Gone Too Soon

Laura Botkin; Makiko Narumi; Giavanna Kersulis; Georgina Joshi; Zach Novak; Robert Samels; Garth Eppley; Chris Carducci, Ryan Smith.

Opera fans know of the early deaths of established singers like Kathleen Ferrier, Loraine Hunt Lieberson -- the James Deans -- -but they may never know of these promising artists.

Most of you do not know these names. They are few future opera stars that were taken too soon. In some sense they are the River Phoenixes (for lack of a better analogy -- no drug reference intended) of our opera world, though not as well known. I did not know all of these young talents but each of their deaths has resonated with me, and others, who had equally great hope for them. As a mentor of young singers, it always hits close to home.

The tenor Ryan Smith had gone the farthest. He was a winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and had joined the highly competitive Ryan Opera Center at Lyric Opera of Chicago. He had also made his Met debut. He was an amazing tenor and apparently a sweetheart of a guy. Lymphoma took him at 31.

Giavanna Kersulis, known as Gia, and Makiko Narumi were my students at Aspen Music Festival and School in the early part of the last decade. Makiko possessed the most incredibly rich, dark, mezzo-soprano voice once could wish for. An advanced student at Juilliard, she arrived at the beginning of that summer with pains in her leg. Her doctors in Japan had diagnosed an infection but no amount of antibiotic was helping her. She rarely complained and, thinking back, must have been in intense pain. She was hospitalized later that summer and found to have a very aggressive cancer. She held on though through sheer will power, returned to New York City and sang Mahler's Resurrection Symphony #2 at Carnegie Hall shortly before she died. In Aspen she performed as the Old Prioress in The Dialogues of the Carmelites in which the death scene of this character was sadly prophetic. Her last role at Juilliard was in the same opera. She had a form of cancer that is so rare that Sloan Kettering had seen only a handful of cases and the prognosis was dismal. At the time of her death, Makiko was to have sung her first Suzuks in Madame Butterfly at Palm Beach Opera, and Britten's Spring Symphony in Seattle. She also landed a role in Tan Dun's opera Tea: a mirror of the soul, which was to open in Amsterdam and then tour.

Gia was a student in the art song and vocal chamber program in Aspen. From San Diego and also a mezzo-soprano, she was beautiful, outgoing and fun loving, athletic and also in possession of an amazingly beautiful instrument. She brought such feeling to everything she sang. She passed away from a rare form of cancer just as her career was taking off. She was already singing at Pine Mountain, Virginia Opera and had a contract in Anchorage Opera from which she had to withdrawal.

Georgina, Zachary, Robert, Garth and Chris where voice students at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, one of the premiere training programs in the country. I was on faculty at DePaul University when I heard the news. I did not know these young people but I felt the shock. Tim Noble who taught some of them is a colleague of mine both as a singer and as a teacher.

The AP reported:

The five graduate students in the university's school of music were returning from a rehearsal for a community concert in West Lafayette, about 90 miles north of campus, when the plane disappeared from radar ... Georgina H. Joshi, who had studied at the Royal College of Music in London and sung in Wales, piloted the single-engine Cessna.

I cannot imagine the loss to the families and the school.

This is from the IU website:

Each of the students had a distinctive voice; their performances were easy for critics to praise; and their dedication was clearly to the art of singing and not to the ego. Robert Samels is described as a brilliant triple threat... conducted, sang and composed. His opera, "Pilatus," was written for his friend, Chris Carducci, and premiered in September in the Indiana Memorial Union. It received good reviews, despite being a completely student-created production. Samels was so busy -- even hosting his own show on WFIU -- people at the school wondered if Samels ever slept. "That energy is only something you find in great human beings and great artists." Carducci, one of Noble's students, had the kind of talent that could have taken him in any number of directions, Herald-Times music critic Peter Jacobi said. He could have performed in musicals, and he could have joined a solid opera company. "Chris had marvelous stage presence, and he was a fine baritone that really developed over the last year."

Josh Novak directed choirs at First United Methodist Church, "He was well-loved in the school, and he was on his way to having a career in conducting." Joshi's voice was versatile, and one that stood out among the 400 voices... heard during audition season. "She had a dusky quality to her voice that was absolutely not generic soprano. She could engage people's imagination."

Garth Eppley also was a student of Noble's, and he had his first major role in "Midsummer Night's Dream." He was just coming into his own... the tenor voice is most fragile and difficult to train, and he just got his high notes. You could see him just loving it."

All five musicians were lucky to have realized what their lives were supposed to be; it's rare...These kids couldn't be denied it, they were just going to do it.

News came this morning that Laura Botkin was killed last night somewhere in west Texas. She was a passenger in a car that was hit head on by a driver going the wrong way. Laura was a very gregarious and talented soprano who was a master's student at Rice my first two years there. To say she lived life to the fullest is an understatement. I remember her singing in my living room, wanting to show some of her recital choices. She could have kept going all night. She had that love of singing and of making music that was contagious and she was also a committed actress. She lit up every room. Laura chose to stay in the Houston area after school and was able to sing in area musical theater as well as operatic performances and concerts. Our community is reeling.

Many of these artists are kept alive on Facebook and, if we are lucky, on YouTube. We will never know what they could have been.. They had what it took to have a career in opera and had already worked their way through some of the toughest part. No doubt there is quite a choir up there in heaven.