BWW Interviews: Tenor Dominick Chenes of Academy of Vocal Arts, Philadelphia
He's a long way from his plans of a career in pediatric medicine when he was in high school in Las Vegas, playing a saxophone in the school band, since Philadelphia's Academy of Vocal Arts is home for the next few years for tenor Dominick Chenes. The Sin City native was born (Sunrise Children's Hospital) and bred in the Nevada desert, even taking his vocal music studies, both his bachelor's and his master's degrees in music, at UNLV. We're sitting in a living room in the Northern Liberties section of Philadelphia, listening to Bach and chatting about his experiences. "I played sax in middle school and high school. The choir director at my high school held auditions for our annual talent show.. He listened to my audition singing a pop song, and he asked me why I didn't sing - I said it was because I was in band. He finally convinced me to learn an Italian song for a concert that he later told me was cancelled, and he asked me to sing for someone who would have attended the concert. It turned out to be Dr. Alfonse Anderson at UNLV, who was my first vocal teacher - and it turned out to be an admissions audition. They offered me a full scholarship. I still thought I wanted to be a pediatrician, so I promised to give them a year. At the end of the year, I'd fallen in love with the art form and ran with it."
But he's from Vegas, an industry town if there ever was one - how did he avoid the casino musician trap? "When I was nineteen, I wanted a job at the Venetian. They have gondoliers who sing opera arias and Italian songs. Dr. Anderson made me promise not to do it so I wouldn't strain my voice." There's still, of course, the elephant in the living room, where we're sitting as we talk about his surprise career as a budding spinto tenor. UNLV has a massive sports reputation, not a conservatory one. Of course he hadn't planned on the scholarship offer, but now that he's at Academy of Vocal Arts, the premier American post-graduate "finishing school" for opera performers, was he thoroughly prepared as a singer? Chenes says, absolutely. "They have a very decent music and vocal program. Dr. Anderson is still there, and he performs as well. He teaches in the American Institute of Musical Studies (AIMS) in Graz, Austria every summer, and he brings international students with him to UNLV as well. His first year teaching in Graz was my first year attending the AIMS program, and I went three times."
Summers in Graz were followed by more work at UNLV. "After three summers of Graz, I started on my master's. Near the end of the program, the Utah Opera emailed UNLV for a tenor for their pprentice program. I went to Utah as an apprentice tenor, and then finished my comps and orals in 2008."
Salt Lake City's Utah Opera proved both a learning experience and a teaching one for the newly apprenticed performer. "I performed in all four of their operas in their 2008-2009 season. I was the registrar in DON PASQUALE - that was fun. They brought in a lot of directors - Peter Webster among them, and Patricia Wineman from Boston directed our shows for schools in Utah." Those shows for schools were more than just brief opera performances in high school auditoriums - Chenes was one of the stars of an imaginative music program performed for lower grades in Utah by singers in the Utah Opera.
"'Who Wants to be an Opera Star' is a game show for schools, with three contestants and a game show host. We would rotate parts. The questions were ones based on school music class information - whole notes, half notes, things they learned in their courses. The winner in each round would sing an aria or a duet with another contestant. We would travel around the state, stay for a week in a city, and in addition to the game show we would put on workshops for students on makeup, lighting design, and other theatrical skills. Paula Fowler, Utah Opera's education director, was one of the developers of the idea." He notes that the first time the singers in the game show would perform their arias in any given school, younger children would frequently react with laughter because of their previously limited exposure to the form.
That raises a subject as close to Chenes' heart as to this interviewer's - how do you reach children with opera? "In Utah, we did a production of HANSEL AND GRETEL for Halloween. Children need to be exposed to it. Most of what they hear these days on the radio is not quite music. I didn't know opera when I was young - my great-grandparents listened to it, but they passed by the time I was twelve. The exposure to opera is incredibly beneficial. The Philadelphia Orchestra did a free concert recently that brought a lot of children - there should be opera nights for people to come with kids. People with kids think they can't afford it, or that children won't appreciate the subject matter. But there are the operas, like LA BOHEME, with children in them, and children may be more likely to pay attention when there are other children in a show. Orchestras and opera companies need to have more children's nights, children's performances, that allow interaction and increased interest for the future of our art form."
But how do you sell music in the public schools these days? "Arts are always the first thing to go in schools. Kids need exposure to music and arts. My fifth-grade teacher gave me a vocal solo in the Christmas show and encouraged me to continue singing. I look back and really value all the music classes and recitals we did, all the way back to elementary school. My teacher came to my master's recitals - she says she always knew I had a gift."
I suggest that a generation or two had Warner Brothers to thank for public, and childhood, exposure to opera (although I deny that I began to sing "catch me the wabbit" to illustrate the point). "Yeah, I remember that! People used to hear opera tunes used in many things besides opera, like cartoons and movies. I was thinking the other day that in twenty or thirty years people may think that classical music is Mariah Carey. I grew up with Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston; they are two of my favorite artists, but I hope future generations don't confuse classic songs with classical music. I feel the culture of our world is disappearing with rap and modern R&B and electronic music. While these are popular with young people, I don't necessarily see how these music forms really enrich life. Music programs may not be football, but we need to have them in our schools. I sang over the High Holidays at a Reform temple on the Main Line, and the rabbi there mentioned that eighty percent of the schools in Philadelphia don't have libraries. If we don't value libraries and books, music's certainly next."
He pauses, thinking. "I wasn't a good reader as a child. But I had to read - I have to now. I love to read, and I value everything I read. We need literacy - not just reading, but cultural literacy. My wife and I are having a baby in December. I think about this a lot. What are we going to do for our kids? My wife is a soprano, and my child's going to be around music, certainly, at the AVA events and in my future career. But what about other children? Not every child is born to parents who sing opera or appreciate classical music. There needs to be so much more done for our youth with music and the arts."