Eliasen focuses on opera for Chautauqua Speaks

Lori Humphreys | Staff Writer

If you love opera, you’ll love hearing Mikael Eliasen, director of the Curtis Institute of Music Voice Department and Chautauqua Music School voice teacher, explain “Opera — What Is It?” at the Chautauqua Speaks program 9:15 a.m. Thursday at the Chautauqua Women’s Club. If you hate opera, you’ll still love hearing Eliasen explain “Opera — What Is It?”

Eliasen’s presentation, combining personality, experience and conviction delivered con brio, promises to delight opera fans. And it promises the possibility of persuading the agnostic that opera is a vital art that can be enjoyed not only for what it is but how its themes relate to the present. Adjectives like “multi-faceted,” “alive,” “romantic,” “intense,” and “big political drama” sprinkle his conversation.

Don Carlos and Simon Boccanegra were censored,” he said. “Then there is the line in La traviata when Violetta sings, ‘God forgives me, but human beings don’t.’ Can you be more current than that?”

Eliasen said it is the singing voice that lured him to opera. Accompanying singers and teaching aspiring singers has been both profession and passion. The voice is a marvelous mystery to him, and he motioned to the throat frequently as he discussed the training of a young singer.

“My oldest sister is a singer, and growing up (in Denmark), I played for her,” he said. “When I went to Vienna, I became obsessed with opera and the singing of opera.”

This obsession led to a successful freelance career accompanying singers and to an even more successful 25-year career teaching voice at Curtis Institute of Music. In December 2010, Eliasen celebrated his years at Curtis with a concert.

“Gary Graffman, former president of Curtis, asked me to come to teach voice,” Eliasen said. “I had never worked with young singers before. But I found that I had a gift for teaching.”

When Eliasen is sitting in his McKnight Hall studio, furnished only with grand piano, lamp, two chairs and two music stands, it is the teacher who emerges. It is here, in that spare space, that the master meets apprentice. Similarly to the actor, the singer’s instrument is solitary — only the voice, only the music. Eliasen said his role — the training of the singing voice — is one he loves.

Eliasen trained in Copenahagen, Montreal and Vienna. He has accompanied singers like Robert Merrill, was music director of the San Francisco Opera Center and artistic director of the European Center for Opera and Vocal Art in Belgium. He is the artistic director of the Curtis Opera Theater. He has been a member of the Chautauqua Music School Faculty for 20 years.