Where are you originally from?
Greensboro, NC

Who has inspired you/been your greatest influence professionally? Why?
This would be a difficult question to answer. I have always been inspired by the many teachers I had as a student. I suppose as soon as I became an “artist”, I received most of my inspiration from colleagues: singers, conductors, stage directors, etc. There have been too many influences to list!

Who/what brought you into the world of Opera?
As a student, I began to listen to opera recordings. I heard two very famous singers perform recitals in person: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Leontyne Price. Those events changed my world.
I had NO idea how the human voice
could sing like that and they could enthrall an audience. The two programs
were amazing.

Where do you live now?
I live in Greensboro, NC where I am a Professor of Voice at the University of NC at Greensboro.Read More >

Artist spotlight: Rachel Mills

Name: Rachel Mills
Voice Part/Title/Instrument: Soprano
Most Recent Role with Opera Grand Rapids: Papagena, The Magic Flute
Production Year: 2018

Where are you originally from?
I moved around a lot as a kid, but mostly grew up in GR!

Who has inspired you/been your greatest influence professionally? Why?
My mother – she had an amazing voice I never grew tired of listening to and always gave constructive criticism with buckets of encouragement. She passed way this year, but she keeps encouraging me in my memories, dreams, old messages, and even a note she left before she died for opening night of Marriage of Figaro.

Who/what brought you into the world of Opera?
I wanted to go into musical theatre and thought opera was boring when I was a teenager. My dad planted the seeds be essentially conducting an independent study for me after school! He made me listen to opera recordings and follow along in the libretto, explaining what made each singer great and some historical context of each opera. I still went to ASU for musical theatre, but my teacher encouraged me to study opera as well, and when I hear the opera student warming up in the practice room hallway, I was hooked!

Where do you live now?
Home is GR, but my husband works in Abu Dhabi so we live out there half the year!

What are your hobbies when not performing?
I teach voice lessons and run a non-profit with my family that gives full scholarships to at-risk, inner city youth for summer music camp. Those things along with being a mom to a highly active toddler take up all my time! But, I also love baking, reading, traveling, and drinking lots of tea!

What is your favorite Role/Opera/Piece?
Honestly, I don’t think I will ever love a role more than Papagena! I think she is my spirit animal! But my favorite opera…that’s tough! And it changes all the time. I think I’ve never been so moved by an opera than I was by a production of Pelleas et Melisande at Welsh National Opera in 2015.

What is your favorite things about being a professional musician?

Traveling and meeting so many people with fascinating stories. I actually met my husband traveling to Oman with a production of La Boheme. He was a lighting technician at the opera house and loitered outside my dressing room waiting for a chance to sweep me off my feet!

Least favorite: It’s not always possible for my son and/or husband to travel with me, and the separation is really difficult.

What is something you enjoyed about being in Grand Rapids?
It’s home! I have loads of family to take care of my son and always see friends and family in the audience. Grand Rapids has such a small-town community feel, but with all the curiosity and culture of a big city. It’s a wonderful, exciting cozy, friendly place to be!

Where is your favorite place to travel/perform? Why?
To perform, most definitely Grand Rapids. Since its home and I have such overwhelming support there. It’s also nice to come home to my own bed after a long rehearsal and to know that I have a crowd of people willing to babysit in exchange for hugs and baby smiles.

To travel, my favorite so far is Sri Lanka. It’s a simple, gorgeous paradise full of kind and generous people and excellent tea.

What performances/plans do you have in the next year?
I am performing a small recital tour with a pianist I met in Abu Dhabi. We perform in Dubai, Budapest, Sopron, Fairfield, CT, and here in grand Rapids through December & January. Inspired by the enormous expat community in the UAE, we have 6 languages on the program, including works by Kodaly, Rachmaninoff, Debussy, and barber, plus a few arias. December 29th at Trinity Lutheran Church in GR!

Rachel as Papagena in Opera Grand Rapids' 2018 production of The Magic Flute

Rigoletto’s Stephen Gaertner on embodying a character, maturing into a role & more

Stephen as Macbeth, Savonlinna Opera Festival
Photo: Timo Seppäläinen, Itä-Savo


Since his Metropolitan Opera debut as Enrico in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor in October 2007, American baritone Stephen Gaertner has emerged as an artist to watch in the operatic world. His other roles at the Met have included Melot in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, Paolo in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, Montano in Verdi’s Otello and Chorèbe in Berlioz’s Les Troyens. He made his European debut in December 2010 with Opéra Royal de Wallonie in Liège, Belgium as Escamillo in Bizet’s Carmen. Recent career highlights have included an appearance with the 2013 Savonlinna Opera Festival in Savonlinna, Finland in the title role of Verdi’s Macbeth, a role he reprised for the 2015 Opernfestspiele Heidenheim in Heidenheim, Germany. He made his Italian debut in July 2016 with Teatro di San Carlo, Naples as Amonasro in Verdi’s Aida, and appeared in October 2016 with Teatro de la Ópera, San Juan, Puerto Rico as Iago in Verdi’s Otello.

This fall he sings the title role in Verdi’s Rigoletto with Opera Grand Rapids. We spoke with Stephen to learn more about his remarkable background and talents coming to the Opera Grand Rapids stage.

Stephen Gaertner

How did you come to opera?

I came to opera at a very young age. My mother was an opera fan. She was a fan of classical music, generally, and certainly of great singing. I just kind of had an ear for it. My mother would play records in the house and I enjoyed it very instinctively. I think I was about 10 years old when I was given a record of great old-time singers—an excerpts record, each artist doing one selection from an opera—and I started getting interested that way. And, eventually, I came to understand opera itself. It was so fascinating to me for some reason. I just latched onto it.

I had been studying violin and piano, and it sharpened my ear a lot, matching pitch with the printed music as well. I guess I always had perfect pitch, but that really improved my understanding of pitch as a sound and as an intonation. I was about 19 when I decided to go ahead and pursue singing, and it just made perfect sense.

How do you embody the role of Rigoletto?

First thing, of course, I learn the music, the words, the dramatic situation. Once that is done, I try to find other colors, other aspects of the character, and how I can relate to that. In the case of Rigoletto, he is a man who’s seen a lot of disappointment. He’s been greatly disadvantaged as a man who’s physically handicapped and, during his time, there weren’t many options for him. I don’t know much about his background, but I gather that he probably came from a good family that didn’t have anything to do with him because of his deformity, and that he had no choice but to be a court jester in a very decadent court—all of which caused a lot of bitterness in his soul. I take certain moments and allow myself to really, as they say, go there, and if I can somehow infuse that into the delivery of the lines, that’s how I’ll better be able to portray the character.

What will audiences like about Rigoletto?

The libretto is exceptionally strong. The story always makes an effect, no matter how it’s performed. It just always works. It was just so well put together, and on top of that, the music was absolutely one of Verdi’s best scores. Between the beauty of the melody and the atmosphere that Verdi was able to capture, it comes together so nicely.

Also, the character situation is relatable no matter which character you are looking at. There are several dimensions—from my own stand point—in Rigoletto. A lot of people see him as a despicable character, but they need to remember there is a soft side. If you allow yourself, you’ll find there’s probably a lot more that you can relate to. He is a man that has had incredible disappointment.

Verdi is often praised for his complex characterization in Rigoletto.

Prior to Rigoletto, most of his operas weren’t as three-dimensional. Most of the operas that he wrote were for specific theatres to make a career, essentially. But, by the time he got to Rigoletto, he was able to have more artistic control over his subjects that he set to music. Macbeth is one of the exceptions to that because it was a subject based on the Shakespeare play and he was a big fan of his. Some of his later operas have that Shakespearean complexity that appealed to him.

Given your experience portraying the roles of Rigoletto and Macbeth, do you have an affinity for Verdi?

I feel that his writing for the baritone voice really fits my voice perfectly. It’s become more so as my voice has developed and matured; it became more and more suitable. And, also, with time and maturity, I could relate better to the characters. Thankfully, I haven’t outgrown portraying characters on the young side as well. The music that those characters have to sing does call for a very strong and mature sound. It’s an interesting combination.

I recently performed my first Carlo in La Forza del Destino, and I waited a long time to have the opportunity, and to do it full justice. The character is on the young side, but the vocal writing is very mature. And, the voice part is rather rangy, as in all of Verdi. The parts require a strong top range (which had always been my strong suit), but they also require a strong and rich middle, which that has, for me, only come about recently. So now I can do better justice to these characters because my voice has really grown into the music and what it requires.

Stephen Gaertner (left) Justino Diaz (right)

Last year I performed the role of Iago in Otello in San Juan, Puerto Rico. In this particular case, I found this experience truly memorable primarily for vocal reasons, as I felt I had truly arrived at the point where my voice could do full justice to the music Verdi wrote for this character. Also, one of the performances was attended by one of the great interpreters of the role of Iago in the past several decades, Puerto Rican-born Justino Díaz! It was a tremendous honor for him to have greeted me afterwards and to have been incredibly complimentary to me.

What’s your most memorable experience from a production?

One of the most exciting experiences I had would be the first time I ever sang the title role of Verdi’s Macbeth in 2013 at the Savonlinna Festival in Finland, and I that was a venue I had always dreamt of performing at. The opera festival takes place in a converted courtyard of a fortress located in the middle of a lake. What a perfect ambience for an opera like Macbeth! Two dreams coming true together—it was truly special.

I had always been attracted to performing opera in concert form as well, mostly because most operas performed in that way are less well-known and yet the music is certainly worth hearing. Probably my favorite experience, in that regard, happened almost at the last minute. In November 2015, I received an email out of the blue from Opera Rara in London. This is a company that records and performs lesser-known operas from Italian bel canto and French repertoires—and they were venturing into their first ever projects from the Italian verismo period. They were doing Zazà—an opera I happened to have performed in concert in New York back in 2005and they had lost their lead baritone. I was recommended by the Metropolitan Opera to fill in, and the experience involved recording the opera for a CD release and performing it live at the Barbican Hall in London.

What would you say to someone who has never been to an opera?

I think a lot of people have preconceptions about the experience of going to the opera that might not necessarily be a positive one—and we’re certainly not inundated with that type of singing in our daily lives. But I think when they come to an opera and see so much else that goes into it, I would like to think that they would change their minds.

With Rigoletto, you will see a wonderful story, hear incredible music coming from the orchestra and on stage, hear incredible voices making these unbelievable sounds—and if they are singing in a different language, we now have translated titles in our theatres that will help you understand better what’s going on to enhance the experience greatly. I would say give it a shot because there’s really nothing like it. I would say this is definitely one opera that is a good one to start with if you’ve never been to an opera before. It’s one of those, say, five operas that’s good to start with.

October 13 & 14  |  7:30 PM  |  DeVos Performance Hall


Italian grand opera at its finest.

Tickets and more.

Q&A with The Barber of Seville Conductor Maestro Leonardo Vordoni

“Leonardo Vordoni’s musical direction was faultless, the Italian conductor bringing lively tempos, idiomatic pacing, and attentive detailing… with scrupulous balancing of ensembles and chorus throughout.” – Chicago Classical Review

“The very enjoyable performance redounded to the credit of rising conductor Leonardo Vordoni, who jumped in with zero orchestral rehearsal and gave a cogent, lively account… Vordoni had coached the singers and the level of spoken and sung Italian was unusually precise and expressive, a key factor in this piece.” – Gay City News

“Conductor Leonardo Vordoni… interpreted the score as keenly with his heart as with his intellect.” – Opera News

“…masterful conducting by Leonardo Vordoni (making his Lyric début). Conductor Vordoni, showcased the teamwork in this great Mozart opera, meshing comedy and romance and achieving a sensitive balance between orchestra and singers.” – El Paso Times

“None of this would have been possible without a conductor who has a nuanced sense of comic timing. And that’s exactly what Opera Colorado found in emerging maestro Leonardo Vordoni, who was making his début with the company. He married suitably high-energy pacing with keen responsiveness to the action onstage.” – Opera News

What is your conducting style?

I can’t be very animated because I’m a tall guy and it would be too distracting. I always analyze the score, trying to understand what the composer deeply wanted. My approach is a coaching approach, not just ”we are in 4 and here we are in 3.” I always allow everybody to express themselves: it’s the most important thing to me. The audience sees my back not my face, meaning I’m there to serve the orchestra and the stage.

What work are you most proud of?

I’m very grateful that I’ve had a chance to share my idea and work with amazing musicians. I’ve been lucky to have the opportunity to craft and give interpretation to timeless masterpieces.

I’m proud of all the works I’ve done, otherwise I wouldn’t have done it. The most important thing is to touch some chord in the audience, and when you sense that through a performance, you achieve the goal.

When we work, we always give our best. Every night is opening night. If the audience is happy, then I’m happy: after all, we are in the entertainment business. Opera is a live performance, everything can happen and every time is different, so I can say that every show that I have done has a special meaning to me for different reasons.

Why do you do what you do?

In Italy, when I was a kid I found myself whistling some motif from some opera without knowing, just because it’s part of our culture. When I started working, I got warned “be careful, opera is like a drug—when you start you want more.

I love to coach singers. When I was in Italy as a pianist, I found myself backstage waving my arms and wondering about interpretation, and I was always attracted to the theatrical experience, not only the music: all the aspects. I always read every piece as a chamber music piece. It’s always a partnership in music making, teamwork, and that’s why I’ve always been involved in chamber music groups, and the operatic experience is the best chamber group you can put together with orchestra and singers.


Q&A with The Barber of Seville Director Bernard Uzan

Uzan’s 400 productions have graced the stages of one hundred opera companies in North America, France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and South America. He has also co-designed more than fifty productions.


Bernard Uzan, a native of France, is a graduate of the University of Paris where he earned doctorates in literature, theatrical studies, and philosophy. He began his career appearing throughout many prominent theaters throughout Europe as an actor and director. Along with his work as an actor and director, he was Professor of Literature, Acting, and Directing at Wellesley and Middlebury Colleges. From 1988 to 2002, Uzan served as General and Artistic Director for L’Opera de Montreal and in 2011 he started Uzan International Artists with his daughter, Vanessa Uzan.

We spoke with Barber of Seville Director Bernard Uzan to learn more about his remarkable background and talents coming to the Opera Grand Rapids stage.

Tell me about your extensive career as an Actor, Stage Director, Librettist, Educator, and many more accomplishments I’m not naming.

I started to be an actor and a director a long time ago. I had my debut as an actor in 1964. I was 20 years old. I was in Paris, and I did a lot of theatre plays at that time, and lots of voiceovers of actors of American films. I did “The Graduate,” “Serpico,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” and many others. Then, in 1971 in Paris, I was asked to go to Middlebury College to teach theatre because I was a Professor of Literature teaching students aged 25 to 40 who were pursuing their Masters and PhDs. There, we did a play, and the French counsel came to see the play and he asked me why I didn’t have a theatre company there, and why I don’t try it. In the fall of 1971, I started a French theatre company in Boston. We ended up touring all over the country for 10 years doing 90 to 100 performances a year in French.

In 1981, Sarah Caldwell was producing “Faust” with Neil Shicoff, Samuel Ramey, and Diana Soviero with the original dialogue. She knew me as a theatre director and asked if I wanted to direct the dialogue, but I had never been to an opera in my life. I went, and three days later she was not feeling good, and so she asked me to direct the entire opera. A lot of people came to see it, so I had a lot of contracts the following year because of it. I stopped the theatre because I had no time anymore, and I just did opera. Even five years later, in ‘86 or ’87, I was asked to become general director of Tulsa Opera, and a year later I was asked to become general director of Opéra de Montréal. I stayed in Montréal for 14 years.

Congratulations on your recent award for Lifetime Achievement from the Giulio Gari Foundation. How does it feel to win this award?

That’s a funny story I’m going to tell you. The same week I received this announcement for the lifetime achievement award, I knew the television series “Mozart in the Jungle” was looking for actors. I decided to audition, and I hadn’t been an actor for a long time. They gave me the part. I am in it, and I am part of the Emmy nomination for best “scene stealer.” I am achieved, and in the same week I go to an audition 44 years after my life as an actor. So, it was an extraordinary week. It was a great lesson of humility to go to the audition again. And the lifetime achievement is always a great honor.

Mozart in the Jungle. Bernard Uzan with Malcom McDowell
Mozart in the Jungle. Bernard Uzan with Malcom McDowell

Tell me about the company that you established when you first immigrated to the States.

When I was in Boston, I created this company French Theater in Boston. Then, it developed very fast into French Theater in America. Two of my friends came from France to be part of the company. I had three to four living in Boston of French origin, or they were French teachers, so the French was absolutely impeccable and we were touring Molière, for example, all the time. We had a little van and a truck with sets going from city to city.

Once we did a play on a Saturday afternoon on Long Island, and we drove practically nine hours overnight to do a matinee on Sunday in Ann Arbor, Michigan. But, remember, I was 28 at the time, so that was possible. I was a director, I was driving the car, I was the administrator, I was picking up the programs at the end of the play so we didn’t spend too much money.

You’ve been involved with over 400 productions throughout your extensive career. What’s your favorite opera?

I don’t have a favorite. I think every time you direct an opera, even if you have done it very often, you have to find a way to be new in your approach and to be young again in the experience. So, I don’t have a favorite.

“(The) Rake’s Progress” I’ve never done and I hope I can do that before I’m in my grave. I wish I could direct “Lulu.” Sometimes, with my experience in classical repertoire, people don’t think of me for modern repertoire. I am a favorite for the big works, but they don’t necessarily think of me to direct “Lulu” or “(The) Rake’s Progress.” And I still have a French accent—thank god—and they think of me more for French repertoire, which is ridiculous. I come to mind especially with French or Italian opera. It’s too late; I’m not a kid anymore, maybe that is ingrained in their brains and not easy to change.