Meet AVA Dean of Students and Costumer, Val Starr

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AVA’s 2018 production of Das Rheingold

Before an opera hits the stage, a lot of hard work goes on behind the scenes—and not only on the part of the singers. A successful opera is more than a purely acoustic experience: staging, props, lighting, choreography and costumes are all elements that are essential to rendering an operatic performance visually captivating and memorable. AVA’s costume designer and wardrobe coordinator, Val Starr, sat down to talk with us about the costuming aspect of opera—the work it entails, the challenges it presents and its importance to the art of opera.

Ms. Starr began embroidering at the age of seven under the guidance of her great-grandmother. She learned how to use a sewing machine shortly thereafter. “I always enjoyed sewing,” she says. “My mother used to let me help her make curtains and we always made our own Halloween costumes—I never had a store-bought one in my life. As a child I made clothes for my dolls and as I got older, I began making my own.”

Ms. Starr pursued her passion for sewing throughout high school and college, making costumes for dance and theatrical productions. She began her career in costuming in 1974, joining the wardrobe staff at the Curtis Institute of Music and assisting them with the dressing of The Tales of Hoffmann. Three years later, she moved to AVA’s wardrobe department.

The tasks Ms. Val’s title entails are many and varied. As costume designer, she figures out what the stage director would like each character in the production to look like. Based on that vision, she does research and then goes to a costume rental company in New York City to select costumes for each role. She spends three full days picking them out. “The Met Opera started the company I use, called TDF Costume Collection,” she says. “When the Met is finished with a production, they’ll donate their costumes—I like them because they’re usually high quality and sized for opera singers, rather than for tiny dancers and actors.”

As wardrobe coordinator, Ms. Starr is responsible for fitting and altering those costumes when they arrive and preparing them for the stage. “Sometimes costumes are made in such a complicated way that it’s next to impossible to take them apart,” she explains. “But most of them are set up so that each piece is a separate, finished unit that is easy to alter.”

Finding, fixing up and fitting the right costumes can be extremely challenging. If the stage director asks for something unusual or that dates back to a time period more modern than 1915, most outfits available at TDF do not come from the Met and are either vintage or have been made for actors, rather than for singers. Vintage fabric can be 30 to 50 years old and often doesn’t stand up to the punishment of half a dozen dress rehearsals and performances. On the other hand, costumes designed for actors tend to be too small for opera singers.

Ms. Starr recalls some of the costuming quasi-disasters that have taken place over the years at AVA. “The first time we did Ariadne auf Naxos, for the 1979-1980 season, I had a vintage, black and white, diamond-patterned costume for Harlequin,” she says. “It was a very old Met piece I had to reline, and you heard it rip every time the actor moved! It looked absolutely fabulous on stage—it was black velvet and white satin—but it was so old that it was just dying.” Since then, there have (sadly) been other instances of costumes falling apart on stage. “In 2012 we did L’elisir d’amore,” Ms. Starr recounts. “Our production was set in the 1940s… Thank goodness girls wore sweaters over their dresses during that time, because all the vintage dresses’ underarms disintegrated during the performance!”

Of course, these AVA costuming nightmares are outweighed by plenty of success stories. “My favorite production I did the costumes for was Jules Massenet’s Manon in 2014,” reflects Ms. Starr. “It’s set in the 18th century and those costumes were lovely. The director had the ball scene done in all black and white and it was truly stunning. Das Rienghold and Hansel and Gretel were also a lot of fun because I got to work with fantasy costumes.”

 

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Scenes from AVA’s 2014 production of Manon

The art of costuming, and therefore of sewing, is intrinsically tied to the art of opera: well-chosen and well-fitted costumes are not only key to an aesthetically remarkable performance but are vital to enhancing the power of a story. Ms. Starr, who has been working in the costume department of opera for 41 years, knows this well, and while some may argue that sewing is a dying craft, she makes it a point to keep it alive. “We used to learn how sew in high school in home economics class, but they don’t have that anymore,” she says. “But both my boys, growing up in my house and performing on the AVA stage, learned how to sew and how to run a sewing machine because I made very sure to teach them.”

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Humble beginnings. The AVA roster of singers is an impressive one – many have gone on to win major awards, including eight Richard Tucker Awards and four Beverly Sills Artist Awards, in addition to being winners of major competitions including but not limited to the Metropolitan Opera Auditions, the George London Foundation, and the Loren L. Zachary Society. All this flourishing success has its roots in the basement of the theater, which serves as kitchen/costume shop/green room and storage. Val Starr, dean of students, is also our costume designer. During any given show, this is her permanent spot – spending countless hours at this Singer Sewing machine. Any AVA singer has seen her tireless work and is familiar with this little nook of the building.

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Written by Tania Bagan

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Get to know our New Resident Artists!

This year, AVA welcomes nine new Resident Artists! Get to know them here through a fun Q&A and come meet them in person at the New Artist Recitals, on 9/20 and 9/21. The Recitals are available to AVA subscribers.  Stay tuned for more news and updates about our Artists and the 2018-2019 AVA season, coming soon on the blog!

Timothy Murray, baritone

Timothy

When and how did you first begin singing opera?

I started off in theater and was really involved. In middle school, the symphony was doing Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and they asked me to perform in a skit of the story beforehand. They asked me to play Peter and I got free tickets to the symphony. That was my first experience with classical music. I started studying opera my junior year of undergrad. I started as a theater major, I loved the classic works, but I fell in love with opera and added a music degree.

What drew you to AVA and what do you look forward to during your time here?

I heard of AVA through my friends, Roy Hage and Oliver Sewell, who are current Resident Artists here. I most look forward to the coaching experience. The teachers here are internationally renowned. I’ve heard so many great things about the fabulous Maestro and am also super excited to work with Bill Stone.

What’s your favorite role you have performed?

Dandini in Cenerentola.

Which productions are you most excited for during this season at AVA?

Rusalka – I’m super excited to sing in Czech. And Roméo and Juliette, because it’s such a classic and I’ve never worked on it before. I’ve done the play, but not the opera.

Chelsea Laggan, mezzo-soprano

Chelsea

When and how did you first begin singing opera?

I started taking voice lessons after I saw my first opera. I was playing bassoon in my high school orchestra and they took us to see La bohème at Opera Philadelphia. I thought, “Woah, what is that?” I was thirteen and I asked my mom for voice lessons that year.

What drew you to AVA and what do you look forward to during your time here?

I did the MET competition at AVA in 2017. While I was here, I spoke with a couple of teachers who encouraged me to audition. I started looking into AVA’s history and thought it would be a fantastic location and environment for me. I look forward to being able to be around opera all the time at such a high level. There’s nowhere else you get to be immersed in opera 24/7—to sit in on rehearsals, to listen to your colleagues, to have something to aspire to in your peers and coaches.

What’s your favorite role you have performed?

Dido in Dido and Aeneas.

Which productions are you most excited for during this season at AVA?

I’m excited for all of them, but especially for Rusalka, because it’s not a typical student production. You’d never get to do that in undergrad. I’m also excited for Suor Angelica and Così fan tutte because I’ve never gotten to do a full Mozart.

Alice Chung, mezzo-soprano

Alice

When and how did you first begin singing opera?

I started taking classical voice lessons in college. I started working with graduate students who were TAs and slowly worked myself up to singing with actual teachers. I majored in sociology, something completely unrelated to music. Singing was always supposed to be a hobby, but I loved it and I found it just clicked — so it became a pursuit.

What drew you to AVA and what do you look forward to during your time here?

I’ve always known of AVA, it’s always been in the back of my mind. AVA singers are incomparable — AVA was always there in the horizon for me. I really look forward to the experience. You really can’t compare the quality of AVA teachings and the coachings to anything else.

What’s your favorite role you have performed?

Playing the witch in Hansel and Gretel was fun. I also covered Azucena in Il trovatore, one of my all-time dream roles.

Which productions are you most excited for during this season at AVA?

Roméo and Juliette. It’s shocking, but I’ve not been a principal in a French opera. I’m excited to have more French in my life!

Aubrey Ballarò, soprano

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When and how did you first begin singing opera?

I did a lot of musical theater growing up. My parents were always fascinated by my love for music because they’re not musicians at all. My father set up an audition for me for Toledo Opera when I was thirteen and they brought me on board as one of their choristers. My first opera as a chorus member was Roméo and Juliette, and I heard soprano Barbara Shirvis sing “Je veux vivre.” It was the first aria I had ever heard and it was sung with full orchestra in the theater during the sitzprobe. That’s when I knew I needed to start opera singing.

What drew you to AVA and what do you look forward to during your time here?

I met Danielle Orlando at Oberlin in Italy, in Arezzo, and we kept in touch. She suggested I move to the east coast after Oberlin. So I’ve been in Philly for the past four years and now I’m here! I’m excited to gain as much knowledge as possible and to be surrounded by such an amazing team.

What’s your favorite role you have performed?

Ms. Wordsworth in Albert Herring was a lot of fun—I love to make people laugh.

Which productions are you most excited for during this season at AVA?

I’m most excited for Così fan tutte. I’ve done it twice, once during Oberlin in Italy and once in Vancouver. Now I get to dust it off and learn it from a new perspective!

Renée Richardson, soprano

Renee

When and how did you first begin singing opera?

I’ve always sung. The first time was in fourth grade when everyone was forced to sing in choir. It wasn’t a desire of mine, but we had to do it. There was a solo everyone wanted to do. I didn’t raise my hand, but the teacher called on me anyway — so that was my first solo! Against my will, in fourth grade.

I moved around a lot — I went to a lot of different schools, so even though I did some choir in middle school and at the beginning of high school, it wasn’t consistent. I didn’t get back into choir until my junior year, and even then I didn’t realize music was something people did with their lives. When I went to college in Florida I was a biology major. I joined the choir, but science was my main focus.

By my junior year, even though I wanted to be a vet, I was encouraged to pursue singing more seriously. I’m Haitian-American and to my family music is not a career. It was tough because my family questioned my decision. Now they’re on board, but initially I needed so much support — my voice teachers and coaches were really kind and really pushed me to pursue singing. Junior year in undergrad is when I officially committed to it.

What drew you to AVA and what do you look forward to during your time here?

Everyone knows about AVA. I remember reading about Joyce DiDonato, something about her not getting a role in school, feeling like she’d never make it and then going to AVA. So I looked into it. I became really obsessed with the AVA website. People discouraged me from applying and said I wasn’t ready, but at a certain point I got tired of listening to other people’s advice. So I was like “I’m just gonna do it.” I just look forward to growing here. I feel like my musical career started a little on the late side, so to get this top-of-the-line training is exactly what I need.

What’s your favorite role you have performed?

Suor Angelica. I love the passion and the hope she embodies. And Béatrice in Béatrice et Bénédict was really fun. I loved playing someone sassy and flirtatious.

Which productions are you most excited for during this season at AVA?

I’m excited for all the operas, but especially for Rusalka — when people think of Rusalka, they think of Renée Fleming… so Renée Richardson has a lot to live up to!

Lev Voronov, bass

Lev

When and how did you first begin singing opera?

I began learning to sing at the Glinka Choir College in Saint Petersburg ten years ago. Those were my first lessons. In 2011, I began studying at a conservatory where my vocal teacher was Vladimir Vaneyev, who is well known in Russia and is the principal soloist of the Mariinsky Theatre. In 2016 I began studying at the Yelena Obraztsova International Academy of Music, in St. Petersburg.

What drew you to AVA and what do you look forward to during your time here?

At the Yelena Obraztsova International Academy of Music, I had coachings and master classes with Olga Makarina, the principal soloist at the Metropolitan Opera. She told me about Bill Schuman, whom I auditioned for, and he encouraged me to apply to AVA. I’m looking forward to developing my singing, language and acting skills here.

What are some of your favorite roles you have performed?

Leporello from Don Giovanni, two years ago in Russia.

Which productions are you most excited for during this season at AVA?

Così fan tutte, because it was a recent Metropolitan Opera production. To be able to perform the same opera here is exciting!

Kara Mulder, soprano

Kara

When and how did you first begin singing opera?

My entire family is made up of opera singers. My mother is an opera singer and my father was, too. So I joke that I didn’t have a choice, because that’s all I knew. I was probably twelve before I realized not everyone’s life revolved around music. I’ve always loved music so much and poured all my energy into it, whether it was musical theatre, choir or Church music. I went to high school and university for music.

What drew you to AVA and what do you look forward to during your time here?

Being from Philadelphia, AVA is the pinnacle of performance. I used to come to AVA’s shows as a kid. So being part of AVA has been a dream of mine for years. I’m excited to learn and soak up all this knowledge from my teachers, coaches and colleagues, to have the operatic experience of a lifetime.

What are some of your favorite roles you have performed?

Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte — she’s fiery, but she’s also sensitive. I think Mozart’s way of crafting timeless characters is so genius.

Which productions are you most excited for during this season at AVA?

Rusalka. I think it’s so cool to sing in Czech. I also think the dramatic challenges will be very intense and it will be exciting to workshop something a little more intimate, since it’s a piano production.

Eric Delagrange, bass

Eric

When and how did you first begin singing opera?

I got my B.A. in music education. My voice teacher pointed out to me that I had a deep voice and suggested opera. So I went on to graduate school for voice performance.

What drew you to AVA and what do you look forward to during your time here?

I attended the Russian Opera Workshop two years ago and I began taking lessons with Bill Schuman every few months, whenever I was in New York. I’m excited to sing every day with other people, to work really hard to create something bigger than myself.

What’s your favorite role you have performed?

I enjoy playing drunks. I’ve played Figaro in Le Nozze di Figaro, Pistola in Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff, and Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Zoroastre.

Which productions are you most excited for during this season at AVA?

I’m most excited for Rusalka — it’s one of the first operas I ever saw. The music is gorgeous, it’s such a beautiful blend of composers.

Yihan Duan, soprano

Yihan

When and how did you first begin singing opera?

I began singing at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music.

What drew you to AVA and what do you look forward to during your time here?

AVA is very well renowned, so many opera stars go through here. I’m really excited to gain as much knowledge as possible in opera. I’m also looking forward to the many opportunities I will have to act.

What is your favorite role you have performed?

Liù from Turandot.

Which productions are you most excited for during this season at AVA?

Le Villi, because I love Puccini. And Rusalka, because I think the story is wonderful.

Written by Tania Bagan 

Resident Artist News: Summer 2018

AVA Resident Artists and recent graduates have been busy this spring, and have very busy summers ahead! Here’s a look at some of their recent and upcoming plans…

Piotr Buszewski recently made his professional debut at the New York City Opera as the title role in Il Pigmalione. In May, he will be making his Memphis Symphony Orchestra debut in Berlioz’s Te Deum. This summer, he will be singing in Rigoletto and Seven Deadly Sins, both at Wolf Trap.

Earlier this spring, Mackenzie Gotcher performed the role of Cavaradossi in Permian Basin Opera‘s production of Tosca. This summer, he will be singing the role of Captain Nolan in Doctor Atomic at Santa Fe Opera.

Hannah Ludwig will be going to the grand finals of the Loren L. Zachary Competition in Beverly Hills, and in June she is going to the finals of the James Toland Competition. She will be singing the Mozart Requiem at Carnegie Hall on May 26, and will also be performing the role of Isaura in Tancredi with the New York Teatro Nuovo festival program on July 28 and August 3.

Alexandra Nowakowski recently won second place in the Dorothy Lincoln Smith Competition. Along with Hannah, she will also be going to the grand finals of the Loren L. Zachary Competition and to the finals of the James Toland Competition. In July, she’ll be going to the Verbier Festival in Switzerland to sing Gilda in Rigoletto.

Daniel Noyola placed second in the New England Regionals of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. This summer, he will be at Santa Fe Opera covering the role of Mustafà in L’italiana in Algeri. He also joins Houston Grand Opera’s Studio Artists in August, where he will be singing Masetto in Don Giovanni and Colline in La bohème.

Brent Michael Smith placed third in the Mid-Atlantic Regional Finals of the Metropolitan Opera Nationals Council Auditions. He will also compete in the semi-finals of the Opera Birmingham Competition in May, and he joins the Santa Fe Opera as an Apprentice Artist this summer singing Lakey in Ariadne auf Naxos and covering Truffaldino.

Oliver Sewell recently made his Carnegie Hall debut with the New England Symphonic Ensemble.

Ethan Simpson advanced to the semi-finals of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.

Vanessa Vasquez will be singing Juliette in Roméo et Juliette at Wolf Trap this summer.

Matthew White recently won Top Prize in the Gerda Lissner Foundation International Vocal Competition and First Place in the Deborah Voigt International Vocal Competition.  He will make his role debut as Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly with The Princeton Festival next month.

And finally, AVA saves the day at Vero Beach Opera. Meryl Dominguez was at Vero Beach Opera in March to perform with Deborah Voigt, as part of her prize for placing third in the Deborah Voigt/VBO Foundation International Vocal Competition a year prior. Unfortunately due to inclement weather in the Northeast, Ms. Voigt was unable to travel and a replacement singer was needed with just four hours to spare. Thankfully and incredibly, fellow AVA Resident Artist Roy Hage was also in Florida, and was able to travel and perform with a very tight time crunch! This summer, Roy will be singing the role of Hoffman in Les contes d’Hoffmann for the Aspen Music Festival.

The final production of AVA’s 2017/18 opera season, La traviata, received rave reviews from Philadelphia Magazine, Chestnut Hill Local, The Cultural Critic and Broad Street Review.

Bravo to all of our Resident Artists!

Thank you to all who made this season an incredible one, we’re looking forward to seeing you throughout the 2018/19 season!

Be sure to stay-up-to-date with all AVA news by following us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and signing up for our email list!

Fall 2017: A Look Back

So far, this season at AVA has been a most memorable one. As the holiday season and break soon approaches, let’s take a look back at at all of the things our Resident Artists have been up to so far this year…

AVA has put on a number of incredible recitals and performances so far this year! Check below to reminisce:

AVA’s 2017 New Resident Artist Recital: 

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The new Resident Artists displayed their talent in this recital back in September. We were so happy to welcome them and are thrilled to see what they have in store in these next four years! Meet the new Resident Artists here.

Giargiari Bel Canto Competition

In early October, AVA’s Resident Artists competed in the annual Giargiari Bel Canto Competition, held at the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater. AVA alumnus and world-renowned bass-baritone James Morris, The Metropolitan Opera’s Joshua Winograde and Palm Beach Opera’s Scott Guzielek presided as the evening’s judges and award the prizes. The audience also had the opportunity to vote for their favorite singer! Philadelphia blogger Marissa Baum recapped the evening on her blog here.

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Congratulations to:
Claire de Monteil and Alexandra Razskazoff – First Prize Winners (tie)
Piotr Buszewski – Second Prize
Meryl Dominguez – Audience Favorite Prize

WRTI Winners
Roy Hage – First Place
Alexandra Nowakowski – Second Place
Piotr Buszewski
 – Third Place

Congratulations to all!

Verdi’s Il trovatore 

Next up, AVA’s stunning performances of Verdi’s classic Il trovatore in November. This was AVA’s first production of Verdi’s immortal classic in 20 years. This extraordinary opera started off AVA’s season in just the right way!

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Claire de monteil and Mackenzie Gotcher

With raving reviews from the Philadelphia Inquirer and DC Metro Theater, Il trovatore was definitely one to remember.

Along with performing here at AVA, many of our Resident Artists are experiencing amazing opportunities outside of these walls! Here are a few:

Resident Artist Roy Hage deserves congratulations on his performance as First Armored Man back in September in Opera Philadelphia‘s Die Zauberflöte!

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In October we congratulated fourth-year Resident Artist soprano Alexandra Nowakowski who won the Second Prize in the 2017 Gerda Lissner Lieder/Song Competition!

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Also, third-year Resident Artist soprano Meryl Dominguez won the Alfonso Cavaliere Memorial Scholarship this past October! Bravo!

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Resident Artist tenor Marco Cammarota sang the role of Cavaradossi in Arizona Opera‘s production of Puccini’s Tosca in November. You can check out the full cast here.

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Another artist to make an exciting debut was John Matthew Myers who performed as the tenor soloist a few weeks ago at Carnegie Hall with the Canterbury Choral Society!

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AVA Resident Artist Claire de Monteil will be making her French debut this December, as she will be singing the role of Simone in the comic opera Les Mousquetaires au couvent at Opéra Grand Avignon!

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Hannah Ludwig, mezzo-soprano will make her debut with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in Handel’s Messiah!

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Vanessa Vasquez earned a great review in Opera News for her performance of Liù in Des Moines Metro Opera’s production of Madama Butterfly.

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Congratulations to all of our Resident Artists for all of their hard work.

Even though the beginning of the season is coming to a close, the new year is just around the corner!

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Still to come this December: an evening of Russian Romances at AVA. The December 14th performance includes an event for young professionals!

Join us at AVA for three more incredible operas and three more incredible chances to see our Resident Artists shine! The first opera we will be performing is Das Rheingold opening on January 20. The next is Ariadne auf Naxos opening on February 24. And opening on April 21 Verdi’s classic, La traviata.

You do not want to miss out on this opportunity to see our Resident Artists take on these operas. We hope to see you in the new year!

Written by AVA PR/Marketing Intern Madison Miner

AVA’s Favorite Winter Activities

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The weather outside is getting frightful…which means one thing; winter is almost upon us! To celebrate the season of cuddling up by fires listening to your favorite opera score, we asked some of the AVA Resident Artists what their favorite winter time activity is! Keep reading for a peek into what some of our artists enjoy doing during the cold months!

Daniel Noyola: Fifth-Year Bass-Baritone

Favorite winter activity? “I like having ponche, which is a traditional Mexican winter hot beverage. It’s made of tamarindo, cinnamon sticks, guava, and sugar cane. For parties we like to add tequila. It tastes really good and keeps you warm!”

Oliver Sewell: First-Year Tenor

Favorite winter activity? “I like a hearty stew and mulled wine after a day of outdoor activities in the cutting cold of the American winter!”

Piotr Buszewski: Third-Year Tenor

Favorite winter activity? “I like to wear my Lensky’s fur coat, riding on a horse drawn sleigh, then spending an evening by the fire drinking a hot beer and looking at my portrait on the wall.”

Abraham Bretón: Second-Year Tenor

Favorite winter activity? “I love to do anything in the snow; I have never built a snowman or gone skiing but I really want to! I also love Christmas songs!”

Hannah Ludwig: Fourth-Year Mezzo-Soprano

Favorite winter activity? “Sitting on the couch with a nice hot cup of tea and turning on the fireplace.”

Alexandra Nowakowski: Fourth-Year Soprano

Favorite winter activity? “Making fall and wintery soups like pumpkin soup, and chili.”

Roy Hage: Second-Year Tenor

Favorite winter activity? “Visiting family and skiing in New Hampshire at Lake Sunapee. I’ve been skiing since I was a kid; I learned when I was in Lebanon. Also, binge watching the Harry Potter series!”

Alexandra Razskazoff: First-Year Soprano

Favorite winter activity? “Skiing, since I’m from Minnesota!”

Lukasz Zientarski: First-Year Baritone

Favorite winter activity? “I like ice skating.”

John Matthew Myers: Second-Year Tenor

Favorite winter  activity? “Sitting in front of the fireplace with a hot cup of cocoa or ice skating.”

Timothy Renner: Second-Year Baritone

Favorite winter activity? “Going to Christmas markets.”

Matthew White: Third Year Tenor

Favorite winter activity? “Surfing and bass-fishing on the shore. It’s the best when you show up at 6:00 AM and its totally quiet in the brisk cold salt air and there’s snow on the ground. It’s the best feeling.”

Meryl Dominguez: Third-Year Soprano

Favorite winter activity? “I used to be a figure skater, so I love going ice skating! Baking is also more fun in the winter. Winter is my favorite season!”

Pascale Spinney: First-Year Mezzo-Soprano

Favorite winter activity? “Sitting by the fireplace reading a novel and drinking some eggnog.”

Ethan Simpson: Third-Year Baritone

Favorite winter activity? “I hate winter.” (Thanks for your honesty, Ethan! 😉 )

Anthony Whitson-Martini: Third-Year Baritone

Favorite winter activity? “Baking Christmas cookies.”

Gabriela Flores: First-Year Mezzo-Soprano

Favorite winter activity? “Watching movies and drinking hot chocolate.”

We hope you enjoyed learning a bit more about our Resident Artists and their favorite winter activities. Now it’s your turn; tell us your favorite winter hobby! And don’t forget to get your ticket for our Russian Romances recitals on December 12 and 14 at 7:30 PM! You can purchase tickets by clicking here or calling AVA at 215-735-1685.