Give Linda Ottsen your tone-deaf, your shower crooners and your aspiring opera stars, and she will bring out the best voice in each of them.
When John Aguilar, a Ventura hair stylist, came to Ottsen 11 years ago for voice lessons, he couldn't match pitches. Now he performs for hundreds at such fund-raisers as the recent songfest for Habitat for Humanity in Ventura.
"She not only teaches people how to sing and sing their absolute best, she also teaches people to have self-esteem and confidence," Aguilar said. "She has the ability to teach people how to soar with their voices."
An accomplished opera singer, Ottsen has spent most of the 21 years she has been in Ventura County bringing out the voices of others.
In addition to teaching privately and at Ventura College, the 54-year-old mother of two started and directs the Ventura College Opera Workshop, which has brought several productions to the stage since its inception two years ago.
Ottsen, the daughter of a farmer/salesman and homemaker, spent much of her childhood studying piano and later auditioned for admission as a piano major to Birmingham (Ala.)-Southern College. But when her music teacher mentioned to the selection committee that Ottsen also sang, she was asked to sing a tune, thus changing the course of her life.
"They decided my voice was really more promising than my piano playing, so I ended up majoring in voice," Ottsen said in a Southern-tinged accent that reveals her Alabama upbringing.
Ottsen's voice, poise, good looks and Southern charm won her pageant money that paid her way through the private college, as well as graduate school at the University of Illinois. She had a series of good showings in the Junior Miss Alabama and Miss Alabama contests before becoming Miss Alabama and sweeping the talent portion of the Miss America Pageant her junior year in college.
She went on to perform several opera roles, ranging from the Queen of the Night in Mozart's "The Magic Flute" to Baby Doe in Douglas Moore's folk opera "The Ballad of Baby Doe." She sang with several companies, including Washington Civic Opera, and performed at the Kennedy Center when troupes including the Joffrey and New York City ballets needed vocalists. She sang solos in many oratorios, including the Faure Requiem and Leonard Bernstein's Mass Excerpts, conducted by the composer.
For the past 10 years, Ottsen's focus has been other people's talent. She began teaching voice at Ventura College in 1990 and soon began pushing for a program that would give students a chance to perform operas.
When it finally crystallized two years ago, the college's Master Chorale director, Burns Taft, asked Ottsen to take the helm. Taft, who also directs the Ventura Chamber Festival, said Ottsen is a consummate musician with the vision and passion necessary for such a venture.
Since then, Ottsen has staged a production every semester with a mixture of college students and community members from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles. Each opera consistently draws 1,200 guests. The group's production of "Ernest Worthing," a world premiere last year, went into an extended run, but some people were still turned away.
The orchestras, elaborate costumes and other requirements for operas make them expensive to produce, but Ottsen, although she started with no money for the program, has raised considerable amounts through grants, donations and fund-raisers.
"She always rises to the occasion and gets the job done," Taft said. "She's proved also to skeptics in several ways, especially on the Ventura College campus, that number one, it can be done."
Ottsen said the lack of preparation she sees in her Ventura College students is a challenge. Many come to classes just knowing they like music, forcing her to start with the fundamentals.
When public schools had good music programs, students came to college knowing how to read music and play instruments, she said, and instructors could start out teaching music theory.
In addition, lack of exposure to opera has made many students fear or dislike it, which can make it difficult to recruit students for her workshop.
"Sometimes, opera is a bad word," Ottsen said. "But, honestly, I could tell you story after story about students who changed their minds."
To begin influencing students earlier, Ottsen started a now-defunct program called "Pagliacci and Friends," which took opera presentations to area public schools. This fall she plans to start another program in which her students will perform scenes from operas for elementary, middle and high school students.
Ottsen's concern for students goes far beyond music. They say she not only nurtures their voices, but also tends to their emotional and physical needs, giving them confidence and support.
A member of the National Charity League, Ottsen has often welcomed students in financial straits into her home or given them free lessons as scholarships.
Ottsen invited Lisa Hofer into her home years ago when Hofer had to move in the midst of performing in an opera. Hofer stayed for a year and a half. In the 12 years Hofer has taken voice lessons from Ottsen, they have talked for hours about Hofer's personal life, which Hofer said has helped her perform better.
"She's kind of like a psychologist, a mother figure and a voice teacher all in one," Hofer said.