Johnathan McCullough is a sophomore at the Curtis Institute of Music, in Philadelphia, where he is pursuing his Bachelor of Music degree in the opera program. As a youth in Los Angeles, he was deeply involved in LA Opera’s Education and Community Programs, as well as the Music Center Spotlight Awards. He is returning to LA this March and will appear in The Festival Play of Daniel as the Second Noble/Messenger. What follows are some of Johnathan’s recollections about those early experiences with LA Opera.
After I saw my first opera , LA Opera’s production of Pagliacci , I wanted to find out if there were any programs available for young singers. I had been a Paulist Chorister (now known as The National Children’s Choir) until my voice changed, and I missed singing classical music. My grandfather encouraged me to learn some Italian songs, which I enjoyed, but I wanted to be part of a program. I called the opera’s Education and Community Programs department and Anthony Jones, community programs tour manager, suggested that I audition for Opera Camp and the Cathedral Project.
I first joined Opera Camp at 15, where I was cast as Count Almaviva in Figaro’s American Adventure. The whole production pulled together so quickly, and those weeks of Opera Camp laid a foundation that I use to this day when preparing for roles. I fell in love with the whole process, and I’ve been studying ever since.
The most amazing experience I had in the program was singing the role of Brundibár in the Opera Camp production of Brundibár the following year (2008). I was in awe of the fact that we were working directly with Maestro James Conlon as we prepared our roles. That was another turning point for me. His encouragement gave me the confidence to commit to studying opera. Also, meeting Ela Weissberger, who played the Cat in the original production of Brundibár during the holocaust, had a huge impact on all of us. I can’t think of a better example of the importance of an arts education than the role that opera played in the lives of the original cast.
During high school, I also took part in all the other LA Opera Education programs. I entered the LA Opera 90012 essay contest, and I was able to attend pre-opera talks and to see four operas. As well, I participated in the Cathedral Project ensembles of Judas Maccabaeus in 2008 and Noye’s Fludde in 2009. Meanwhile, both Eli Villanueva and Josh Winograde continued to answer my many questions about the art and business of opera and to advise me when it came time to audition for colleges. In many ways, I was growing up in the opera house.
One of the greatest events in my life was to be given the part of a Noble in the premiere of The Festival Play of Daniel in 2010. The fact that it was my first professional role was amazing. It was really special to me because Eli Villanueva, my director from Opera Camp and mentor, translated the libretto, scored the opera and directed the production. It was also an honor to have another chance to work with Maestro Conlon conducting. It was right before my college auditions in New York and Philadelphia, so I left Los Angeles feeling incredibly happy, which I’m sure helped me through that process.
When I won the Spotlight Award for Classical Voice in 2010, my opera family were there in force to celebrate with me: Stacy Brightman, Anthony Jones and Jennifer Babcock. That was a big weekend because the next day was the Winners Concert for The Cerritos Friends of the Arts Competition. After performing, we were presented with our awards, and Stacy surprised me by coming on stage to present mine. It was amazing to have her there!
I believe that these opportunities could only have come about because of the education we received at LA Opera. My journey with LAO makes me a great believer in the importance of arts education programs, because I know that my conservatory education is a direct result of LA Opera’s Education and Community Programs department. I will always be grateful for the training, the mentorship, and especially the friendship of everyone at LA Opera, which is why I’m really excited to come home to Los Angeles to be part of The Festival Play of Daniel again this March!