The Maestro of CSUN : Under David Scott, Opera Program Consistently Hits High Notes
In a Spartan music classroom at Cal State Northridge, Prof. David Scott played intervals on the piano for a baritone who was having trouble with an aria from “La Traviata.” The college junior strained for the top note--more than an octave higher than the first. He sang the intervals again. And again.
Finally, he produced the sound--clear, pure and relaxed. He stopped singing just briefly to let out an excited “There it is!”
Then it was gone.
“It’s not easy,” said Scott, 65. “If it was easy, everyone would do it.”
Nothing about opera is easy. Not singing, not directing, not conducting--all of which Scott does as CSUN’s director of opera. Since he joined the faculty in 1963 as its first full-time voice teacher, he has built from scratch a program with a national reputation as strong as the professional voices it turns out.
Two weeks ago, CSUN soprano Jessica Siena, 28, was one of three winners in the Metropolitan Opera National Council’s western regional auditions--the opera equivalent of making the playoffs. She will be his seventh student since 1967 to advance to the national competition in New York City.
Opera is in Siena’s blood. Her father is a professional opera singer who also teaches voice at Yale. Her mother was the assistant to Beverly Sills when Sills was the artistic director of the New York City Opera. In 1991, Siena left New York--the hub of American opera--and came to Northridge for the sole purpose of studying with Scott, who had trained famed soprano Carol Vaness.
“When I got there, I was very eager to know if I would be rich and famous,” Sienna said. “He said he didn’t know. So I asked if he’d know in a year, and he said, yes, he might know in a year,” Siena recalled.
The soprano has a strong voice, but singers need more than that to achieve success in opera. They need single-minded determination. They need confidence and personal stability. And they need patience.
“Everybody has ambition, but most people don’t know what it takes. Jessie came here five years ago. How many people can slug it out like that?” Scott said. “Voice teaching is like watching grass grow--only slower.”
Sitting in his stark, industrial-green office in CSUN’s music building, Scott talked about growing up in Iowa a high school Renaissance man: athlete, actor, singer. He went to Simpson College, where he lost his delusions of athleticism, and majored in music.
He pursued a master’s and doctorate at Indiana University. He sang 15 roles in three years, not so much because of his voice, but because he could act. He started teaching while at IU and accepted his first university teaching post in 1955. Scott now lives in Northridge with his wife, Judith, who is a part-time voice instructor at CSUN.
At CSUN he stage-directs and conducts the music for an opera each semester. Occasionally he will allow another music professor to wield the baton so he can take to the stage himself.
“I do that to bring a level of professionalism to the productions and get myself going again, to remember what [singers] have to do,” he said. “And I do it to indulge myself.”
The productions draw crowds. “Man of La Mancha,” which ran from Oct. 27 to Nov. 5, sold out all its performances. Because the school puts on two operas a year and is not dominated by graduate students, undergraduates get a shot at lead parts. And in opera circles, it is often the roles you’ve sung, not the college you attended, that matters.
As for voice teachers, it’s all in the ears. Roger Patterson, who has studied voice with Scott on and off for 25 years, said Scott hears singers better than anyone else he has worked with.
Siena agrees. “His real commitment is to getting the best out of me, both vocally and dramatically. He’s very frank. He doesn’t coddle you,” Siena said. But the result is that singers feel more in control. “There’s no sense that he’s doing the work for you.”
Compliments are scarce during lessons and rehearsals. Praise comes when the work is done. After Siena sang at the Metropolitan Opera competition concert, Scott rushed backstage to tell her how wonderful she sounded.
But her next lesson, she said, was business as usual. Scott doesn’t take competitions too seriously. “At times you want to say, ‘C’mon! I just won the Met!’ But on the other hand, if you don’t win or somebody says something critical, he treats it with the same nonchalance.”
Although he works his students hard--the cast for the spring production of Verdi’s “La Traviata” will rehearse four times a week--he is careful to protect their voices. After singing a scene once, they talk it or sing it an octave lower to prevent damage to their vocal cords.
Patterson, who sang with the New York City Opera and other companies after studying under Scott, said the school is known for turning out singers with a professional work ethic. “He cares. That’s a rare commodity,” said Patterson, 43, who is back studying with Scott after more than a decade. “Lots of teachers don’t care about their students--they care about their students’ careers.”
Scott has maintained a close relationship with other students, including Vaness, who sings all over the world. He takes no credit for her success. There are maybe 25 major sopranos singing in the world today, he said. “You just figure you’re lucky to have worked with someone like that.”
Scott once took a semester off and followed Vaness on tour, which gave him an appreciation for the difficult life of an opera professional. “Carol will spend four to six weeks in a new location, stay healthy, perform--and then do it all over again,” he said. “Most people think it’s an incredibly glamorous life, but in many cases, it’s a very lonely life.”
It’s a nomadic life that Scott never pursued for himself. He chose instead stability, a family and an opera program he could lead in new directions. “I think this is perhaps the level at which I am most effective,” he said.
Patterson has his own theory: “I think he likes seeing things grow.”