Willamette welcomes new opera chair

by Marketing & Communications,

New chair is expert at building new art institutions, presenting concert music with contemporary twist.

Contemporary music vocalist and mezzo-soprano Katherine Skovira has performed with internationally renowned conductors, generated headlines for her musical innovation and executes her work with such artistic force, one critic claimed her enthusiasm was “diabolical.”

Katherine Skovira

Skovira is Willamette University’s Johanna Beckham Zeller and Norman K. Zeller Endowed Chair in Voice and Opera Studies, an endowed position that was funded by generous gifts from Norman ’57 and Marie ’55 Zeller.

The position is an extraordinary step for Willamette. The music department has not had a tenure-track faculty member dedicated to opera instruction and performance for several decades.

The role involves Skovira teaching, performing and collaborating with departments across campus as she forges a new direction for operatic and vocal studies in the music department. 

Inspired by music and art

Inventing new art institutions while presenting concert music with a contemporary twist is one of Skovira’s specialties.  

Most recently, she and conductor/composer Robert Whalen created a performance series marrying music and art through The Barnes Foundation, one of Philadelphia’s strongest artistic and educational forces that was established in 1922 by Albert C. Barnes. 

Inspired by Barnes’ unconventional approach to arranging art collections — which he referred to as his “wall ensembles” — Skovira and Whalen formed the Barnes Ensemble at the Barnes Foundation, a chamber orchestra that strives to connect audiences with masterworks of the 21st Century. The duo united the work of composers, musicians, artists and poets in performances that asked audiences to “visualize sound and listen to the paintings come to life.” 

Following the Barnes Ensemble, Skovira and Whalen created a contemporary music ensemble, SoundLAB. The ensemble grew out of a collaboration with Philadelphia’s visual arts community and celebrated the impact and legacies of Barnes and Maestro Leopold Stokowski, a longtime conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra who is also known for his appearance in Disney’s “Fantasia” in 1940. 

Mixing the new and old 

Skovira’s ability to combine genres in a compelling way reflects her background and goals for the Zeller Chair. 

She’s performed operatic roles in the standard repertory, such as Donna Elvira and Angelina, as well as contemporary roles like Jordan in John Harbison’s “The Great Gatsby.” She specializes in contemporary solo and chamber works, like the compositions of Bernard Rands and Augusta Read Thomas, and the experimental theatre works of Georges Aperghis. 

At Willamette, Skovira’s opera production and programming will draw from standard and contemporary repertoire. On Jan. 30–Feb. 2, 2020, the Dramatic Vocal Arts program will present a double bill of two operas by Mozart and Antonio Salieri that were commissioned by Emperor Joseph II. Each composer had to contribute a one-act opera and perform it in a “face off” staged in opposite corners of the emperor’s Viennese palace. 

Skovira will also offer a master class to students this year — an opportunity for vocalists to receive individual feedback and coaching as they prepare for auditions and work after Willamette. 

She says she looks forward to working closely with students in productions and classes. Her first months will be spent getting acquainted with the student body and understanding their personalities and voices within the larger department. 

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