Monday, February 26, 2024

INTERESTING FOLKS: Mentor to Many, Internationally Famous Blairstown Resident, Alison Bolshoi Gets Lead Role in “Carmen” at Boheme Opera NJ

The Bolshoi Studio will hold their next studio performance September 9 at the First United Methodist Church on Stillwater Rd. in Blairstown at 5:00 p.m.

Alison Bolshoi, Photo courtesy of Alison Bolshoi

Blairstown resident and international opera singer Alison Bolshoi will debut the role of Carmen in Boheme Opera NJ’s production at The College of New Jersey’s Kendall Main Stage Theater, March 15 and 17. “Carmen,” a timeless and powerful opera by composer Georges Bizet, is known for its thrilling score and passionate love story.

“To get the sexiest role in opera at my age, is pretty great,” Bolshoi said.

Bolshoi, who is 58, has been a professional opera singer and teacher for years, garnering accolades for performances throughout Europe and the United States. This will be Bolshoi’s third time performing with the Boheme Opera, having her debut as Amneris in Verdi’s “Aida” with them in 2019, and then performing as the Witch in “Hansel and Gretel” in 2022.

Bolshoi performs as Amneris for the Boheme Opera. Photo courtesy of Alison Bolshoi
Bolshoi performing for the Boheme Opera as the Witch in “Hansel and Gretel.” Photo courtesy of Alison Bolshoi

To prepare for the role of “Carmen”, which is performed in French, she will work with Roger Malouf, previously the assistant conductor for the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

“Usually, you are cast in an opera three to five years in advance, and in some cases six months,” Bolshoi said, noting that learning an entire opera in another language is a big endeavor. “I’m very good singing in other languages and sing comfortably in German, Italian, Greek, Czech and Spanish. I know French but will be working with Roger to get the cadence of the language right.”

Known for her large and complex voice, Bolshoi wasn’t always comfortable with it. While studying theater and film in college, she was surprised when a teacher said she had a ‘voice for opera.’ Immediately she felt relief. “My voice always felt too big for musical theatre,” she said.

After studying opera privately, she began performing professionally as a soprano, “But something just did not feel right,” Bolshoi said. “I’d go to my teachers and tell them I’m not a soprano, and they’d just say ‘Yes, you are.’” After almost twenty years as a soprano, a teacher finally agreed with her, telling Bolshoi she was a contralto singer, one of the rarest types of female voice.

“Contraltos and sopranos both hit high notes, but contraltos only go up to those notes once in a while, allowing them to develop their chest voice and leading to a much richer sound,” explained Bolshoi. Discovering her true voice led her to create a unique style of teaching known as the Bolshoi Studio Method.

Drawing on techniques from 1930s Bayreuth, Germany, (refined by Friedelind Wagner, granddaughter of composer Richard Wagner) and the opera masters Bolshoi has worked with over her career — the method allows students to gain strength and stamina in their singing.

“I’ve been fortunate to work with some of the best composers and teachers in the world, and I want to share that with my students,” she said.

The Bolshoi Studio Method uses a combination of bodywork and visual awareness among other skills. “It’s about feeling your body, and learning with your eyes, not your ears,” she said. “By watching other singers learning to breathe, using their chests and not just their throats, students gain knowledge about their own way of singing.” Through her masterclasses (group lessons), students also learn how to sing in front of other people.

The Blairstown studio seating area where students watch their peers perform. Photo by C. Tamulonis, 8/2023
The Blairstown studio performance area. Photo by C. Tamulonis, 8/20023
A Lawnch Game customized for vocal exercises outside the studio in Blairstown. Photo by C. Tamulonis, 8/20023

Bolshoi teaches at her three studios, located in New York City, Glen Ridge, and Blairstown, NJ with live piano accompaniment. She has four teachers on hand to substitute for her when she is performing. Lessons are not restricted to opera alone and she teaches the Bolshoi Studio Method to all genres of singer, including Oratorio, Jazz, Country, Blues, Broadway, Liturgical, Rock and Pop.

Bolshoi’s teaching skills come naturally to her. “I love to teach,” she said. “At this point in my career, other professional singers would wait until retirement. But I can’t wait. I love it.”

Bolshoi’s students come from a wide range of musical backgrounds. Some are professional singers who have performed at Lincoln Center or on Broadway and others are hobbyists or teenagers preparing for college auditions.

“I seem to be a teenage whisperer,” Bolshoi admitted. “I think it’s because the way I teach has a lot to do with how you are feeling physically and emotionally. Is your back tight? Are you distracted from an argument you had earlier in the day?”

Connecting with young people is deeply personal for Bolshoi. For years she and her husband Samuel Bolshoi opened their home to many children from New Jersey’s foster care system.

“Their stories could be heartbreaking,” she said. “Showing children who do not come from normal homes, what it’s like for even just a little while, means a lot. Children need to see that happy homes do exist, and that they can create a normal life from themselves when they become adults.” The Bolshois, who have an adult son, also adopted their college bound daughter out of the foster care system almost ten years ago.

Her knack for listening to teenagers is evident in her success rate at the studio. This past year four of her students went on to The Eastman School of Music for opera performance, and musical theatre programs at the Berklee Conservatory, Marymount Manhattan College, and Rutgers University, with combined scholarships totaling more than $200,000.

“This July, one of my students was accepted to the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, a very competitive conservatory, for next year. She got in six months early with a $36,000 scholarship,” Bolshoi said. “I have a 100% success rate in getting kids into college performance programs. I don’t know any other teachers who can say that. My studio is small, about 35 singers, and whenever I have a teen, they go on to great universities.”

Using the NV Factory in Englewood, Bolshoi is able to give her students a professional recording for college auditions and goes over everything with them down to the last detail. “Colleges are looking at everything, your performance, how you are standing, how you are dressed, your hair and makeup — how you are presenting yourself,” said Bolshoi. “Students who are submitting an audition recorded on their phone have less of a chance of getting into these colleges. I take it very seriously.”

With a degree in acting, Bolshoi is also able to prepare students who are required to perform a monologue for their application.

Asked if she is taking on new students, Bolshoi said, “Always. Some students move on and wind up in Europe performing.” She will occasionally instruct a student who is out of the country online to help them prepare for a role.

Her teaching method is personal and empowering. “Singing in front of someone is one of the most exposed things you can do,” she said. “When a student hits a wrong note and apologizes to me, I tell them not to, it’s going to shut their body down. Don’t give your power away like that, just tell me you’d like to do it again. We’ll do it fifty times if we need to.”

Bolshoi counsels her students that they shouldn’t put the work in to please her, but to please themselves to gain the confidence to walk out on stage. “When you put yourself out on that stage, right away it’s a subordinate position,” she said. “Having the guts to walk out there, you have to be comfortable in your own body.”

The transformations of some of her students have not just been musical but have leaked into their personal lives as well. Bolshoi recounted one student who was so shy, she barely spoke above whisper most of the time. “I had a student in Glen Ridge who would apologize for breathing if she could,” Bolshoi said.

The student, a hobbyist, did a studio performance after a year of studying with Bolshoi. “Afterwards I asked her fiancé what he thought, and he was floored,” she said. “He told me that she now had confidence off the stage that he had never seen before. She was more outgoing; she was speaking up for herself and had even gotten a raise at her job. This was from singing.”

Bolshoi’s students give a studio performance at the end of every session, a rarity in the voice teaching world. “It’s extremely important to see how your students are progressing, if they are bringing the technique to the stage,” she said. “The goal is to create a dependable singer who can perform in a variety of circumstances — such as if the air in venue is dry, or they’re nervous.”

Bolshoi stressed that performance, in masterclass lessons or on stage, is where students learn the most. “One-on-one classes may be necessary, but it’s not where you are going to learn how to relate to an audience.” Her students are instructed in duets and group performance, so they can relate to their peers on stage as well.

Bolshoi is passionate about exposing young people to opera. Seeing there were no classical or Cabaret music performances in Warren County, Bolshoi collaborated with Rutherfurd Hall in Hackettstown to bring a concert series to the area. This past June she orchestrated a sold-out performance of “The Great American Songbook” featuring her professional students and colleagues. The reception was so good, they added another show in August.

Future performances at Rutherfurd include “A Night at the Opera” on September 30, featuring Bolshoi, Andrea Bickford, Kevin Patrick, Mathew Tartza, Devony Smith and Jeremy Brauner.

Remarkably, Bolshoi said she’s never had a vocal cord injury, despite singing strenuous musical pieces for years, and attributes it to the Bolshoi Studio Method. Due to overuse, many singers suffer from nodes on the vocal cords or tears after decades of singing that need to be corrected with surgery or the difficult decision to give up singing all together.

“This method allows the singer to use their whole body to sing,” she said. “When you depend on your vocal cords alone, the folds will get damaged. I teach my students how to sing from deeper within.”

When asked how she manages three studios, performing, and family life, Bolshoi said, “I have a strong German work ethic. When I was growing up in Westchester, New York, my Uncle Gerhardt had a 225-acre apple farm upstate. I spent a lot of time there learning how to work hard… and keeping it simple.”

“When you teach, you have to do it with kindness. You need to tailor the lesson to the student standing in front of you,” Bolshoi added. “I’m not teaching for my ego, I’m teaching to be a source for my students, for their success.”

The Bolshoi Studio will hold their next studio performance September 9 at the First United Methodist Church on Stillwater Rd. in Blairstown at 5:00 p.m.

To learn more about The Bolshoi Studio visit: https://www.bolshoistudio.com/
To learn more about Alison visit: http://alisonbolshoi.com/
To stay updated on performances at Rutherfurd Hall visit:
https://rutherfurdhall.org/calendar/
For tickets to “Carmen” in March visit: https://www.bohemeopera.org/

Cybele Tamulonis
Cybele Tamulonis, Contributing Writer

Cybele is a writer and editor with more than 16 years in the publishing industry. An avid reader, you can usually find her with the latest new book release from the local library. She currently resides on a farm in Hardwick with her husband and four children. In her spare time, she writes historical fiction specific to New Jersey.