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Monday, April 1, 2013 - Page updated at 05:00 a.m.

Nicole & Co.
future maestros and mezzos at the Seattle Opera

By Nicole Brodeur
Seattle Times columnist

Christopher Lade didn’t want to sound crass when I chatted with him the other day, but he’s really just waiting for the right conductor to keel over.

“That’s how all the great maestros did it,” he explained good-naturedly. “Until then, I will be learning the repertoire, making mistakes and climbing the ladder, waiting for people to die.”

Mezzo-soprano Sarah Larsen, however, is just waiting for Saturday, when she, Lade and seven other members of the Seattle Opera’s Young Artist Program will take a stage all their own.

“Viva Verdi!” is being billed as a celebration of composer Guisseppe Verdi’s bicentennial, on April 6 at Meany Hall (

The program will feature the Seattle Opera Chorus and the Seattle Opera Young Artists Program Orchestra performing Verdi masterpices such as the first act of “La Traviata,” the last act of “Rigoletto,” and scenes from “La Forza del Destino,” “Nabucco” and “Don Carlo.”

The program will be conducted by Brian Garman, the music director of the Young Artists Program, and staged by its artistic director, Peter Kazaras.

The night will also serve as a farewell, of sorts. The Young Artists Program — which has hosted 115 singers since 1998 — will officially be “on hiatus,” until after the retirement and the replacement of general director Speight Jenkins in 2014, according to spokesman Jonathan Dean.

But it will also serve as a beginning to what the current young artists hope will be long careers, many of them started when they were young.

Lade is one of nine members of the so-called YAP, and the first non-singer to be part of the program.

“Viva Verdi” will serve as Lade’s conducting debut; he will lead Larsen as she sings an aria from “Nabucco” (“Oh dischiuso e il firmamento”) and then conduct the selection “Va, pensiero.”

“I’m thrilled, I can’t wait!” Lade said. “I just want to do it, and then again and again and again. It’s an honor.”

I sat with Lade and Larsen in one of the Opera’s rehearsal spaces the other day to talk about Verdi, and their time with the program.

“The thing that attracts me is working with others, communicating in a nonverbal level,” she said. The program has afforded them a lot of attention, so they improve faster.

“You can mess up,” Lade said, “and it’s OK.”

Larsen grew up in Roseville, Minn., the daughter of a baroque specialist and a musician.

“I tried not to do music, I really tried,” she said. When she tried out for the musical choir in high school she was told, “You’re too loud!” and an opera career was born.

She graduated from Simpson College and received her master’s degree from Rice University and went home without a job. Five months later, she went to New York and auditioned for 28 young-artist programs with companies around the country, performing “Ariadne,” the composer’s aria.

Lade cut her off: “You start with that? It’s damned hard to sing and damned hard to play. That takes some balls.”

She was offered three jobs, “which is awesome,” she said, considering that an average 800 apply to each company, and 400 receive an audition.

“The luxury of staying in one place is amazing,” she said of Seattle. “And getting to know a company is amazing.”

Lade, 25, grew up in Baltimore in a home where the piano was but a piece of furniture his parents thought they should have. He was the only one who raised the lid, starting lessons at 9.

“I just liked it,” he said. “It was a damned good time. It was the only thing that could cheer me up, if I had a bad day.

“Play some Mozart, play some Schubert and all was well with the world.”

At 6’5”, he couldn’t avoid playing basketball, but his focus remained on music — jazz, specifically. (His “tenth,” or the span of his hands, is a C, which is normal.)

“I wanted to become a jazz pianist, move to New York, become a heroin addict,” he joked. “The whole thing.”

Then one evening, while a freshman at UCLA, he was walking down the hall with a friend, a classical pianist, a recognized Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto being played by a pre-professional training orchestra in one of the rehearsal rooms.

“I was floored by the whole thing, the sound of the whole thing,” Lade said. “They were tearing it up. Aurally, it’s crazy.”

But Lade found himself drawn not to the piano player, as one might expect, but conductor Joana Carniero, of the Berkeley Symphony, who was helping with rehearsals.

“She had to have such an interesting rapport with the orchestra to make that sound, to kick ass all the time.”

He decided then and there to change his focus to classical music with an eye to conducting.

“I knew immediately,” he said. “I left the room, called my mom and said, ‘I’m leaving school and taking a year off to go back to Baltimore to study, then will reaudition at UCLA to enter the classical piano division.’”

And he did just that, and came to Seattle not long after earning his master’s in piano performance from UCLA, where he was the rehearsal pianist for its opera productions.

Larsen looks to mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig, and her ability to “convey great emotional feeling with technically good singing,” she said.

“Some put their whole selves in and sound horrible,” she said. “Others sing perfectly correct, but look dead behind the eyes.”

So where are we to look for them in the future? La Scala? Lincoln Center?

“Look for me in CR-1,” Lade said, referring to one of the opera’s rehearsal spaces. “Or walking around downtown. That’s fine with me.”

Larsen’s future has already been decided, to an extent: She has signed on to perform in Seattle Opera’s productions of “Rigoletto” and “The Consul” next season.

Beyond that? Larsen looked down and smiled, a little embarrassed.

“This sounds really cheesy,” she started. “But I don’t care where I am, as long as I am working with people I respect. That feeling of collaboration is what drives me.

“I’m amazed that I have had this career so far.”

Nicole Brodeur:

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