By Beverly Phillips
LA Opera Young Artists Summer Hassan and Frederick Ballentine are following amazingly similar paths as they pursue their operatic careers. They both studied at Cincinnati’s Conservatory of Music where they first met in 2012. A few years later both were admitted to the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program at LA Opera. This season they appeared in The Magic Flute with Summer singing the role of the Second Lady and Frederick performing as the Armed Guard. Both are 26 and from the South with Summer hailing from North Carolina and Frederick a native Virginian.
With such striking similarities in their background and musical training, it comes as no surprise that they have forged a very special friendship.
How did you feel when you heard that you were chosen as an LAO Young Artist?
Frederick: I was so excited because I knew they could do something with my talent. I knew my voice was strange after transitioning from baritone to tenor and that I needed to go where they could help me to understand it so I could grow.
Summer: It was midnight and I was already in bed when I received the email. I jumped up yelling and started screaming “What?! What?!” so many times that the neighbors down below thought I was screaming “Rat! Rat!”
Why did you choose to study opera?
Summer: My mom took me to see The Phantom of the Opera in Canada when I was six. I grew up with the music and by the time we saw the performance, I knew every word. I realized at that moment I wanted to perform.
Frederick: I was in middle school and had always wanted to be a lawyer. I had sung in church and a boy’s choir, but nothing serious. One day my mom informed me that she had submitted my application to a performing arts high school, and that I had an audition that day! I had always been a confident boy soprano so when adjudicators asked me how I felt the school could improve my singing, I said I don’t know how I could be any better… I honestly thought you were either good or not. I didn’t know you could take voice lessons to improve. Somehow they let me into the school.
How would you describe your voice?
Frederick: Dark. People describe my voice as stentorian. I’ll take that. It has a direct sound, steely, darker and direct. I am not a lyrical high tenor.
Summer: My voice is warm. I’m a lyric soprano who has to remember that sticking with lighter rep at the beginning will be better for my longevity. Our voices work well together.
Summer, you stand 5’-3”, yet you have such a giant voice. How did that happen?
Summer: (laughing) Probably screaming a lot as a kid. No, it’s learning proper techniques and not getting in the way of your voice. We have a bad habit of making singing harder than it needs to be. There are so many counter intuitive things that we do to make our voices louder that only hinder us…
Frederick: Right! Strip it down and let it out.
What are your favorite roles so far?
Summer: Norina in Don Pasquale. I never expected to be cast in this role. For once I didn’t have to die! I finally had a chance to be the soprano comedic and fun soprano. The director said to have fun with the role and I did. I could be super goofy and I threw myself into it.
Frederick: T. Morris Chester in Appomattox by Philip Glass at Washington National Opera. It was the first opera I have done that I felt could make a difference in people’s lives. T. Morris Chester was the first African American war correspondent during the Civil War and he was written to portray the mental state of African Americans at the time. I had to take on the emotions of an entire people and go out on stage and try to make the audience feel it.
Your most difficult role?
Summer: Yet to come. This summer I will be singing Musetta in La Bohème at Wolf Trap. The whole concept of being sexy is rather daunting.
Frederick: The first time I did the armed guard in The Magic Flute a few years ago. It’s a small role, and you’re only on stage for five minutes. However, no tenor wants to sing it since it’s so exposed and written in the most difficult part of the tenor voice.
What are your dream roles?
Summer: Countless ones. Sign me up for anything Puccini or Verdi that I haven’t been able to sing thus far because of my young age. Liù in Turandot, Anna Bolena, Peter Grimes, Blanche in Dialogues of the Carmelites…
Frederick: I would love to sing Don Carlos, Radamès in Aida, Sportin’ Life in Porgy and Bess, Peter Grimes…maybe Sigmund?