At 71, Nunzio Crisci has the pointed, weathered face of an aged hawk, and it was with a hunter's concentration that he was scanning the stage where the Cal State Fullerton Opera Theater was about to begin another of its biannual student performances Monday.
Crisci was hoping to catch a great operatic voice in the making.
"I know a great young voice when I hear it," said Crisci, a retired high school principal and local opera buff who drives from his home in Laguna Beach for all the opera theater's fully staged programs. As the lights began to dim, he added just above a whisper, "You can always count on enthusiasm, but sometimes you discover something in a voice that is really special."
Discovering--and developing--something special in operatic voice has been the workshop's goal for more than 20 years. The singers in Monday's program, to be repeated tonight, are following in the footsteps of hundreds of graduate and undergraduate students. And Cal State's Fullerton's workshop for would-be professionals is just one of many on campuses throughout the country.
In a culture dominated by television and popular music, what inspires young people to pursue opera? Soprano Sandra Canzone, 33, of Fullerton wants to follow in the footsteps of an Italian grandfather who sang opera; tenor Khaled Bayaa, 27, of Costa Mesa planned to be a rock star until a college singing teacher changed his mind by playing recordings of Maria Callas and Richard Tucker for him.
"Right now there are about 20 in my group," said Michael Kurkjian, who has directed the Fullerton program since 1976. "We have all varieties of talent."
The program for Monday and Wednesday includes the hilarity of "The Impresario," a one-act opera buffa by Mozart; the high drama of an excerpt from an "Otello" written by Rossini, and the pathos of excerpts from Puccini's "Madama Butterfly."
The audience applauded for many of the performers, but among those who seemed to find special favor with Crisci were Betty Woods and Gail Juanoquez. Indeed, Kurkjian said, these two sopranos' stories offer especially vivid illustrations of the workshop's goals.
The brief career of 28-year-old Woods is, he said, a classic example of raw talent and discovery. Growing up in San Diego, she sang in the choir of her church without getting any unusual attention, and she stopped singing as a teen-ager. In 1985, seeking relaxation from her job in a local bank, she joined a choir program at a community college. The choir director told Woods, who could not read music, that she had unusual talent, taught her five songs and entered her in the Metropolitan Opera auditions. She won the San Diego competition.
While she failed to place at the regional contest in Los Angeles, she caught Kurkjian's attention. He offered her a scholarship, and she moved to Anaheim. Monday, she sang "Un Bel di Vedremo," the most famous aria in "Madama Butterfly" and perhaps in the whole operatic literature.
Kurkjian acknowledged afterward that the Italian diction was clearly a lot of work for Woods, but he is convinced that she has extraordinary potential. "She was looking at every syllable as if they don't connect together, but she is working with somebody on diction," Kurkjian said.
Gail Juanoquez, who came from Akron, Ohio, to study opera at Cal State Fullerton and who sang a lengthy excerpt from "Madama Butterfly" Monday, is a senior who started singing at 16. Kurkjian said that, with unwavering discipline, she has thoroughly trained her large voice and has shaped a powerful stage presence.
"Gail has enormous drive," he said. "Four years ago, that girl was where Betty is now. She's a fighter. I can't say that Gail will be the top of the top--who knows?--but she will have a career. Do you know she rides eight miles a day to keep in shape?"
Walking carefully through a university hallway in her Madame Butterfly kimono, Juanoquez said that when she graduates this spring, she will start entering competitions for the first time, and soon will audition for opera companies. "It would be wonderful to have a contract," she said wistfully but without losing a certain practical quality one feels instantly upon meeting her. "I want to start my career."
The Cal State Fullerton Opera Workshop will present scenes from Rossini's "Otello," Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" and Mozart's "Impresario" tonight at 8 at the CSUF little theater, 800 N. State College Blvd., Fullerton. Tickets: $2 to $3. Information: (714) 773-3371.