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Welcome to MMI’s Fellow Spotlight series featuring our amazing teaching artists. Not only do MMI Fellows lend their talents to supporting and engaging Memphis youth all over the city, but they also help build and sustain our arts ecosystem through their independent projects. 

Today, meet singer Dane Suarez! Dane sings tenor with Opera Memphis, and has performed across the country with such groups as West Bay Opera, Opera Neo, the Fort Worth Opera, and more. This year, Dane is working with MMI youth at Soulsville Charter School, Overton High School, and Douglass High School. Dane recently chatted with MMI about how why he loves living in Memphis, how he discovered his passion for opera, and why you have to choose music every day. 

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I first came to Memphis in 2013. I was a young artist with Opera Memphis, and I kept getting hired back each season. Then last fall, Opera Memphis really started to reinvest in some of their people who come through the program, so they invited me to come as a company artist for the year. My wife took a job as the PR and marketing person with Opera Memphis, and so now we’re here permanently. Now we have a little home. 

 

On Joining the MMI Family 

I’m a good friend of [MMI Fellow] Marcus King who sings with Opera Memphis. I've known him since 2013. 

This past year I had some time between projects, and I was asking him about the work that he does outside of Opera Memphis. He mentioned MMI and said that he thought they might have an opening for a voice instructor. So he put me in touch, and things happened quickly! I got an email during Spring Break, did an interview, and joined the team. I finished out that school year and that was my first experience with MMI.

I've taught private lessons before, but I've never really been in a classroom, so this is my first time—besides being a student myself who was potentially in the classroom doing some teaching—being in an instructor position for large groups of young people. I'm learning too, and that's one of the things that [MMI Senior Fellowship Coach] Victor and I keep talking about. It's just been a cool experience for me to define my style, and find what works with different students. 

This year was definitely an interesting time to come on board, but also really cool for me to jump in in that way. I'm really looking forward to getting to spend one-on-one time with students in the classroom, really getting to know them. I mean, fingers crossed. As we all know, it was really difficult teaching virtually, but we’re probably also a little better at being flexible now, too.

 

On Discovering Opera 

I'm originally from a really small town in Illinois called Princeton. I started singing when I was young. My family was very involved in church music, and my grandmother was a music teacher and the organist at my church. Music has always been a part of my being. As soon as I realized that I could get involved with it (the choir musical theater was how I first started in my hometown) I did. Then I went to school for it.

Opera is something that I came into later, just because I didn't have the exposure. 

One of the units that I did for my students this past spring was Intro to Voice, and I focused specifically on famous Black singers from the past and present, giving them a little exploration into the different voice types and the different things you can do with singing.

The response that I got from students was really cool. I did a worksheet survey that asked students how they felt about a particular piece of music, what they liked about it, etc. I was really surprised how many people actually were drawn to opera in the way that I am. I just wish that I had that spark sooner and I would have known that I could have spent a little more time with it in school. Not that I'm trying to brainwash students into all loving opera, but it's been really nice to see that response to something that I love. 

 

On Performing Live Again

I'm in San Diego right now. This is my third summer singing with Opera Neo, and I'm so happy to be performing live. I've been bopping around the U.S. quite a bit, and I feel like there are certain parts of it that I like a lot. I love going to new places. I love exploring new places. I love finding my coffee shop in the city that I'm traveling to. I've been very fortunate to return to a number of companies multiple times, like Opera Memphis. It's very comforting to go back to a city that I know. It feels like I have little homes all over the place, and I have connections with people all over the place. 

Obviously, being away from my wife and my two beautiful dogs is really hard. But my wife and I said from the start that as much as being apart is hard, it also means that we're doing what we love. So we can take that opportunity to still somehow grow our relationship, even though we're apart, and visit new places, and visit each other in new places.

It's really interesting to see what life looks like now that we're able to travel again. It is still a little bit scary, but I like being in new places. I think that is probably the thing that I enjoy most.

It's been crazy to actually see an audience, and there's nothing like it. I had my first indoor performance with people in the seats on Sunday, and it was exciting. You can just really tell how much people missed it. As a performer, that energy means so much. I mean, even when we were performing outdoors, with people sitting on their lawns (Sing to Me with Opera Memphis)—which was great—I missed being in a more intimate setting. There's something about being in a space where our voices can just bounce around in the walls, and where we don’t have to worry about a microphone and outdoor sounds.

Now we're gearing up for the opera season, which will be great. Of course, we're a teensy bit worried about the Covid cases rising, but we’ll see. It’s hard to make plans too far in advance these days!

[Editor’s note: You can catch Dane as the tortured Canio in Leoncavallo's Pagliacci with Opera Memphis this fall.] 

 

On Choosing Music Every Day 

I switched to voice my last year of undergraduate school. Prior to that, the teacher I was with didn't really encourage me to pursue it professionally—it wasn’t something I knew I could do. It took someone really believing in me for me to decide to apply for graduate school. I thought, Well, if I don't get in, I can figure something else out. But then I got in. 

I went into my first few auditions after grad school with the same mindset—either this is going to work or it won’t, and I’ll figure something else out. But so far it just keeps working out! But the way I feel about music is kind of how I feel about relationships: You have to choose it every day, because it’s not always going to be easy. It's a lot of work and it's a lot of projection, but the successes are also so wonderful that it's super worth it. 

You have to choose it every day, but of course, learning to sing well is number one. You have to work to develop a vocal technique that can last you years. Learning different languages has been really helpful for me, especially for opera, because while we do sing in English, we often sing in Italian or French or German. I would also tell anybody who wants to sing to keep playing piano. I feel like a lot of people don't like to play piano, but piano skills are so important for singers.

At the end of the day, singing well is mostly just about trusting your body and trusting your voice—and knowing what feels right and what feels good. Because it should feel good! It should make you happy when you do it.

 

On Finding Community in Memphis

I’ve been with Opera Memphis on and off for eight years now, and I feel like I've seen Memphis change quite a bit in that time. It's exciting for me, and it's a reason why my wife and I decided that this could be the place for us. But I would say that the thing that excites me the most, that makes me feel at home, is the sense of community in Memphis. I feel like Memphis supports Memphis so hard.

For instance, I went to a brewery one day, and I thought, I feel like this could be a performance space. I went and talked to the staff about it, about performing opera there, and they were like, "Yeah, that's so cool. We should do that." And we did!

There are so many people who don't know that Memphis has an opera company, and being able to let people explore that and realize that Memphis music goes deeper even than just what you normally think of—blues and jazz, for instance. The classical art scene is really quite rich and beautiful as well. I think that more than anything, the support is the thing that makes me the happiest. Memphis, as I said, is proud of being Memphis, and I hope that it continues to be that way.

It's really cool. For me, being from a small town, I'm drawn to that because I know what that means, and everything feels really personal and connected.