An Interview with Andrés Andrade

By · Title Image Courtesy of Citywide Youth Opera, Inc. · Date 06/22/2017

The classical music educator Andrés Andrade has spent most of his 30-year teaching career thinking about the voices of teenagers. Originally from Tampa, Florida, Andrade currently operates a private voice studio in Manhattan. He has taught at the Queens College’s Aaron Copland School of Music, New York’s LaGuardia Arts High School (better known as the “Fame” school), and most recently, a program for young singers at Carnegie Hall. He even founded a non-profit organization, Citywide Youth Opera, to give teenagers in the wider New York area the opportunity to learn opera repertoire. I first met Andrade in the spring of 2003, at an audition for a spot in LaGuardia Arts High School’s Opera Workshop program. I was accepted into the program, and under his guidance, I sang parts from operas like “Cosi fan Tutte” and “Dido and Aeneas.” I continued to study privately with him through college and into my early 20s. I recently got on a call with Andrade from his home in New York to learn more about his work with young singers.

Photo Courtesy of Andrés Andrade 
Photo Courtesy of Andrés Andrade 

VAN: How did you become interested in opera?

Andrés Andrade: When I was 12 I saw my first opera, and that was it. I had to do something in the field. I started paying attention to every telecast and the broadcasts on Saturday afternoons. A neighbor up the street would give me her back issues of Opera News. I was so hardcore, I started pen pal friendships with some of the older singers who were still alive at the time.

Of course, I was interested in singing and I had no idea whether I could. So I was watching a telecast that interviewed Joan Sutherland one time and the commentator asked her what she thought a young person should do if they were interested in pursuing opera. She said become a musician first, so that was it. I said, “I’m going to be a musician. Boom.”

How did you get into teaching?

I moved to Boston when I was 20 to work with a famous voice teacher, Helen Hodam, who was teaching at New England Conservatory. She was teaching Denise Graves at that time. She taught a lot of other famous singers like Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and a lot of singers who had careers. In fact, I will say this: of all my teachers she was the one who took the most students from the student to the professional level.

She saw in me a desire to teach because I just was always inherently very curious about the whole process. She early on taught me how to be a teacher. She had a rule that when you studied with her you could work a part-time job. You could have church work and take certain singing gigs and you could teach, but you could not have a full-time office job. She would not allow it. She wanted to see if we could meet that challenge and stay focused.

To offset [students working part-time], she kept her prices low—if she accepted you in her studio. One day I went in as a substitute voice teacher when I was 21 at a small music school in Boston and well…I taught one week and I wound up getting a job, and I’ve been teaching ever since. My very first student was 74 years old.

I was always the kid who wanted to run into the practice room with my classmates and watch what they were doing. I would attempt to accompany them at the piano and I was always observing. In a way, I came at the whole art form from a very analytical and observant point of view. I really didn’t have much ego; I could have used more as a performer. But I was always very curious, so I enjoyed it.

Early on Helen used to say to me, “Oh, don’t just take the students who make you look good. Take everyone that you can and learn from teaching them.”

In 2001, you became a voice teacher at LaGuardia Arts, and you helped the school revamp its opera program. What drew young singers to the program?

LaGuardia did a little bit of re-shaping of their voice curriculum, which of course is important because it’s what feeds the opera program. In the spring [semester], I recreated the opera class. There were about 22 kids, no pianist, all thrown into a classroom, and [it was] basically, “Here they are. Do something.”

I had everything chosen for a scenes program, but then I started to hear all these individual kids. I thought, “I have got to mount a production of some sort.” That’s when I found Handel’s “Alcina.” If I knew then what I know now, I would have chosen something different, because the music was difficult for some of the kids. But we did it. We mounted a production with Italian singing and all the recitatives were done in English, and with a very low budget. But the enthusiasm was so high. The kids wanted to do something and there were just enough kids who were really into classical music, loved it, and that they were so happy to do it even with the little blips that would happen during the production. It kind of caught fire.

How do you choose what music to do to bring out the best in young singers?

I want to give each individual the opportunity to delve into something as if they were a soloist, because it also helps them with their preparations for college if they’re going to do that, or even for supplemental recording if they’re not going to be voice majors. The other thing, and there was one thing I thought about it, is that you don’t know when a child is 14—you don’t know what that voice is really going to turn into.

You then moved on from LaGuardia and founded your own non-profit opera company for young singers, Citywide Youth Opera.

Citywide Youth Opera was actually not completely my idea. One of the parents of a child in the Met Children’s Chorus, a woman whom I had worked with in other musical situations, came to the performance of “Orfeo” that we did [at LaGuardia]. She was very impressed and she said, “Well, I don’t know how long my kid is going to be in the Met Chorus”—they’d retire the kids at a certain age or a certain height, whichever comes first—“I would like for her to have something like this to work in, because I want to keep her in the private school that she was at or even home school.” So she helped me with all the leg work and the paperwork and all of that and we formed this non-profit organization.

The idea was to offer kids who did not attend LaGuardia an opera workshop program where they could learn the same skills and have the same opportunities.

What are some of the challenges that come from directing an opera program in a non-profit setting?

Mainly being that it’s not in school, so you compete with a lot of other extracurriculars, and it’s not five days a week. Those are the main factors to deal with, and there’s no reliance on [the] Board of Education for a building or something like that.

At least, not yet. Eventually if I could enter into some kind of relationship somewhere [to make that possible] I would like to, but everything is easier said than done. I’m working on it. Because of restrictions—like that which are budget-based—the program is smaller. At one time [Citywide Youth Opera] had 22 singers, which is sizable. At LaGuardia, I had 48 singers my last year.

This summer you’ll work with kids from all over the city in a summer intensive program. This program will attract kids from different backgrounds. Can you speak more to that?

I learned early on that there is a great inequity in our education system, how learning processes are shaped, and [how] it’s all connected to socioeconomic levels, which puts a disadvantage to communities of color in this country based on history. I actually was first aware of that when I was in graduate school in Boston. I became aware of it in me because of where I came from in comparison to some of my classmates and where they came from. I became very aware of it at LaGuardia because it’s a very mixed and diverse group. I thought anything I could do to fix this situation, to equalize educational opportunities and our approach to teaching and learning was important. Music, of course, is a great way to achieve that.

I was referred to Carnegie Hall and the program they have called “Count Me In” last fall by another voice teacher. Their mission resonates with what I think is important. We prepare [students] for [their auditions at] all the different [performing arts] schools. With that being said, they’re coming from a very mixed background of what skills they walk in the door with. Most, if not all of them, are underprivileged. I don’t like to bring that up too much to make people self-conscious, especially the kids, but I want to give these kids a chance that is not based on their economic backgrounds.

Along the vein of increasing access and opportunities, what can the opera industry do to attract more young people—future operagoers and singers alike?

I think what is most important is relevance, both in regard to repertoire and its presentation. You need to get people to connect more with what’s going on and somehow it has to connect with them. I myself personally believe in a shift toward using music education for the development of intellectual processes, as opposed to just music appreciation or looking for the star. I think too often education programs are attached to larger entities, [as] an afterthought, but it’s not their main focus. It is our main focus. ¶