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One day, Andrew Robb is a 13-year-old with a normal voice. The next, he hits puberty and his voice deepens into something else-a perfect, lyric tenor. His singing spills out of his bedroom door and the shower. His parents, Gary and Anita, stop in the hallway, dumbfounded. "Did you hear that?" Anita asks her husband. They are both attorneys in Kansas City, Mo., attorneys who can't carry a tune. Where did he get that set of pipes?
In a middle school concert, the director takes him out of the choral lineup to sing a solo from The Marriage of Figaro. His mother watches audience members gasp at the mature voice coming from the slight sixth-grader. The teenager starts training with Bill Hall, a baritone who sang professionally for years and founded the American Opera Studio in Kansas City. In high school, Robb goes on a European tour, starring in the title role of Albert Herring, a comedic chamber opera in three acts, in front of enthusiastic audiences in Vienna, Prague, and Budapest. The applause is intoxicating; nobody gets standing ovations for getting an A on a history exam.
Robb makes up his mind. He wants to be an opera singer. Hall, his voice coach, doesn't dissuade him. He is impressed at the talented young singer, who takes direction well and picks up languages easily. Even so, Hall doesn't sugarcoat the hardships of a singer's life. "You should only be a singer if there is nothing else in the world that will make you happy," he tells Robb and his other students as well. "It's not a formulaic type of career path, where you earn salary and benefits and have upward mobility. It's a difficult job."
Sure. Whatever. Robb thinks to himself. He has tremendous confidence he can buck the long-shot odds and sing at the Metropolitan Opera House or La Scala Opera House. But as focused as he is on music, he is no stereotypical glee-club outcast, sidelined to the fringes of high school social life. He's a captain of the golf team. He's on the high school debate team. He plays piano. He's a good student and a Civil War buff. Although he could do well following any number of career paths, his parents aren't surprised when they learn he wishes to pursue an operatic career. All his mother cares about, like many mothers, is that her son follows his passion and remains focused.
Music, Robb convinces his parents, is his passion. He applies to some of the elite music conservatories in the country, including Carnegie Mellon, where he chooses to enroll because it's the one music program that doesn't discourage him from his goal of a double major in voice and political science. He isn't ready to completely let go of his love of history and politics.
At Carnegie Mellon, his collegiate advisor recommends that he frontload the music requirements the first two years and then concentrate on the political science major the last two years. In his 2007-08 freshman year, he squeezes in a few nonmusical electives, but he throws himself into the music program. "There is an absolutely beautiful voice there. He has a natural style and extreme sensitivity," says Douglas Ahlstedt, professor of voice. He thinks his student, the aspiring opera singer, is also gifted at interpreting and performing the classic contemporary songs of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett.
Despite the intense schedule, Robb can't resist his political science interests; he joins the Carnegie Mellon Mock Trial student-run club, which is a member of the American Mock Trial Association. Through the association, the club competes in national tournaments; teams of eight students from schools across the country oppose one another in a courtroom setting during intense two-day competitions that simulate real criminal and civil trials. A team might be the prosecution in the morning, the defense in the next round that afternoon. With a performer's natural presence, Robb has a flair for making opening arguments and cross-examining witnesses.
He has no problems balancing his activities and academics, and by the end of his freshman year everything is going according to plan. Before summer break, he even has a chance to meet with alumni who have come to campus to talk about their careers in opera. He expects to see people flying in from New York City, Milan, Paris, London... Turns out most of the world-class performers talk about their bookings in venues located in the heartland of America. The professionals also explain to the students that they must be aggressive in sending out their résumés and marketing themselves, something Robb had never considered. The reality of the operatic job market hits him like an off-key note.
It's a difficult job.
Crucial message received, says Ahlstedt. He explains that the faculty make it a point to give students a realistic picture of the difficult job market for singers, whether they're operatic, contemporary, stage, or new age. For every Liam Bonner (A'03) and Jeffrey Behrens (A'03)-who recently made their debuts at the Met-there are others who perform in Iowa, Ohio, Minnesota, Nebraska. Some even embark on other careers. Of the 37 students who have studied for a four-year period with Ahlstedt, 19 are singing professionally, which he points out is an unusually high track record.(Continued …)