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Academy of Vocal Arts grads start at the top - and sometimes stay there

Reaching operatic stardom can look easy at the Academy of Vocal Arts.

So often do singers from Philadelphia's operatic finishing school take major awards at the prestigious annual Richard Tucker Opera Gala that a prize from the televised awards show almost seems like an AVA diploma. Local audiences in recent years could peer at Ailyn Perez on the broadcasts and say, "Didn't I once hear her sing La Boheme arias in a high school cafeteria in Bucks County?" (Central Bucks South is one of the outreach venues that often concludes the AVA September-through-May season).

Fine singers emerge from the Curtis Institute, Temple University, and Settlement Music School. But AVA -- more of a post-graduate situation -- can be credited with launching the careers of Perez (graduated in 2006), Bryan Hymel ('08), Burak Bilgili ('04), Joyce El-Khoury ('08), Angela Meade ('09), Michael Fabiano ('09), Stephen Costello ('07), and others. Some, like Meade, made a Metropolitan Opera debut before graduating.

No doubt scouts from any number of opera companies are circling the academy's current production of Lucia di Lammermoor (through March 14), and it's one that well illustrates what happens within the distinctive AVA fiefdom, housed at 1920 Spruce St., with a small, in-residence theater that looks like something out of an Edward Gorey ink drawing.

In the vocal triathlon that's the title role of Lucia, the remarkable Meryl Dominguez succeeds in the famous mad scene in almost every respect except one: She fails to project a sense of danger in this opera's homicidal version of Hamlet's Ophelia. As Lucia's brother, Jared Bybee establishes himself as a solid baritone who is likely to make many opera companies happy.

But the discovery is AVA's first-year tenor from Detroit, Mackenzie Gotcher, who already has a pleasingly burnished sound and sense of legato line that makes music and words pour out of him. His use of the Italian language makes music that might seem mindlessly tuneful speak to elemental aspects of human existence -- urged on by AVA's longtime conductor Christofer Macatsoris, who makes bel canto opera feel not just important, but essential.

This imposing figure -- who drills these roles into the singers' vocal cords so completely that they say they could be awakened out of a sound sleep 10 years from now and sing page 34 on demand -- was in particularly commanding form at Tuesday's performance, finding integrity and continuity in the music that many of the world's opera conductors miss completely. All told, you wanted to freeze the production in time before the high fatality rate of operatic careers sets in.

Just because AVA singers start at the top (or close to it) doesn't mean they always stay there. Even the best AVA minds can't be sure when a singer is getting the opportunity that will make his or her career bloom, or when personal quirks and vocal problems that predate a student's residency might come home to roost.

With tenor Fabiano, the more he takes on, the better he gets. He has four DVDs on the market -- starring roles in standard repertoire such as La Traviata and not-so-standard stuff, like Lucrezia Borgia opposite Renee Fleming.

But perhaps only in professional sports do careers walk as a fine line as they do in opera between triumph and not.

Turkish bass Burak Bughili appears to have settled into a solid mid-level career, but he was pressed into service in 2004 to sing Leporello in Don Giovanni at the Met with minimal rehearsal. How could he turn it down? But in the crucial Act I "Catalogue Aria," a few of his phrases in Mozart's highly exposed vocal lines imploded.

He later conceded that, being on that stage for the first time, he had a terrible time hearing the orchestra in this intricate music. Because  the performance was the last Don Giovanni of the season, there was no chance for redemption. Only after five years did he return to the Met, in a not-so-high-profile assignment in Il Trovatore. And, in the grand scheme, he's among the lucky ones.

Sometimes, I'll meet young performers and think they shouldn't get famous for their own good. A less-than-humble personality can be a nightmare in the making for those entering AVA, where the rigorous work ethic and visible platform can attract well-meaning admirers who suggest the singers can do no wrong.

Or I'll meet an AVA grad who seems to have voice, smarts, and wisdom in all the right combinations, only to discover that the never-at-home life of an opera singer prompted a transition out of singing and into, say, artist management.

So much can happen along the way. Some singers walk in with hard-to-detect flaws in their vocal mechanisms, as with Joyce DiDonato, who could've run out of gas vocally after just a decade. But after leaving AVA in 1995, she wisely retooled her technique top to bottom and is probably good for the next 20 years.

Soprano Perez and tenor Costello seemed destined to become the superstar couple of opera, having met and married at AVA. Then, in 2015, only months after releasing their Love Duets album, they announced their impending divorce.

Both careers are doing well separately. In fact, last summer in Santa Fe, the now-split couple costarred in Gounod's Romeo et Juliette and reportedly did just fine in rehearsals and performances.

But while in the thick of the divorce, Costello conceded in interviews that there were days when his voice simply stopped working. And last-minute cancellations don't always sit well. Everybody goes through terrible breakups. But not everybody does so while singing high Cs in front of 4,000 people.

The most vexing barrier is weight discrimination. At first, nobody seems to mind when a great voice is attached to a bulky frame. But some opera contracts have weight clauses -- which isn't so cold-hearted when trainers and nutritionists are part of the deal. Some of the affected singers simply disappear -- or they have weight-loss surgery that causes their voices to disappear.

Carriage and bearing are the real problem here. Leading singers need to walk out on stage as a law unto themselves -- which has allowed women of all sizes and colors to play the teenage geisha that is Madame Butterfly. Maria Callas once said  playing Medea required you have to have a chin (singular). I disagree, especially as she could've convinced you  she was president of General Motors, whatever her weight. But physical conviction -- which can be acquired -- sometimes comes to singers too late.

No wonder Met general manager Peter Gelb expressed to me in a recent conversation his profound respect for the courage, stamina, and artistry involved with being a singer. Agreed.

Anytime I hear an AVA singer struggling on stage, I try to give him or her a break for simply getting there. You never know whether the singer is still learning or just doesn't have it. The truly lucky ones can tank in a role, use it as a great learning experience, and return two years later with such assurance as to be barely recognizable.