I do and learn to do it better. I had teachers who said that whatever I wanted to sing, I could learn to make better sounds, have better control over my voice, get into expressing myself more completely, and generally sing more and better, if I studied music from operas.
''Once I started studying it seriously,'' he continued, ''I could never go back. It's like once you learn to play chess, it's not much fun to play checkers anymore.''
Riemer had a similar story. ''I was doing musical theater and I wanted to do a better job with some of my assigned singing, so I went to a vocal coach. She said that by choosing music which was written to show off certain elements of the voice, I could strengthen those elements. I resisted for a while, but once I found I could do those things, I never wanted to stop doing them.''
Is there a negative side to their profession? There certainly is.
Ayers said that there are very few places in the world, and even fewer people, who can make a living as a singer by staying in one place.
''You give up the idea of a home,'' he said. ''You get on a plane, walk into a group of people you've never met, and spend all day and much of the night working with them. If you don't like them, you're on your own until you finish your role. If you do like them, you will all be heading off in different directions in a few weeks and may never work together again.''
Karn said that he gets phone calls from college friends who are paying a mortgage, working at a job and starting a family.
''I say, I'm going to be in Florida for three weeks, then I'm heading out to Seattle, then I have four days in New York City,'' he said. ''Sometimes I feel they envy me. But it gets old. At one assignment, I went to five movies in seven days because I didn't want to sit alone in a hotel room, and I didn't enjoy the things the majority of my colleagues wanted to do with their time.''
All said they have to limit the number of things they own because nobody can afford to pay rent or a mortgage on a place just so they can keep pictures and momentos there. They need to be able to pack up and move in an hour or so.
Chautauqua Opera has limitations. The budget is much smaller than companies such as the Metropolitan Opera or Glimmerglass Opera. Singers have to spend weeks in a place where many cell phones don't work and there are no major department stores and other attractions of larger cities. How does singing at Chautauqua compare to singing other places?
Ayers says, ''I've sung here and I've sung roles at New York City Opera, and I'd much rather sing here. The productions are good and they listen to your point of view.''
Riemer said, ''Norton Hall is a great size for a singer. It's kind of cozy, but it isn't a cheese box. We sing without amplification, and when you have to fill a hall which seats thousands of people with just your voice, it puts you under real strain.''
''I like the audiences at Chautauqua. They really care about the music, and they enjoy the spectacle. They're usually very warm and supportive, and they know what to listen for, and how to listen. In some cities, people come to hear one big aria or some dramatic moment, and they'll get up and walk out. That doesn't happen at Chautauqua,'' Martin said.
Karn added, ''I'm renting an apartment for as long as I'm here, and all my neighbors have adopted me. They come by and bring homemade cookies, and they ask how rehearsals are going and even if they're not usually opera buffs, because they know me, they buy tickets and come to hear me sing. I love being at Chautauqua.''
So, what was the worst thing about''Cosi Fan Tutte?'' Both men are agreed. The costumes.
''Norton isn't air conditioned, and when you turn on all those lights, it gets very hot,'' Ayers said. ''In the second act, Jason and I have to run off stage dressed as Albanians and come immediately back on, dressed as Ferrando and Guglielmo. That means we have to wear one costume under the other one, and some days, it's really tough.''
If they had it all to do over, would they come to study for a season as Chautauqua Young Artists? All four said, ''Yes.''