Despite having been born with perfect pitch – “as a baby I could identify Vivaldi just by his sound” – Richard Shallbetter said that “as a freshman in Chamber Singers, I was initially worried about fitting in and doing an adequate job.”
In January, he received news that should allay any worries he still may have of fitting in. Shallbetter, a freshman at the University of St. Thomas, was chosen by acclaimed composer Eric Whitacre to sing in the New York premiere of his opera “Paradise Lost: Shadows and Wings” on June 15, at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
Shallbetter, a tenor, will be a part of the “Choir of Angels,” a multinational, several-hundred-member section of college and university choir singers hand-picked by Whitacre via audition tape. In addition to the performance, Shallbetter will take part in a five-day residency, rehearsing with Whitacre through Distinguished Concerts International New York, a nonprofit classical music production company.
The performance will be a “full concert version of the show, with soloists, taiko drummers, strings, a DJ and a massive sound system,” Shallbetter explained. It will be performed in the Isaac Stern Auditorium, the largest of Carnegie Hall’s three performance spaces.
Shallbetter hopes to be of one of four students whom Whitacre will select for a scholarship, which will cover airfare, hotel and the cost of the residency. The scholarship recipients – one from each vocal range: soprano, alto, tenor, bass – also will have dinner with Whitacre following the performance.
For his audition, Shallbetter sang an Italian aria, “Alma del Core,” in G major. He chose the same piece when he auditioned and was selected for Whitacre’s world premiere of “Nox Aurumque,” performed last March at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis.
Carnegie Hall will mark a long way for Shallbetter to come in a relatively short time. Sparked by his musician parents and informal piano lessons with his grandfather, Shallbetter performed for his first time in a preschool musical production of “The Billy Goats Gruff.”
These days, he devotes almost six hours a week to voice work, practicing with the UST Chamber Singers and taking voice lessons. But “that doesn’t count the time I spend randomly breaking out singing,” he added. He also practices piano, on which he is self-taught, weekly.
Shallbetter believes that this opportunity would never have been possible with the support of the St. Thomas Choirs and Dr. Angela Broeker of the College of Arts and Sciences’ Music Department. Initially a neuroscience major on a pre-med path, he added, “day by day it becomes clearer and clearer to me that my life revolves around music and that medicine isn’t quite going to do it for me. I will be switching to the music education major as soon as I can.”
“Paradise Lost” portrays the story of a fallen angel who must overcome obstacles to return home. The June performance will be set in English and will feature Whitacre’s wife, Hila Plitmann, a Grammy-award-winning operatic soprano.
Tickets go on sale March 1.
Opened in 1891, Carnegie Hall is considered the most prestigious performance hall in the United States. Legendary performers of diverse musical influence have performed in the hall, from The Beatles to Pink Floyd, Judy Garland to Benny Goodman, as well as Tchaikovsky and Isaac Stern, for whom the main hall was named.