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November 13, 2021

Ten Questions with Bass-baritone Richard Ollarsaba


Richard Ollarsaba
Richard Ollarsaba performing in CIM Opera Theater's Century of Singing program.

Director and Faculty of Digital Media Ali King spoke with bass-baritone and CIM alumnus Richard Ollarsaba (BM ’09, Schiller/Southern) about his recent guest performance with the CIM Opera Theater, his advice for current CIM voice students, and what opera repertoire not enough American audiences are hearing.

When was the last time you were on CIM’s campus?

Twelve years ago! It’s an incredible feeling to be back on the road, and I’m so glad CIM was one of the stops. This area was always a magnet for talented students, but there are so many things that have changed for the better since I was a student – like the improvements in University Circle (I mean now there’s a Panera down the street!) and technological infrastructure for remote performance possibilities.

Tell us about your selections chosen for CIM Opera Theater’s Celebrating a Century of Singing program.

They were from Bizet’s Carmen and Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and roles that have become an important part of my singing career – a nice representation of what I can give back to the institution that was part of my artistic foundation.

Does CIM still play a role in your life after graduating?

CIM has curiously popped up in places I didn’t think it was going to after graduation. When I was doing a young artist residency with the Ryan Opera Center Ensemble, I found that there were a lot of CIM-ers who had also migrated to Chicago. I’ve kept in contact with a couple close friends, including Yun-Ting Lee, who’s in The Cleveland Orchestra, and I never lost touch with my teachers, Dean Southern and Mary Schiller, so this really does feel like a homecoming for me. Just this past weekend, I met composer and fellow CIM alumnus Steven Mark Kohn for the first time, whose work I’ve admired for years. A while back, we made a happy realization after the fact that I had unknowingly performed and recorded for radio the world premiere of his setting of Mark Twain’s The War Prayer, which blew my mind.

How was interacting with current CIM voice students?

I’m so utterly impressed. The skill level and what they’re able to produce is phenomenal for any singer at their age. I came in so much greener than they seem to be – they have such clear goals and know what they want to achieve.

What advice, if any, do you have for them?

I wish someone would have told me that it was OK to just know that I loved singing, to trust the educational growth process, and that I had time to figure out my professional trajectory. I’d also tell recent graduates to consider other avenues beyond those most taken, and to cast a wide net of opportunity beyond your own expectations.

What have you learned by staying open-minded about your own career?

I’m inspired by the music director for the Ryan Opera Center, Craig Terry, who is so skilled at curating recitals by going outside the realm of traditional classical repertoire to include composers like Irving Berlin and Cole Porter. I’m motivated by cross pollination in many art forms – poetry, visual arts, and other musical forms. Some of the most interesting programs I’ve seen, especially during the pandemic with virtual elements, took advantage of genre bending to great effect.

What is one of the most challenging pieces you’ve encountered?

One summer at Tanglewood I had to prepare Igor Stravinsky’s The Weddings, which was for four soloists, choir, four pianos and percussion. I had to keep my ears and eyes constantly open to manage the piece’s complexity.

What repertoire do you love that you wish more audiences could hear?

I wish there was a bigger platform for operas from the French grand opera tradition in the U.S. They’re massive to produce and have some of the most lush and gorgeous music. One I love in particular is by Giacomo Meyerbeer, The North Star, and covers a fictitious telling of Peter the Great before he became the great tsar we know about from history books.

What are highlights from your upcoming season?

My next engagement is performing in recital with Lyric Fest in Philadelphia, and singing on a gala in San Juan, Puerto Rico with Olga Iglesias Project, which offers Puerto Rican-based singers opportunities off the island. I also have role debuts coming up with the Virginia Opera and Jacksonville Symphony.

What lesson from your time as a CIM student still resonates with you today?

Someone told me when I was a student at CIM to be mindful of who you pass on the way up the ladder because you’ll meet them again on the way down. I’ve taken to heart being kind to myself and to my colleagues. Sometimes the biggest mistakes offer the most important lessons, and how we accomplish things often matters more than the accomplishment itself.

To attend CIM voice students’ end-of-semester recitals, visit our concerts and events page.