From ashes of bankruptcy, Lunsford rises as operatic phoenix

Rachael Le Goubin | Staff Photographer
Benjamin Bloomfield and Andrew Lunsford add an additional verse to “Agony” from Into the Woods at the Chautauqua Opera Company’s annual pops concert Saturday in the Amphitheater.

On July 12, tenor Andrew Lunsford sang Puccini’s “Nessun dorma” to help close the annual Opera Highlights concert. With the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra behind him, Lunsford vibrantly sustained the final high A, while the audience wildly applauded the Apprentice Artist’s talent.

Yet a little more than five years ago, 35-year-old Lunsford couldn’t pick Puccini out of a classical music lineup, much less perform his famous aria.

What many couldn’t discern from a seat in the audience was that Lunsford is a relative newcomer in the world of opera. In a past life he was the head of a lucrative granite countertop business in Denver and raked in around $6 million every fiscal year. When the recession hit in 2008, however, Luns­ford’s business tanked.

Without an income, Lunsford was deeply depressed. He spent many days and nights brooding in his basement, wondering what went wrong and how he was going to care for his wife and two boys. Needing a diversion, Lunsford popped in an old classical music compilation CD he got from Target. Puccini’s “Nessun dorma” came on, and he listened closely, attentively. The Italian was foreign to him, the music surprising. What he would hear in his basement in Bloomington, Colorado, was, soon enough, his new voice.

Finding something healing in opera, he started to sing for others — first “joking” with his friends, then for serious musicians. At the suggestion of his bankruptcy lawyer, Lunsford tried his hand at open mic nights around town. When he went up on stage at the Brown Palace Hotel in Denver, Lunsford was doubtful. Ready for a new period in his life, he took a deep breath and sang the Puccini aria.

“In some ways, I wish it was a less famous song,” Lunsford said about the iconic aria from Turandot. “It’s so famous already that my association with the song is directly related to the fact that it is so famous.”

And just as fast as Lunsford turned his sights to opera, others focused their attention on the singer with the unconventional path. Deemed the “Accidental Tenor” by the press, Lunsford spent four years at the Jacobs School of Music in Indiana — on a full ride — in the literal spotlight. While studying with acclaimed music teacher Carol Vaness, working on diction homework in French and Italian, news outlets like CNN and ABC were doing profiles on the 30-year-old college freshman.

Although Lunsford is entertained by his image, he makes clear that he never aims to rely on his uniqueness. He accepts the fact that he’s still “got a lot of catching up to do,” along with “working three times as hard as as everyone else,” as opera baritone Keith Miller once told him. The idea of an easy path to fame, for Lunsford, isn’t a part of his agenda.

“People need to judge me on my merits and not on my press packet,” he said. “I want to simply be an artist, not necessarily a celebrity.”

Lunsford made that decision early on. When he first sang for former opera company director Amy Stuemky, she told him that he could easily go the route of fast-cash singing — “Popera,” as he calls it — or could go the learned route, getting a fine music education, pursuing a career in opera the “right way” with, as the tenor said, merit.

But after a stint in bankruptcy, a career in opera did not seem like the most profitable move. Getting a “street education” in business from his father Walt at the age of 15, Lunsford said that he’s always been a very practically minded person, someone who fights to win and attain success.

“Oh, I am very competitive,” he said. “I’m just nice about it and a good sport.”

Besides the fight to survive every month, it was living on food stamps and the feeling of guilt that Lunsford wasn’t fond of. Although he sees somewhat of a divide from his past life as CEO, the lessons and hardships of the past both still linger, and are “in some ways, so very fresh.”

After five years of music training — with many 18-hour days under his belt — the recent Chautauqua Apprentice Artist said there is a connection between his two careers.

“Singing is probably as far away as running a company as one can get,” Lunsford said. “Or at least I thought so back then. Even though the need for money was still there, it was completely a different feeling.”

With many famed opera companies downsizing, and young artist programs increasing in competitiveness, Lunsford said that the talent he’s found is only one rung in the ladder of success, and profiting from a singing career is tough work. Just like in business, Lunsford said, many “want to push out the weak ones” in the singing world, no matter their backstory. It’s this outside pressure that originally gave the then-29-year-old beginner apprehension.

“That’s a part of the competition, which is not letting you defeat yourself,” he said. “All of that self-doubt creeps into your head and swirls around like a dark cloud constantly.”

But Lunsford’s never fallen out of the operatic race.

Since 2009, when he enrolled at Indiana University, Lunsford has performed in 10 operas and has been through three young artist programs — Chautauqua makes four. He sang at Carnegie Hall in 2013 and is set to do it again next year with the Choir of America. With what he said has been one of his most memorable and rewarding programs, Lunsford has only continued to make a good name for himself at Chautauqua, separate from his “accidental” fame.

One of his mentors agrees.

Carol Rausch, the music administrator/chorus master of the Opera Company, found Lunsford to be a fitting role model for the younger Young Artists. She said that the 26 other singers in the program could learn from the wisdom and experience only “their pal Andy” could relay to them. It’s Lunsford’s amiable personality, she said, that affirms this.

“He’s a protector of people,” Rausch said. “He cares deeply about others, and would go to battle for you if you needed it.”

Any observer of a recent performance of The Ballad of Baby Doe can see why: When Lunsford was leaving Norton Hall that night, he heard a parade of Studio Artists cheering his name — “Andy! Andy! Andy!” — as one would in a William Jennings Bryan rally. Rausch said this relationship was more than common at the hall Lunsford shared with fellow singers, many of whom were a decade younger than him.

And Rausch, just like those who first saw him sing at the Brown Palace or at JSOM, can’t forget one of her favorite Lunsford arias.

“[Nessun dorma] was one of the highlights of our Highlights Concert,” she said.

Yet even all the laudable praise he gets from directors, press and peers can’t steer Lunsford’s mind away from his family. His wife Kenya, and two boys Colin, 13, and Max, 9, live in Bloomington, Indiana, and only get to visit infrequently to watch him sing. As an “opera father,” Lunsford said his wife and boys eventually grew “desensitized” with him singing Puccini around the house, in the car and in the shower. Lunsford recalled how he first discovered opera, and hopes his boys discover it in their own time.

“I’d like them to get interested on their own,” he said. “Although they’re more interested in video games than anything else.”

Now, the most obvious question after all these years might be, “Why opera?”

Lunsford, now graduated from Indiana University, said that his title of “Accidental Tenor” is “entirely accurate” as an explanation, as he’s at a loss for a better one.

“If I would have tried to [sing opera],” he said, “it would have been impossible for me to understand. I just put on my opera voice and started singing.”

Listening to Lunsford’s voice today, one can surmise the clearest reason by themselves, after feeling the heart-rending final notes of “Nessun dorma” that the tenor still holds dear. After losing it all, it was only the drama inherent in the music of opera that could propel a formerly sunken Lunsford back onto his feet, up onto the stage. It’s the “lows that you have to get through,” Lunsford said, that turn to “highs” when he takes a big, voluminous breath, raises up their hands and sings: “Vinceró! I will win! I will win!”