From Vegas stage to opera star

An Eastport baritone credits his unusual performing background in helping him rise to the top.

Arundel Live

Arts and entertainment in Anne Arundel County

July 22, 2005|By Mary Johnson | Mary Johnson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Jason Stearns didn't take the conventional route to become an opera star, but with his brilliant performance in the Washington-based Summer Opera Theater Company's Rigoletto, the Eastport resident has certainly arrived at that destination.

"In my view, Jason is one of the best baritones in the world today and can be ranked with all the greats in the last half of the 20th century," said William Yannuzzi, music director of the Baltimore Opera Company.

Said Annapolis Opera Company treasurer Nancy Lindley: "Wherever I go, everybody is talking about Jason Stearns."

That's hearty praise for Stearns, who was born in Washington and grew up in Wheaton, where he learned to play the accordion well enough to entertain for his parents' friends, which he did from ages 9 to 16.

When he was 20, Stearns became the youngest member of the U.S. Army Chorus, serving from 1970 to 1973, and again from 1981 to 2000.

Later, he and his wife, Suzanne, performed in Las Vegas, she as a showgirl at the MGM Grand and he as the principal singer at the Stardust Hotel. The couple also worked on the Viking Cruise Line ships, singing in an act called "Suzanne and The Man."

"Some people wonder just how a guy who sang and danced in Vegas, worked on cruise ships and sang in different choruses can be a contender for leading operatic roles, and I say all those things were building blocks for me," Stearns said.

"I have done many different things in show business in my life. All fit together somehow to allow me to be the character I am playing with the knowledge that I can sing and act at the same time."

Stearns and his wife left the cruise-line life in 2001 when he took a job in New York with the Metropolitan Opera's chorus.

But the attacks of Sept. 11 prompted his homesick wife to return to Annapolis with their son, leaving Stearns "alone for 2 1/2 years in a 12- to 14-hour-a-day job."

In 2004, Stearns left New York to reunite with his family.

They now live in Eastport with their 17-year-old son, Aaron, and two toy poodles in a house where Stearns recently supervised renovations.

Stearns' recent performance in Rigoletto came two months after he won first prize in the Chester Ludgin American Verdi Baritone Competition, which was judged by such opera luminaries as Placido Domingo and James Morris, and earned him high praise for a difficult role.

"Rigoletto hangs in a difficult range, yet Jason sings it at 10 in the morning and 4 in the afternoon," said Summer Opera director Leland Kimball.

In its review, The Washington Post said: "Top singing and acting honors go to Stearns, whose voice is well controlled through all the extreme demands of the role."

And Summer Opera founder and artistic director Elaine Walter said: "I've known Jason for 20 years and always knew the voice, but when I see and hear him now, he is the complete artist."

In addition to performing, Stearns offers private voice lessons at the Catholic University of America and teaches master classes at Anne Arundel Community College.

"Jason Stearns is one of those rare teachers who can communicate to music students of all abilities," said Doug Byerly, chairman of AACC's music department. "His master class at the college, as well as his performances with the college orchestra and opera company, are some of the most outstanding highlights of this past year.

"Jason has the unique ability to perform at the highest level and to teach at any level. He is the epitome of an artist-teacher. Our entire music program has been enriched by his contributions to the college."

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