The Professional Advantage 2011’s program consisted of a select group of singers and pianists, each possessing professional-caliber potential.  They spent their mornings along side their  faculty mentors in Italian language classes lead by native-speaking instructors trained at the renowned University of Urbino.  After observing the Italian pausa, their afternoons and evenings were devoted to movement classes, lessons, coachings and preparing eighteen scenes from standard Italian operas.  These fully-staged scenes were performed in five concerts. Professional seminars, gastronomic excursions to local agriturismi, and participation in the local festivities rounded out each week.

The most exciting of our Professional Advantages are the multiple opportunities for performance! Our venues included an historic early 20th century theater (Teatro Battelli, Macerata Feltria), a breathtaking hillside in southern Tuscany (Montestigliano), a lovely 12th century Franciscan monastery (Mercatello) and  a starkly beauriful 11th century Benedictine abbey (Lamoli).   Participants also joined the professional faculty for a complete staging of Puccini’s Tosca in Mercatello’s stately Piazza Garibaldi, with churches and palaces as backdrops .  (Link to photos)

All the above serves to provide a  real-world replication of the life of the professional opera singer or pianist arriving on location with role and music prepared, then working hard for four weeks to produce opera of the highest possible quality. Participants improve their ability to speak and sing Italian, grow their Italian repertoire in authentic European performance settings, and develop contacts and friendships with professional singers, directors and conductors currently in hiring positions.

Who Participated?
In 2011, singers, pianists and mentors native to 11 different states and Mexico joined us in a charming mountain town in Italy’s Marche region.  They flew into either Bologna or Rome, caught a train to Pesaro where they proceeded by bus bound for Mercatello sul Metauro, our home for the next four weeks. Most stayed in furnished apartments in the center of town; others in a family home-stay located in a quiet hillside overlooking the valley.

 “Everyone there was serious & talented.  Even the youngest were a HUGE example to the rest of us about stepping up to the plate & doing their job –The sharing of knowledge & expertise was really wonderful.  I think the different levels of ability, yet the consistency of everyone being committed to the craft of singing, was REALLY wonderful & inspiring.”

“I was thrilled to see people of differing ages and stages and levels.  I felt that it added a lot to the program…I felt like I learned so much from them, as well as offered something to them.”
“I really came to grow. I worked very, very hard and tried to absorb everything I could.  I prepared as much as I could…I grew tremendously.  I went in wide open and I gained more than I can express in words.”

Just as we choose performance repertoire based on our participants, our extraordinary faculty is selected annually based on the operas/scenes to be performed and the specific needs of those participants. This means that the program is about "you" rather than "us." We select faculty members who are well known for their knowledge of current industry standards as well as for their gifts as performers and instructors.

The 2011 faculty was highlighted by the addition of internationally renowned operatic and symphonic conductor Alfred Savia, and virtuoso collaborative pianist Jerad Mosbey returned to the program after a two-year hiatus. These accomplished professionals, along with returning maestro James Caraher, master teachers Mark Thomsen, Amy Johnson, and stage director Vernon Hartman provided participants with a faculty rarely matched in breadth and depth of experience and knowledge.

Sometimes when I walk on the street, I ask myself "Mercatello! Was it real? Oh! yes, it was real." 

Since The Professional Advantage is a language-based program, each day began with a solid foundation: three hours of intensive Italian taught by native-speaking teachers from the renowned University of Urbino. Classes were available at the beginner and intermediate levels for mentors and participants. These classes were interrupted by the morning pausa (pause), a time to step out for coffee and try our new skills with shopkeepers and others in the piazza (plaza). It did not take long to realize that Mercatello was a city full of willing teachers! After class, finding or making a simple pranzo (lunch) in a nearby restaurant or market was an easy, inexpensive delight, often shared between singers and mentors. Afterward, the afternoon pausa (think siesta), was a long, relaxing one, during which all the shops closed and students had free time to practice, rest or soak in the beauty of the mountains nestling Mercatello.

"My Italian conversation skills improved immensely. It was extremely helpful being in a small town where we were forced to practice our Italian on a daily basis and also interact with the locals."

"I was so surprised that our little town had so much going on during the time that we were there. It was a great experience to get a feel for small-town Italian culture."

"I am so glad we were in Mercatello rather than a larger city. It was wonderful to get to know some of the locals and experience cultural differences as well as practice our Italian on a daily basis."

"I loved the small town feeling. It really gave me an idea of how a small town functions and to see their sense of community was beautiful."

"I loved the relationships I built with the locals, growing in my Italian and experiencing Italy through a small town rather than a big city influenced by the Americans. It really was the perfect place for this program!"

After the pausa, our hard work continued but the emphasis changed, for we not only wanted our singers to speak Italian correctly, but also to sing it…beautifully. Our afternoon and evening rehearsals, voice lessons, and coachings were held inside the historic and well-equipped Palazzo Garibaldi located on the piazza in the heart of Mercatello. Each participant worked closely with all six of our hand-selected mentors in many capacities: it can be said that each day and each rehearsal was in reality a master class.

Each participant received at least one hour-long coaching each week with operatic stars Mark Thomsen or Amy Johnson, often accompanied by our pianist or one of our conductors. Mark and Amy are known for their insight and their solid technique. They share the ability to offer clear, down-to-earth evaluations and suggestions with candor, good humor, and innate kindness. Since sessions were shaped by the singers’ needs and concerns, they took many paths. And with the full attention of these professionals, singers were quick to make the most of what were, in effect, private master classes.

Under the direction of our program co-founder, versatile director and seasoned Metropolitan Opera baritone Vernon Hartman, rehearsals overflowed with expert direction in every imaginable aspect of professional opera production including attention to fine-tuning each singer’s dramatic ability. Whether rehearsing a cast or cooking a bountiful Italian feast for them, Vernon filled conversations with pithy, savory anecdotes drawn from his four decades deep in the heart of opera!

Valuable master classes covered Stage Movement and How to Get Hired and Rehired and informal talk often centered on the insider industry knowledge and experiences of the resident mentors. To maximize the experience for all, an afternoon was allotted for one-on-one conferences between participants and mentors during the final days of the program.  Mark and Amy also participated extensively in fine-tuning individual performances by sitting in on scenes rehearsals and providing valuable input from the singer’s perspective.

Phenomenal!!!   My vocal classes were amazing."

“This program is truly a gem.”

“Everything about this program was valuable.”

“I can’t thank you enough!”

The program…. “provided us with all the good ingredients for a summer program: outstanding, dedicated faculty committed to helping us learn the ropes, challenges and goals, knowledge, information, individual attention, an ideal environment...and more. I personally learned a lot about where I need to steer next: the level at which I need and want to work in order to have a fulfilling and successful career. And I also had the benefit of hands-on experience working with a high caliber of conductors, coaches, singers, teachers, and directors. Not to mention that whole Italian-learning thing!”

“The first thing that comes to mind is the caliber of the teacher/performers/participants that attended the program. The level of skill and professionalism was very high. I enjoyed my voice lessons immensely. It was great to have two different, extremely talented teachers on staff to teach lessons and work repertoire with. This was definitely a highlight of the program for me.”

 “In just three weeks, I was able to get my voice back together. I appreciated how my lessons with Mark were not just about vocal technique.  We spent time working on movement and how to develop sensitivity to the music and poetry.”

“It took me back to when I first started voice lessons…when I still believed that many things were possible. Amy can pick out exactly what’s going on and help you fix it.”

“I would sacrifice my firstborn for regular voice lessons with Amy.”  Co-directors’ note:  We think she’s kidding.

“I can say with the highest form of sincerity that the vocal instruction I received was TOP NOTCH!  I had lessons with both Amy and Mark and…gained tremendous insight into my vocal technique: what I need to focus on; how to improve, etc… (they) provided real, practical, effective alternatives to what I was doing.”

“I really like the varied level of participants. Not only was I able to learn form the teachers but many of the older more experienced performers gave me some good advice. The entire faculty was so great about always being there for us. Whether it be during a café in the morning or a beer in the afternoon they were always there to answer questions and just talk.”

 “Addressing a problem through different people with different approaches was great. Especially nice positive people! Couldn’t get better!”

“I enjoyed getting so many different professional opinions on aspects of the business and came away with valuable professional insight, experience, and confidence in my ability to pursue my professional goals.”

“All of the faculty took on as much a mentoring role as a teaching one - I learned a lot just from talking to different people.” 

Participants received regular hour-long coachings with each of the two conductors and the principal coach over the course of the program.  Singers and participant pianists benefitted from the perspectives and experiences of two uniquely talented professionals currently in hiring positions--James Caraher and Alfred Savia, as well as renowned coach/accompanist Jerad Mosbey.   Many participants felt that this in effect tripled the personal and professional value of this type of program.

“Having different conductors was a great experience through the whole program.  Different approaches with different styles and different energies…it was amazing.”

“Jim very easily could tell what I needed and figured out that I responded well when he varied the accompaniment…Between suggestions he encouraged me and just played and didn’t psych me out, and it all made me sing better.” 

“Jim – Great!  I really enjoyed working with him because his experience is so vast.  He shared with me what he would be looking for in someone auditioning for him, which helped me a lot.  His suggestions were practical and his attitude was fabulous!”

“Jim: I also enjoyed having him in (Italian) class as a peer.  He is so “normal” that it drew me off my ledge the first week to realize that I had nothing to fear and that I was okay.” 

I can’t say enough of how much I enjoyed working with Mr. Caraher. I got to have several private coachings ... with him. He was very patient with me, I think he understood the learning process I was in and he never put pressure on me. He was very helpful and motivating ... to all of the singers, giving most cues and being very generous.
Jim Caraher was very nice and had very good musical advice to give, great attention to nuances. He was patient and very good for working with younger people.
I had one coaching with Jim (Caraher) and it was great. He was very patient in helpful in teaching me how to follow a conductor. He gave me so many great tips on how to play the very standard rep (Mozart, Donizetti, etc.).

This year, the level of talent represented made possible the performance of five fully-staged scenes programs, as well as a fully staged open-air performance of Puccini’s Tosca in Mercatello’s Piazza Garibaldi, conducted by James Caraher , directed by Vernon Hartman and featuring the professional staff in the leading roles. The scenes concerts took place on a gorgeous Tuscan hillside (Montestigliano) near Siena, in an 11th century Benedictine abbey in Lamoli (fifteen minutes from Mercatello), the recently restored art-deco Teatro Battelli in nearby Macerata Feltria, along with two performances in the13th century Chiesa San Francesco in Mercatello. The scenes were directed by Mr. Hartman and conducted by both Alfred Savia and James Caraher. Six once-in-a-lifetime events, five unforgettable settings: magical opportunities!

“It was fun to perform so much!!!!!  That’s why we came!”

In most things worth doing, the journey is as important as the destination, and certainly every single day of our four weeks in Mercatello stood on its own merit. However, as singers and artists our greatest joy comes in performing, so what would four weeks of preparation be without it?

“I appreciated that you obviously put A LOT of thought into balancing music & scenes as equally as possible between all the participants.”

“The double casting was interesting to watch different people work and certainly in our cast it was never an “A” cast “B” cast issue.”

“I feel much more confident, after settling down the experience and realizing all I have gone through, I have become fearless!  I have learned so many things of all kinds that there is no way to thank you enough.” 

“In leaving my familiar environment, I was given a new set of eyes with which to view myself.  It continues to impact me now that I am home.  I view everything … relationships, work, singing, differently now.” 

Magical Mercatello!! Located in an idyllic valley and nestled at the foot of the Apennine mountains with fields of sunflowers, it seems a place where time stands still. At night, the lit bell-towers of the church and the Palazzo Gasparini can be seen from afar and guide you to the heart of Mercatello – the Piazza Garibaldi – where the Italian life of years ago is vibrant and welcoming today.

Our participants came to Mercatello to work hard, and they did, but they were in Italy and took full advantage. Urbino, a bustling renaissance city of 20,000 is within easy reach by bus and Urbania a short 15 minutes by car. In truth, the breathtaking scenery coming and going was as riveting as the destinations themselves.
We made a special excursion this year to the heart of southern Tuscany, just the other side of the Apennines, for a performance hosted by the Donati family (natives of Mercatello) at their magnificent estate atop a group of hills in Montestigliano, near Siena.  Our group spent the afternoon lunching and exploring the medieval center of Siena, then were treated by the Donatis to a “snack” (merenda) that turned out to be a pre-concert five-course Tuscan feast!  The performance setting in a romantic courtyard with the towers of Siena in the distance provided a unique experience.

Our next off-site concert of scenes and arias in the exquisitely beautiful 11th century Benedictine Abbey located in the ancient village of Lamoli brought us from our idyllic valley surrounded by mountains to an equally stunning locale at the edge of the Massa Trabaria, the mountain peak separating the Marche from Umbria and Tuscany. The third performance, in the 13th century  Chiesa di San Francesco, served as the opening concert for the famed Musica e Musica series, and proved to be another magical evening. Our final two scenes performances, in Macerata Feltria’s beautiful art-deco Teatro Battelli and returning  for a farewell offering in Chiesa San Francesco, were greeted by enthusiastic audiences.
Program returnees and newcomers alike were able to experience the varied and numerous festivities held during July in the little town of Mercatello. Band concerts, steak dinners, volleyball tournaments, staged performances and dances, children’s games – the community spirit was terrific!

The most noteworthy summer event in Mercatello is the two-week preparation and ensuing festivities surrounding the Palio del Somaro, their version of Siena’s famed  “Palio” (horse race).  Somari (donkeys) are decked out in ribbons with the colors of their respective Cantoni (neighborhoods) and the townspeople follow suit with shirts, hair ribbons and hats. The two-week event began with a competition of staged presentations by each of the four Cantoni and followed two weeks  later with a day of timed competitions. The piazza is filled with tables devoted  to making tagliatelle, each contestant given flour and eggs, and the winner is the one who rolls out the largest diameter without any holes. Other contests include a soap box derby-style Grand Prix, climbing a tall pole to grab sausages, log sawing, and so forth! The Palio itself began with a Mass in the piazza blessing each of the four Somari and culminated in a race through the town streets and byways, complete with liveried jockeys. The festivities continued long into the night with the happy winners dancing in a snake line through the town. It was amazing!

And then there were the dinners….all of them memorable! Our first culinary repast to the nearby agriturismo Le Quercie, complete with shaded terrace and swimming pool, featured homemade tagliatelle and a splendid mixed grill.   Next we journeyed to the top of the tiny hill town of Castello della Pieve. We gazed at the valley below and watched the stars come out as we dined on more antipasti courses than we thought possible! ….followed by homemade pasta, meats, salads, desserts and the ever delicious homemade limoncello! And there were other dinners, equally delicious and served by gracious hosts, notably at the legendary Marche establishments Grotta dei Folletti (made famous by author/chef Jamie Oliver) and Osteria del Cucco in Urbania.

The countryside offered hikes and mountain biking through the gorgeous wooded mountains and fields of grain and picnics by slow moving streams. And all of this, only a few minutes from the piazza!

The townspeople were wonderful and welcomed us like family. Our apartment hosts invited us for dinners and we soon became an integral part of the life and fabric of the community. It was a new experience for all of us, townspeople and opera singers, and a gift to be able to share what each of us had to offer.
Yes, Mercatello sul Metauro was magical. Very magical.

Benita Ryan joins the staff of The Professional Advantage as administrator, production coordinator and “mentor.” She brings a varied wealth of experience to her duties from her background in fundraising, project management, arts administration, concert production and tour coordination. Ms. Ryan served from 1996 – 2002 as Executive Director of The Riverside Symphonia, one of New Jersey’s premier arts organizations based in Lambertville, and she previously served as Board President for seven years. She has spearheaded fundraising and development projects for organizations such as International Hotels Group, Russell Byers Charter School, James Michener Art Museum, Trinity Episcopal Church Princeton, the “Miles of Mules” public art project in Bucks County, and many others. Ms. Ryan managed the United States tour of the Wroclaw Philharmonic in 2005, coordinating all logistics and on-site management. Her Renaissance-woman talents also encompass the management of a 110-acre agricultural farm (Jericho Mountain Orchards, New Hope, PA) whose gardens are often featured on tours and photo shoots, and where she still resides. An experienced pianist and church organist, Ms. Ryan holds a Bachelor of Arts in sociology from Wheaton College, a Master of Arts in education from Bucknell University and Music Therapy certification from Montclair State University.
Casey E. Guilfoyle is happy to join The Professional Advantage as Production Stage Manager/Administrator/Mentor. Chicago-born, Wisconsin-raised, and of both Italian- and Irish-American heritage, Ms. Guilfoyle has been involved in all aspects of performing arts production. Her credits include Production Stage Manager for Evansville Philharmonic Orchestra (Pirates of Penzance, Rigoletto, Le Nozze di Figaro), Rockford Symphony (La bohème, Tosca), Pamiro Opera (Cavalleria/Pagliacci, La Boheme, Il Trovatore, Hansel and Gretel, Amahl and the Night Visitors), Dubuque Symphony (Rigoletto), and Opera Tampa (Trouble in Tahiti/Berstein Gala). She is an active Journeyman in the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 470 which has helped lead her on many touring adventures with Coconut Grove Playhouse’s Tuesdays with Morrie, Dora the Explorer Touring, Saturday Night Fever, and Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story. During Summer 2003, she joined International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 158 and installed teledata systems in Green Bay’s historic Lambeau Field. She has performed assorted technical roles at Green Bay’s Weidner Center for the Performing Arts, Fox Valley Performing Arts Center (Appleton), Oneida Casino & Bingo, Meyer Theatre and Resch Center, and is the Resident Stage Manager for the Green Bay Symphony Orchestra. In September 2005, Ms. Guilfoyle successfully graduated from Blue Sky School of Massage in De Pere, WI and became a Nationally Certified and Licensed Massage Therapist.