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Fort Wayne’s vocal arts scene hits high note with innovative double event

Heartland Sings is hosting a first-ever international Vocal Competition for emerging young artists this Monday that will culminate in a fittingly harmonic concert, A Night at the Opera, on Wednesday evening.

Courtesy/Heartland Sings
Maestro Nance believes that vocal artists deserve to get paid for their work, and he's proud to offer this opportunity.

The concert has a unique feature, in that the winners of the 16 semi-final spots will be competing for 3 finalist positions at Monday’s competition, and move on to the finals, which will actually conclude during the concert.

Along with solos from each of the finalists, all 16 competitors will perform with the members of Heartland Sings in what Heartland’s President and Founding Director, Robert Nance, calls, “A most spectacular event!”

Here, WBOI’s Julia Meek discusses the scope and mechanics of this impressive double undertaking with Maestro Nance, and the what the future holds for the city’s evolving vocal music heritage.

Heartland Sings is an underwriter with WBOI.

Event Information:

2024 Vocal Competition
at Plymouth Congregational Church, Fort Wayne
Monday, May 20
10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Free to the Public
No ticket required

A Night at the Opera Concert
at Rhinehart Music Center, Purdue University, Fort Wayne
7:30 p.m.
Admission: $45.

Find more information and order tickets at the Heartland Sings website.

Listen to our conversation here:

Julia Meek: Maestro Robert Nance, welcome.

Bob Nance: Well, hi, Julia. Glad to be here.

Julia Meek: So, Heartland Sings is living up to its name this month with a first-ever competition and concert on the horizon. What is the energy level at your place about now?

Bob Nance: Well, if you check with my staff, I think the word frenetic might be coming off their lips. It's very busy, a lot of logistics. I mean, it's a big concert.

That's enough right there. But you add the competition on top of that, and the coordination of pulling everybody together, there's a lot.

Julia Meek: And it's gonna happen?

Bob Nance: It's gonna happen.

Julia Meek: That's so exciting. A real quick recap: You are down to 16 semi-finalists.

Bob Nance: Correct.

Julia Meek: That have come from all over the world; when and how many contestants did y'all start out with?

Bob Nance: Well, we announced the competition last fall. And we accepted contestants through the end of January. And then we adjudicated 150 entrances. That took about three weeks.

And I think each judge, there were five of us, took about 27 hours apiece, for us to get through all of the music that was submitted. From that we selected, in fact, the score yielded 30.

 And that was too many for us to bring here, largely because we are actually paying them to come. So I'll talk a little bit about that. That's part of our goal with career musicians, they should not do everything for free just for the opportunity.

We're also having them perform with us. So, we're paying them to do that as well as come for the competition. So we re-looked at all the 30 and out of that we chose 16. And those 16 are coming here on the 19th of May.

There'll be here for a rehearsal with the pianists, which will be Dr. Young, from PFW and myself, and we will welcome them with a nice dinner, and then on Monday, we compete.

Julia Meek: They come from all over the world, certainly all over the United States?

Bob Nance: They do. All of the contestants, I think have been studying in the United States. They're all emerging young artists, no older than 35. Many from foreign countries. So they're all over the globe.

And were here studying for the most part, I think we're living up to making Fort Wayne a musical center by bringing folks from all over the world to be here to not only be in a concert, but to compete for three big prizes.

Julia Meek: Good for you. Good for them. And were you surprised at the number and or the pure scope of what the talent you saw was?

Bob Nance: Yeah. We kind of anticipated that we would have maybe 50 or 60. So yes, it was completely surprising to have that many interested. And I think it's largely because not only were we offering a nice prize, I mean, a $3,000 first prize, we were giving them a travel allowance.

And whether you go to this final round or not, you're still being paid to be here and participate in our Night at the Opera concert. So that in of itself makes this extraordinarily unique. Thank all of our donors for helping us do that.

Julia Meek: Indeed. And okay, down to the semi-final competition, the public's invited to this, it's free of charge. What should they expect?

Bob Nance: Well, uh, a long day. (all laugh) Because it would start at 10 in the morning, we are at Plymouth Congregational Church for this. And it's kind of like "The Voice for Opera."

They cycle through; they each get 20 minutes. And so, we've got 16 to get through. That's why it's a long afternoon. You're certainly welcome to be there for as much of that as you want. There's no applause or anything like that, you can just listen in.

Each contestant comes on stage with their pianist, they perform their two selections, and then they exit and they're done. We just cycle through them throughout the whole day.

At the end of the day, around four o'clock, the judges will confer on their point systems and see how things all came out. And then at five o'clock, we announced three winners which will be the finalists for the concert.

Julia Meek: So at the end of the semi-final day, we have down to three and promise of much more on...

Bob Nance: Yeah, on the concert night, the 22nd.

Julia Meek: And what is going to happen then?

Bob Nance: Okay, at the concert, in addition to these choruses we're going to perform, the finalists who were selected from Monday's semifinal round will actually be featured singing one solo each with the orchestra.

That's just prior to intermission, and at intermission, the audience will be allowed to select who they thought was the best. You get one vote, that vote will be integrated with the judges, and that will determine who wins first prize, second prize, third prize.

 So really the semi-final round ends with three finalists but they're all winners at that point, right? They're either going to be first, second or third. That's just the bottom line.

Julia Meek: And everybody is going to be a winner because "A Night at the Opera," what grand assortment of goodies are we going to be hearing that night?

Bob Nance: Well, everything that you would want to hear on a Night at the Opera! (chuckles) We're going to open with The Meister Singer, the main chorus and the ending, because that opera is all about a vocal competition.

Then we're going to do three selections from Carmen. We're going to do selections from Elixir and from Lucia di Lammermoor, these are Donizetti, and then some of Verdi's highlights, like the Chorus of Hebrew Slaves, the Anvil Chorus, and then we end with two selections from Candide.

The first is a duet, We Are Women, which features our principal soprano, Natalie Young and Lisa Gersonkorn, contralto. This is an extraordinary duet. They're great.

And then we're going to end with the final chorus from Candide, Make Our Garden Grow, which we are dedicating to Mayor Henry, we're paying tribute to him.

He was on our honorary board, a really wonderful board member and advocate for the arts in Fort Wayne. And so, we think he deserves a final tip of the hat from us.

Julia Meek: It's a lovely, lovely gesture, for everyone.

Bob Nance: Right, yes. And of course, it's a wonderful piece. And once that's done, we welcome all the finalists to the front of the stage, and we announce the winners.

 And then we all sing from La Traviata, the Libiamo, the drinking song, because we're all going to leave after that show and go right back to the Bradley Hotel and have a cocktail. (all laugh) Yes!

Julia Meek: All sounds like a great plan!

Bob Nance: Yeah, it's a wonderful evening, it's gonna be great.

Julia Meek: And you've given this whole event such attention to detail, Bob, from its very earliest planning stages. Any particularly big challenges along the way?

Bob Nance: I think it’s the logistics of it. You know, we, we have a crack team and a lot of very good people. But we do so many different productions that something like this just requires such a huge logistical output.

Television cameras are going to be there, we've got sound and lights and everything that has to be done as part of the production. And then coordinating the transportation and getting everybody here and contracting all the players, you know, and that's a lot.

But it's worth it. It's worth it to give these young emerging artists an opportunity to perform with an orchestra which they can use as part of their resume of things that they've done.

Julia Meek: It's all wonderful, and award on your partners, Purdue Fort Wayne School of Music and the Fort Wayne Philharmonic players; what kind of a power team does that make for you and your cause?

Bob Nance: Well, we're very fortunate to have the Purdue School of Music and all of the teachers there, some of our artists teach there as well.

They're just a welcome partner, you know, it's nice to have a facility that they maintain, the Auer Performance Hall, which is a great place to perform. So that's already a very valuable relationship, right?

Also, I personally have a very strong tie as a member of the Union and as a union musician, and I know all these players, they're like my family.

Julia Meek: It is family.

Bob Nance: Yeah. And they've been very supportive of all of the work that we do. And particularly during COVID, we were doing a lot of work together.

So, they're a welcome partner. They're all there and have been very cooperative and helping pull all the pieces together from an instrumental standpoint,

Julia Meek: it's a beautiful thing.

Bob Nance: It's a beautiful thing, yeah, it sure is.

Julia Meek: And you've seen myriad changes in your industry over the span of your career. What's most striking in this 21st century, would you say?

Bob Nance: You know what, I think the most striking thing I'm gonna say about the vocal industry is they don't believe that what we're doing is possible. That's not only shocking, it saddens me in a way.

This is all started as an advocacy project, this Heartland Sings thing, because I could not believe how hard it was to advocate paying a singer the same as you would pay, say, a cellist or a violinist or pianos to do something.

There was always this, well, why would you pay them that much money? They just couldn't see the instrument, right, there was some like disconnect. Plus, you know, there are no careers for vocal musicians. You have to either gig and hope that you rise to be a part of a major company, there just isn't an opportunity.

And my teacher, the great Robert Paige, said, every community should have a professional chorus and the opera company and go on and on and on and on. And I said, Okay, let's do it. So I did. (chuckles)

And since that time, I've been in the community and talking to the industry about what we're doing. And they're like, well, I mean, how do you do this? And I'm like, just like we're doing it.

You either say that it's possible to support career vocalists, or you don't and that's the thing that I don't think, outside of the traditional trajectory, which was learn to be a good vocalist and go into an opera company or be an independent artist and you know, just create your own way.

But what if we had a group of courses all around the country that were like Symphony Orchestras? Like, when you graduate with a degree in symphonic music as a player, you know, you got 600 orchestras, you could apply for a job. Where the choruses that are providing career opportunities? There's one. (laughs) It's called Heartland Sings.

That's been the biggest thing, it's having to advocate for career vocalists, and I'm just glad that at least locally, I think people value that because, you know, our growth over the past decade has been tremendous. And I think it's because we're we're finally coming into our own a little bit.

Julia Meek: Okay, so with all of this, you are ending this season on a mighty high note, and looking into the next, what is on your agenda?

Bob Nance: Well, on my agenda is my final season as the Artistic Director of Heartland Sings. So at the end of the 28th season, I step up to the role of Founder Emeritus of Heartland Sings and I open the door for the new leadership, which we've been working on this now for about five years.

Natalie Young will be the artistic director, starting with our 29th season and Eric Miller will be the new president. And I'll be the team player behind them are with them, helping them keep the company growing. I'm looking forward to that.

So next season will be a banner season, not because it's my last, but because it's the first for the next generation. And one of the things that I've asked us to do is to do shows that have a super impact, not just an artistic impact, but one that's much more integrated into the community.

So, we're opening the season with Carl Jenkins' Peacemakers. And we are working with several local organizations to engage the community on ways to engage one another, so that violence is not the first step to solving a disagreement.

People do not know how to listen and de-escalate. These are skills. And if you think about Martin Luther King's basic tenets...

Julia Meek: Yes, Kingian philosophy.

Bob Nance: That's right, the whole philosophy, we just have to train people to do it. So, we're going to be engaging folks for several months leading up to the performance.

And then the performance; peacemakers, throughout the world and over centuries have been talking about making peace, and where does it start?

It starts here, right? It starts with each individual. So, we're doing that, we'll do yet another Spirit of Christmas from the Allen County Courthouse. That's been very impactful of recent because it's televised. And other things along the way.

But we'll end the season with a huge choral celebration that celebrates all of the vocal music in our community, not just Heartland.

But Heartland was the first on the scene other than the Children's Choir, that started pushing this idea of vocal music being a valuable performance art, to really look at it holistically and fully as a valued art form.

You know, we're going to celebrate all the groups that have come since then, the Bach Collegium and Unity Performing Arts and yes, even our Children's Choir, they have expanded, we've had co-influences on each other.

They're a wonderful sister organization. We've got lots more to celebrate in this community where vocalists are concerned. So that's what we're going to do!

Julia Meek: You're getting right on it, it sounds like.

Bob Nance: Yeah.

Julia Meek: And you do wear a lot of hats on the Fort Wayne music scene, Bob. (chuckles) What are you looking forward to doing more of?

Bob Nance: Like you say, as I move into this next phase of my career, it's going to be a lot of advocacy, in my view, and probably a lot more piano playing. I think as a conductor, which I love doing and I will continue to do as much conducting as I can.

The thing that brings me the most pleasure, I think is what I've been doing now for a little over a year at the Bradley Hotel, which is playing the piano and people requesting songs, which with an iPad and a connection to internet you can find just about anything and can probably make your way, if you're like reading.

Julia Meek: It's fun for you, then.

Bob Nance: It's totally fun for me and it's kind of like come full circle because when I was a gigging kid, trying to pay for school, I started out in Baltimore when I was at Peabody playing the piano in the lobby there.

That's how I got the opportunity to meet Luciano Pavarotti. And that was probably the weekend that changed my life, I'll never ever forget that. things like that. But it's come full circle, so now here I'm in this beautiful hotel that Barbara Bakker built.

And I meet so many interesting people famous, not famous. It's such a neat experience.

Julia Meek: Good for everybody once again. And what do you like to do when you're not making music?

Bob Nance: Well, two things; very selfishly, I like to eat. so cooking is fun for me. (chuckles) And I also love a good glass of wine, mostly a Cabernet.

And so I get free time to myself every day. And it usually involves a glass of wine, a cat and something nice to eat. That's what I like to do.

If I get a chance to read, I'll do some of that too, also with that glass of wine and the cat on the lap. (all laugh)

Julia Meek: That's perfect, (chuckles) and Bob, if you could add one whole brand new artcentricity to your life right now, sky's the limit, imagination in gear now, what would it be?

Bob Nance: Another artistic activity? I think I'd like to paint, actually. My mother was a painter, and she loved colors, and a jewelry maker. She just loved to do the fine arts. And I think painting, I could do that.

Julia Meek: And it would take your expression that comes out pretty naturally and pretty stylistically anyway. Yeah, just as well as music, wouldn't you say?

Bob Nance: Mmhhmmm, that or photography, because I really love photography. And the idea of capturing a picture and maybe having music go along with that, I can totally do that.

Julia Meek: All right, and last question, Bob. We get your musical endeavors and output, everything you do for the community, and it's substantial. Thank you for it. Bottom line, though. What does it do for you, Maestro Robert Nance?

Bob Nance: Well, for me, it's a gratitude issue. I got to Fort Wayne and I was given so many wonderful opportunities and I've acted on those. But the community provided that so my whole motivation is to give back.

It works both ways, right? I think artists may forget this, and I can only speak for myself. But if I had any influence on my colleagues, I would remind them that the way it works is that if somebody entrusts you with the resources to do something, now, it's your responsibility.

There is no take in this business. There's always give. If someone gives to you, you give back. And if you give, (chuckles) you give a little, in fact, it's amazing what comes back to you, right?

We say that all the time and I think people hear that as a platitude, but it's not. It's the truth. It's been my experience in 35 years, that Fort Wayne has given me this opportunity.

They've not always said yes, at first, but they have always been welcoming and supportive to the extent that I can say, I gave them back and more. I think that's my responsibility and I think I've done that. But my passion really has been giving back to the community because it's the right thing to do.

And so, I'm just grateful. I think all of our artists in Fort Wayne should have a little bit of gratitude for the fact that Fort Wayne has been so supportive, all the way around.

Julia Meek: Maestro Robert Nance is president and Founding Artistic Director of Heartland Sings. Thank you for making and sharing your story with us, Bob. Have a great event and do carry the gift.

Bob Nance: Thank you.

A Fort Wayne native, Julia is a radio host, graphic artist, and community volunteer, who has contributed to NIPR both on- and off-air for forty years. Besides being WBOI's arts & culture reporter, she currently co-produces and hosts Folktales and Meet the Music.