Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Get to Know Seattle Opera's New Community Programs Manager

There's someone special we'd like you to meet: Nick Malinowski, Seattle Opera's New Community Programs Manager! Get ready to see a lot more of him at McCaw Hall, and in all of our learning and engagement programs across the Pacific Northwest. Nick will manage our adult learning programs, plan a variety of community engagement events, and give opera talks throughout the Puget Sound region. You may also see him out and about as the company's Education Department liaison to affinity groups such as Wagner and More, BRAVO! Club, and the Seattle Opera Guild. We are beyond excited to welcome this outstanding educator, musician, opera-lover and all-around fascinating guy to Seattle Opera. Follow Nick on Twitter @malinopera. And if you see him, go up and say hi!

Tell me a little bit more about your first taste of opera. I hear a pig may have been involved.

Growing up in rural Wisconsin, Farmer Appreciation Day is one of the highlights of the year. Fireworks, tractor pulls, a parade, and, of course, a hog calling contest are all part of the celebration. I was 13 years when, for some reason, The Barber of Seville popped into my head as I stepped up to call the hogs. Apparently, my rendition of “Pigaro! Pigaro! Pigaro!” attracted more sows than anyone else’s calls of “sooey pig.” My trophy from that hog calling contest is the first award I ever won with my voice.

You’re a former college basketball star! Any idea how we could get more sports fans to bring their passionate selves to the opera? In general, how can we cultivate new audiences for our art?
That’s the $64,000 question. What is alluring about sports? For me it is, in order of importance, competition, camaraderie and kinship, high drama, and universality and accessibility. Competition is a compelling part of the developing career of any singer. How many Seahawks fans are aware of that? What are the parallels between the International Wagner Competition and the NFC playoffs? Who could deny, upon seeing the film The Audition, that operatic competition is any less compelling than the pennant race?

While earning his BA in music at Grinnell College, Nick scored over 1,000 points as a member of the highest scoring team in college basketball history! 
Sports alliances create camaraderie and kinship, and the result is pride in one’s team. Being the best at something is a quality that appeals to all sports fans. How are we making known those things at which Seattle Opera is the best? Also, how are we creating a sense of community ownership of the opera company, such that it’s not an isolated entity but an organization in which everyone in Seattle takes personal pride and through which people feel and display camaraderie? Can we get people to fly and to wear the colors of Seattle Opera like they would a Sounders flag or a Russell Wilson jersey?

Sports are also universal and accessible in such a way that barriers to entry are almost non-existent. Opera exists on almost the opposite end of the spectrum. I’ve never been to a Storm game, but I bet I know what I should wear, how much money I should bring, and how and when to cheer when I do go. Opera can be made more accessible by connecting it to experiences with which people are already familiar, taking it out of the concert hall venue, eliminating the language barrier when appropriate, and, of course, providing good education to make it meaningful to all comers.

Nick singing the role of Giuseppe in La Traviata. 

You earned your BA in music and then went to The New School's Mannes College of Music for your Master's in Voice. How did you discover your passion for singing?
I have loved to sing for as long as I can remember. One of my first memories is singing “Take Me out to the Ballgame” in the bath as a toddler. My mom conducted the youth choir at our church, and I sang in that choir alongside my brothers. I can link a genuine passion for singing, though, directly to an annual event my family began attending the year I turned 12. The Madison Chamber Symphony Orchestra held a Messiah Sing Out concert at Christmastime. Featured soloists sang the arias and recitatives, but the congregation got to sing all the chorus numbers. The first year my family attended, I sat in the balcony – where the mixed (aka “can’t carry a tune”) singers sat. The next year, I insisted I be able to sit away from my family in the bass section on the ground level. The experience blew me away. Singing Messiah was formative in a way few other musical experiences have been.

What was the most difficult part about your Teach for America experience?
I taught students from the poorest county in one of the poorest states in the country. The school in which I taught had precisely zero students score at least proficient on the state exam the year before I arrived. The cards were stacked against my students. The hardest thing, though, was the feeling that, for the first six months, I was failing my students. We had so much catching up to do and I felt like I was barely treading water. Once I eventually developed the skills I needed to be an effective teacher, my students began to achieve great things. I taught second grade that first year – and I’m so proud of the fact that those second graders will graduate from high school this spring, many of them with multiple college acceptances.

As you know, Seattle Opera loves Wagner. I hear you have experience singing tenor arias of his? What are your thoughts on this important composer?Wagner is important to me personally because two of his arias are the tools by which I made the transition from bass baritone to tenor. Starting with Siegmund’s “Winterstürme” from Die Walküre, and eventually moving on (and up) with Lohengrin’s “In fernem Land,” I worked for over a year to develop the technique and capacity to sing heldentenor repertoire. This was the most musically rewarding year of my life, and I owe so much of that to Wagner’s incomparable music. I also know what it takes to perform Wagner – exceptional technique, massive sound, extreme attention to score and text, cultural awareness, etc. It is no easy task.

What was your proudest accomplishment during your time at KIPP Delta Public Schools?
This is easy. My proudest accomplishment was having my elementary choir accepted to perform at Walt Disney World and then raising the money over an entire year to make it happen. We subsidized the entire trip for 34 students, many of whom had never been further than an hour from home.

Nick and his wife Julia on their wedding day. 
Throughout your career and education, you’ve bounced back and forth between the worlds of opera and education. Now, you’re going to fulfill both of those passions equally. What specifically are you most looking forward to about coming here?
Playing some of Seattle’s incredible golf courses. No, I do love golf, but I’m more excited about what I already notice is happening in my brain. I wake up thinking about Tosca – and not just hearing and analyzing the music, but wondering, “How can I teach this? How can I make people care about this?” In order to truly care about learning something, a person needs to believe three key messages: 1. You can do this. 2. This is important. 3. I’m here to help. I cannot wait to make people believe that they can appreciate and understand opera, that it is an important art form for their life and time, and that I will do whatever it takes to help them love opera as much as I do.