It was all an accident… getting into Opera, that is. I was going to get my advanced degree and be a choral conductor at some nice University… when OPERA came along. I distinctly remember practicing in the finished-basement of my childhood home the summer between my sophomore and junior years, when my mother said to me, “You don’t want to get into any of that opera stuff, do you?” “Oh, no!” was my firm reply. Now I’m the music director of the Peabody Opera Department. Never say never!
I don’t think I’d ever seen an Opera before my undergraduate education at Western Michigan University. As for music, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else with my life. Starting piano lessons at 7 at the local music studio, it was a most fortunate accident that my piano teacher thrust Music Theory upon me. It seemed kind of fun. I was too young to know how good this was to be for me. I had a minimum of exposure to classical music there, but boy, could I read chord charts! If you can believe it, I was playing piano for an accordion band and the studio’s wind ensemble! Because of all this, when the organist at our parish was looking for a substitute, she offered to train me in exchange for subbing a few Sundays a summer. By the time I was 14, I was organist/choir director at a Polish Catholic church.
High school can along and another fortunate accident: my parents enrolled me in the Palestrina Institute for Liturgical Music, where, among other things, I learned to read Gregorian chant. Every Saturday was spent attending this “high brow” school. This was my REAL indoctrination into classical music. My piano teacher even gave me Bartok! This all lead to majoring in Music at Western Michigan University… but in Music Education.
The first opera production I was involved in was Dialogues of the Carmelites by Poulenc — nice lite fare! I was rehearsal pianist for one of the acts, but boy, was I fascinated! Everything wrapped into one! AND I got to work with and listen to voices! Well, that was the beginning of the end of my nicely planned life. I taught public school music for two years because my “sensible” self told me that two degrees without experience WASN’T sensible. I went on to CCM, the College-Conservatory of Music of Cincinnati, to pursue a Master’s Degree. I was SO ready for grad school, I soaked up everything there was to absorb, followed by what I considered my reward for two years of a hellish schedule: a job as repetiteuse at the Hochschule Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria.
As I flew into Salzburg, I kept pinching myself. It was heavenly beautiful! My colleagues, students, the Austrians were so gracious and supportive of my attempts at speaking German, but in four months, I was accused of being from Northern Germany by a native German! It was a wonderful experience, mostly being immersed in the culture and rich support of the arts. I came back to the States after two years, lured by a job at Wolf Trap to work with Roger Brunyate, who was a stage director at Cincinnati during my student days. We had a marvelous collaborative summer, which repeated itself the next year. In between that and our colleagueship now came many operas with regional companies, an apprenticeship at the San Francisco Opera, a coaching position at the Lyric Opera Center for American Artists in Chicago and many additional valuable experiences.
Being involved with so many young singers and, particularly, several apprentice programs for singers, I became accutely aware of how much was lacking in the training of budding artists, particularly with regard to language, recitative, how to learn, etc. I’ve chosen academia as my place of focus because I want to make a difference in the shaping of the artists of the future. I hope to share my passion for music, a strong commitment to excellence, and a total embrace of being the servant of the art with which we are entrusted.
When not absorbed in Opera, I like to spend time with my husband, Bill Riggs, sailing, golfing, traveling, and exploring the wonderful Eastern Shore of Maryland. I am also organist at Eastport United Methodist Church in Annapolis. We sometimes combine business with pleasure by sailing over on Saturday, spending the night on the boat, playing my church job on Sunday morning and sailing back afterwards. Ah, yes, life is rough!
JoAnn Kulesza is the Music Director of Peabody Opera programs. While much of her work inevitably takes place in the background, coaching singers and preparing productions for other conductors, she made her Peabody opera conducting debut in 2003 with the Berlin/Munich double bill, continues in that capacity today, for example leading productions for Opera Vivente and serving as assistant to Loren Maazel for his Chateauville project, in addition to Peabody operas.
Ms. Kulesza began her professional career on the staff of the Hochschule Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria, where she coached and accompanied singers in Opera and Lied. Subsequent credits include the Michigan Opera Theatre, Wolf Trap Opera, and the Dayton, Toledo, and Kentucky Operas, as well as the Utah Festival Opera Company and the Seagle Colony Festival for Singers. As a member of the San Francisco Opera’s Merola Program, she was awarded the Otto Guth Award for Coach/Accompanists and went on to serve as one of the pianists for the Western Opera Theatre tour. Ms. Kulesza spent four seasons as the staff pianist/coach at the Lyric Opera Center for American Artists in Chicago. She has served as guest faculty at the Pittsburgh Opera Center, and as a vocal coach at the University of Connecticut, as well as the Baltimore Opera Young Artist Program. She is much in demand as a guest educator and clinician throughout the country.
As a collaborative pianist, JoAnn Kulesza has played chamber music and vocal recitals throughout Europe and the United States, as well as accompanying master classes for such artists as Walter Berry, Edda Moser, Renata Scotto, and Placido Domingo. A choral music enthusiast, Ms. Kulesza has worked in many capacities with professional choruses, including the Chicago Lyric Opera chorus, the Chicago Symphony Chorus under the direction of Margaret Hillis, and as chorus master for the Washington National and Wolf Trap Opera Company. She feeds her love of choral music as director of two choirs at Eastport United Methodist Church in Annapolis, MD, and as music director of the Arundel Vocal Arts Society.