April 2, 2020

CIM Faculty Get Creative to Tackle Challenges of Remote Learning

Richard Ollarsaba, photo courtesy of RichardOllarsaba.com.

Dean Southern knew he and his voice students at the Cleveland Institute of Music had to make some major adjustments to teaching and learning with the advent of COVID-19. So he and his students came together to think well outside the box.

“Of course, online teaching is not exactly the same as in-person teaching,” said Southern, head of CIM’s voice and opera division. “We simply cannot get the full spectrum of sound that we get in the studio. Regardless, we have no choice, so we make the best of the situation. It has been wonderful to see my students online, and the lessons have been happily productive, even if we have to change our approach somewhat.”

Beyond the teaching itself, Southern has been concerned with maintaining a sense of community among his CIM voice students. When students left for spring break – which occurred prior to Ohio’s stay-at-home order – no one imagined the current situation would be the new reality. To address this, Southern and the CIM voice faculty have put together various online events. 

First up – CIM Voice Alumni Chat with bass-baritone Richard Ollarsaba (BM ’09, Schiller). 

Praised by The Washington Post for his “meltingly smooth bass-baritone,” Ollarsaba shared his experiences with more than 25 voice students and faculty during a live video chat and Q&A on March 31. With performance venues closed around the world due to the spread of COVID-19, Ollarsaba has had to put his flourishing opera career on hold. The bright side to his time away from the stage, he said, has been the opportunity to speak to his alma mater’s up-and-coming singers.

Talking about his time at CIM, Ollarsaba said he felt each student was where they’re supposed to be for their education.

“CIM’s requirements for voice students are exactly what each of you need,” said Ollarsaba, who added that the most important thing he took away from his time at CIM was preparedness. “For example, being required to take a foreign language made me proficient in singing in those languages, and I was able to test out of other classes in grad school (at the University of North Carolina School for the Arts). I was so comfortable at CIM because I knew the school and faculty had my best interests at heart. By the time I left in 2009, I was well-prepared to move on to grad school and my career.”

Ollarsaba’s performance resume reads like a playbill of well-known operas like Don Giovanni, Carmen, La Traviata, Madame Butterfly – and many more – from his time at the Ryan Opera Center at Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Minnesota Opera and Opera Hong Kong.

He represented the United States in 2019 at the prestigious BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition and was a grand finalist in the 2013 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. During the audition, he had CIM voice faculty Mary Schiller, his teacher, and Clifford Billions in the audience cheering him on.

“He was wonderful,” said Schiller, who was one of four CIM faculty on the videoconference.

Ollarsaba recently made his debut at the Virginia Opera and Opera Omaha and was set to debut with the Dallas and New Zealand Operas when COVID-19 hit. Those debuts have not been rescheduled but he is hopeful that he will be able to perform with both companies soon.         

“It was tough. I was prepping for my Dallas debut and was about to start getting ready for New Zealand, and then everything was canceled,” he said.

He had one last piece of advice for the students on the call – don’t let anything, including the current health crisis – get them down or keep them preparing for their chosen careers. With his career on hold, he says, it’s easy to get discouraged. But he’s not.

“Keep doing what you’re doing with your teachers,” he said. “Through technology, we’re able to communicate with each other a lot more than we used to. The stouthearted nature of who we are as artists will help us be stronger than ever.”

For more on Richard Ollarsaba, visit his website at richardollarsaba.com