Diva in Spring
article by Michael DeVault | photo by Joli Livaudais
Claire Vangelisti is a long way from home, but you wouldn’t know it to visit her studio on the second floor of Biedenharn Hall at the University of Louisiana-Monroe, where Vangelisti – “Dr. V” to her students – teaches voice studio and directs the Vocal Performance program.
For Vangelisti, who is now entering that portion of an academic’s journey known as “mid-career,” a life in music was always in the cards. Her path began in Kirkland, Washington, where her father was a junior high and high school choir director. He also worked as a church musician, which provided a regimented, weekly exposure to music.
“I grew up going to church,” Vangelisti told BayouLife. “We were Italian, so of course we were Catholic.”
Being a part of a Catholic church meant high masses and some of the greatest works of classical music. When coupled with her father’s passionate love of opera, Vangelisti and her siblings spent their childhood surrounded by names like Bach and Strauss.
Her father had a strong dislike of pop, rock, and pretty much anything that wasn’t classical or Broadway, according to Vangelisti, who says the clan relegated their favorite contemporary performers to the times their father was at work. Yet, it wasn’t a bad way to grow up, either. So much of Vangelisti’s musical tastes began to develop during her youth, specifically due to her father’s musical predilections.
“My dad had a really great record collection of opera and mostly symphonic and choral music,” says Vangelisti. “So that really was my first impressions. That and hearing his choir at church every week and on special occasions.”
She remembers hearing Handel’s Messiah and Schubert’s Mass in G—both of which continue to rank among her favorite pieces. Opera, too, made its first appearance in her life then. “We listened a lot to Carmen, by Bizet,” Vangelisti says.
At the same time her musical tastes were beginning to form, so too was her creative side. She and her siblings weren’t just born performers. They were leaders, too, traits that came to life anytime they heard Beethoven or Resphigi’s “The Pines of Rome.”
“We’d run around and make up our own little ballet performances to those,” Vangelisti says. Looking at her today, it’s not hard to see Vangelisti in a very different light. At a shade more than 5’8″ tall, with a shock of dark, almost black hair, it’s hard not to picture her as a prima ballerina. Yet, dance was not where her artistic abilities manifested. Nor, though, did classical music find Vangelisti first. Instead, like so many other artists before her, Vangelisti’s career took a couple of detours along the way. The first detour on her journey started not too far from home.
While the Pacific Northwest is renowned for towering forests and pastoral mountain views, it’s also home to a thriving jazz community. For the impressionable Vangelisti, this community became a musical oasis. During high school, she took part in the vocal jazz ensemble.
“That exposure (in high school) led me to Central Washington University, which has an excellent jazz program,” Vangelisti says.
At Central Washington, Vangelisti worked with one of her earliest mentors, John Moawad, a drummer of renown who had played for Buddy Rich’s band. By the time Vangelisti arrived at Central Washington, Moawad was a faculty fixture in the region. Vangelisti credits Moawad with instilling much of her appreciation of the genre. “He was a purist,” Vangelisti says. “Once I was really exposed to jazz, I fell in love with vocal jazz music, before I truly fell in love with vocal classical music.”
She and her Central Washington classmates spent vast amounts of time listening to jazz greats. Sarah Vine, Ella Fitzgerald, and June Christy joined names like Dinah Washington and Diane Reeves on their playlists. The devotion to jazz was total, and for Vangelisti, that was in no small part due to Moawad.
“As our mentor, he said our best way to learn the style is to list a lot, and to imitate the style until we absorbed it. And then, it would become ours,” Vangelisti says. Though Moawad died in 2009, his legacy lives on far and wide—even in Monroe, where those “impressionist” tendencies have found a new avenue for growth.
Just ask ULM voice teacher and accompanist Julian Jones, one of Vangelisti’s colleagues in the voice department. Jones credits Vangelisti with his decision to study vocal pedagogy—the subset of vocal studies that focuses on anatomy, physiology, and muscle control to shape and perfect sound. Jones studied under Vangelisti during his own masters degree studies at the university.
“After the first class, I was wowed,” Jones says. “It was more about the body, the physiology, the muscles that are involved in our throat. The kinds of things I’d never been talked to about before.”
Jones says he models much of his own voice studio on what Vangelisti does in her voice classes. “The things she finds really important, I try to adopt those as well.”
Jones says Vangelisti is, like Moawad, a faculty mentor for him. “That’s where I draw the most strength from her. She’s one of the most amazing vocal pedagogs I’ve ever met.”
It’s a well-deserved compliment for a woman with an international reputation. Jones notes Vangelisti is known throughout the Music Education community in the United States, especially through the National Association of Teachers of Singing, or NATS.
“She’s revered among the members of NATS, with colleagues across the country where she can just pick up a phone,” Jones says. “Everywhere we go, somebody is going to know her. It’s really amazing for us to have that at ULM.”
And what about that jazz singing? Today, Vangelisti is a professional, touring soprano that often is compared favorably to big-name stars like Renee Flemming. Does she still sing jazz? Of course, Jones says. And the jazz she sings is just as skilled as the coloratura soprano she tosses out with a seeming effortlessness of only the most seasoned singers.
“It’s a nice, warm sound,” Jones says, of Vangelisti’s jazz performances. Her jazz voice has a throaty, soulful sound and the almost mournful tones of lounge singers of days gone by. It’s not hard, when she’s singing jazz, to picture Vangelisti in a slinky red dress, hugged next to a microphone in a smoke-filled jazz club in the 1940s. Yet, here she is in the concert hall limelight.
For her part, Vangelisti wilts from the praise, dismissing any mention of talent or gifted. Which is fine, because there are plenty of people in the world of music who are willing to sing her praises. One of those people is Joseph Evans, a professor of music at the University of Houston. Vangelisti studied with Evans when he was at the University of Texas, where Vangelisti received her doctorate.
From day one, Evans says Vangelisti’s focus was razor sharp and “all business.”
“She’s super smart,” Evans says. But at a young age, she showed the signs of someone who is shy in their art, somewhat uncomfortable with the praise for their talent. Evans says a lot has changed, since he’s known her.
“Over the years, she’s become more extroverted in her singing and in her acting, which is what one should do. But not everybody does that,” Evans says. He notes she’s become a more natural performer with a skill to make singing look easy. “A lot more practice goes into that than people think.”
What sets Vangelisti apart from so many other singers and from teachers of voice is her dedication to pedagogy, to learning the vocabulary to instruct students of varying ages, experience levels, and vocal types. Evans puts it more bluntly. “Any great singer can be effective as a teacher, so long as the student’s voice is just like the teacher—because the student imitates you,” Evans says. “Claire is good with any type of voice because she knows what she’s listening to, what she’s hearing, and how to articulate that to the singer.”
This skill takes a particular vocabulary and a unique set of talents that, when combined, makes for an effective teacher. Yet, none of the talent, the gifted teacher compliments, the national tours, or face-to-face praise seems to phase Vangelisti.
“She’s very modest, very humble,” Evans says. “She’s extraordinarily talented and gifted, but she works very hard.” Vangelisti agrees about the hard work part. At any given time, she’s teaching up to 20 students in her voice studio at ULM, where she also assists with opera scenes, consults with faculty about various ensemble and musical performances, and takes part in a regular rotation of faculty concerts and ensembles. She also maintains a private voice studio in her home, where she teaches private voice lessons to singers from the community.
If that’s not enough, Vangelisti continues to sing professionally, and she regularly tours during the summers to sing opera around the world. Oh…and there’s Portugal, where she regularly appears as a teacher and performer. The list goes on, yet in the most professional of manner, Vangelisti never breaks a sweat. She never lets on that life is hectic or, in any given moment she’s sleep deprived. Instead, she applies to her life the same philosophy that makes her stage presence a force.
“Never let the audience know what’s really happening up there, that you’ve made a mistake, or dropped a word or a line, because often, they don’t know,” Vangelisti says. “They’re looking at the overall performance, the beauty of the sound.”
Through the practice, the double-scheduling, the long hours, and the pressures of life, Vangelisti maintains a professionalism, a calm and quiet demeanor, and always, a smile. She isn’t sure she can say the same for the residents of her block, though. “If you were one of my neighbors, you’d probably hear some loud, operatic singing at ten o’clock at night,” Vangelisti says. “But no one’s complained. Yet.”
It’s all worth it for Vangelisti, who is just beginning to explore the summer portion of a career in which performers routinely continue practice well into their 70s. She doesn’t show any signs of slowing down, either. Like so many classical performers, music is her life.
“I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do,” Vangelisti says.