Vocalist - Baritone
From Conard High Jock To Rising Opera Singer
Tanglewood The Next Stop For Former Jazz Trombonist Matt Worth

Opera singers often take indirect routes to their eventual profession.

Even so, it's probably fair to say that 29-year-old Matthew Worth is among the few working operatic baritones who initially dreamed of becoming a jazz trombonist.

"It's true, that's where I thought I was headed," Worth says. "I was a pretty serious high school player."

High school in this case would be Conard High of West Hartford, long known for its excellent music programs. Worth, a member of the class of 1996, amply partook of those programs, playing in the jazz band and singing the leads in several of the school's vaunted Broadway musicals.

He was also an above-average jock, a solid honors student.

He was, in short, a kid with options.

He did not consider opera to be among them.

"I'm not sure I could have even named an opera singer back in those days. My musical hero was [trombonist and composer] J. J. Johnson."

At the University of Richmond, along with continuing to play the trombone, he began to study voice, but still with no particular thought of a career.

"I had no earthly idea what I was doing. About all I knew with respect to my voice was that I had always liked to sing, and that was about as far as it went. Even today I can't exactly tell you how I got here. There was no dramatic moment where I said this is the life for me. It just happened in a gradual way."

Of course, "gradual" is a relative term in the opera world. Some singers don't even make a dent in the profession until they're in their 30s, and many don't ever make a dent at all.

By contrast, Worth, not yet 30, has already achieved several decisive toeholds in this unsteady business. He is represented by management (at Herbert Barrett, one of the more eminent New York firms). He has amassed some important performance credits, including a role in the premiere of Stephen Hartke's opera "The Greater Good," in a widely praised 2006 production at Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, recently released as a Naxos CD.

And this week he embarks on what might prove to be his most important steppingstone thus far: Beginning Saturday, he will be featured as Guglielmo in four performances of Mozart's "Cosi Fan Tutte" at Tanglewood, under the baton of no-less-an-operatic career-maker than James Levine. The production is being mounted by the Tanglewood Music Center, the internationally celebrated training ground for young musicians and singers. Levine, as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, is the ex-officio artistic director of the TMC program. He is also the longtime music director of the Metropolitan Opera.

"Singing under James Levine, no matter where you are in your career, is obviously something every singer aspires to," Worth says, sprawled over a folding chair inside Tanglewood's funky little theater where the performances will take place. "The man has been unbelievable to work with. What he knows and what he can communicate with just a nod or a flick of the finger is something that has to be experienced to be believed. The first day, he came in carrying his big `Cosi' conductor's score. But he never opened it once. It's all in his head."

Tanglewood, Glimmerglass, professional management - this is heady stuff for a young man who grew up in what he describes as a conventional suburban household, the oldest of three children. His mother, Brenda, is a music teacher at Norfeldt Elementary School, and his dad, Ralph, also was a teacher until his recent retirement.

"My mom is certainly musical and there would be music in the house of various kinds. I mean, we're the kind of family that sings grace before dinner, which tends to weird out visiting boyfriends and girlfriends. But opera, no."

Nevertheless, Worth says his parents were entirely supportive when he decided to pursue a graduate voice degree at the Manhattan School of Music in New York, at the urging of one of his Richmond voice teachers. After that, he was accepted into the highly competitive Juilliard Opera Center program.

"Somewhere along in there, I guess it dawned on me that maybe I had some talent, and maybe this was the direction I should go. I also began to see from the inside what an incredible thing opera really is."

Worth's career has been unfolding so nicely since then that the only blemish in sight might be the precariousness of opera itself.

Unlike a lot of younger musicians - especially those who have found early success - Worth has clearly given a lot of thought to how the art form he has chosen might sustain, and even revitalize itself.

"In the first place, I think that performers of my generation are going to need to get off their high horse and go out into the community and work at cultivating audiences. I mean, if we really love this art form as we profess to do, the singers have to go out and make this feel accessible to the public. We have to show that we're real people performing real works that mean something. Look at `Cosi Fan Tutte' - it's not just some 18th century relic or throwaway. It really means something and we have to show that to people."

Worth is also committed to the sometimes contentious position that modern opera performers have to look credible on the stage.

"The singing is paramount of course, but beyond that, image-conscious opera is a reality. Audiences today, especially younger audiences, are not going to buy Mimi and Rodolfo as a pair of 250-pound lovers. They want to see characters up there that are believable. This is something that singers of my generation have been forewarned about from the beginning, so there's no excuse for allowing themselves to get heavy and not be able to move around a stage. I think every performer of my generation accepts this. It's simply a necessity."

Worth, for the record, will have no immediate problem meeting his own criteria, since the 6-foot-3, athletically built 29-year-old baritone would not be out of place modeling the J. Crew summer collection.

Whether physical attractiveness and personal accessibility can bring younger audiences into the hall, however, remains to be seen.

And like most everybody in the opera world, Worth finds himself pondering such fundamental questions as why very few modern operas seem to have endeared themselves to audiences, and whether the art form can survive on its relative handful of familiar, mostly 19th-century warhorses, particularly when so many people of Worth's generation have a multiplying array of entertainment choices.

"I don't know if there's one clear answer to that. I do see encouraging signs. For instance I think the things that Peter Gelb is doing at the Met are great, especially putting live broadcast performances in movie theaters, and now bringing them out on High-Def DVDs. Beyond that, we've somehow got to communicate the fact that opera can coexist with other kinds of music in a person's life. My own iPod has stuff like Bloc Party and Modest Mouse and the Shins, and lots of other indie music. I'm not sitting there listening to opera all the time, and neither are the other young artists up here. I don't even think that's good for your development as musician."

For the moment, though, the future of the art form is mostly a theoretical matter for Worth. His personal future is of more immediate interest, as he looks ahead to a series of engagements in the upcoming season. Among them will be a local appearance in September, when he joins a group of like-minded emerging singers for an evening sponsored by the Sing for Hope organization, which oversees charity concerts in local communities around the country. The September event, which will take place the First Church of Christ in West Hartford, will benefit the Alzheimer's Association of Connecticut.

Beyond that he has a number of regional opera house dates on his calendar, including, later next season, his first Papageno in "The Magic Flute" in Kansas City.

He is doing the one thing that a young singer most wants and needs to do: He's working.

"For me to sit here and tell you that I wouldn't dream of singing at the Met, that would be a lie. But what I've discovered is that if I can continue to perform at a high level, wherever it is, I'll feel satisfied. It can be warhorses or new works. It can even be `Oklahoma' or `Carousel' sometimes, because I still love that stuff too.

"People worry a lot about classical music and opera these days, but I don't feel any sense of doom. All the performers my age know what the odds are in this business. But we all love it too much to do anything else. And if we love it, who's to say that we won't be able to persuade more people to love it, too?"
Steve Metcalf, Hartford Courant
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