Watch Steven Tharp’s comedic (and amazing!) performance in this video:
A Precarious Start
He wasn’t a singer. After a less-than-stellar turn as a junior high piano student, the Springfield native studied music theory for a year. A casual interest in opera turned serious during Tharp’s freshman year at Glendale High School when his French teacher — prominent Springfield cultural arts supporter William Brandon Bowman — thrust a stack of boxed record sets in his arms, proclaiming, “Now you’re in your Callas period.”
The education didn’t stop there. The next year, friends convinced him to take choir class and, as he progressed through Bowman’s massive classical collection, he began to wonder if he could sing like that too.
Turns out, he could. Tharp headed to Kansas for college, earning a bachelor’s degree in vocal performance from Wichita State University in 1980 and a master’s degree two years later. Then it was off to New York City to carve out a performance career. He continued studying, winning the Metropolitan Opera’s National Council Audition in 1987.
Today, Tharp seems to be a natural singer. The 56-year-old’s lyrical tenor lithely bounces through a demanding repertoire with a sound as youthful as many performers half his age. Yet decades ago, while standing on the stage of the Met as one of its proclaimed future stars, he knew something was wrong.
“Here I was supposed to sing for my career, and I wasn’t sure I could,” Tharp says. “My singing had become strenuous, overly muscular with a lot of vocal pushing. I tired quickly. Every singer has a vocal crisis in their career and I had mine early.”
He found salvation in legendary New York voice teacher Joan Lader. A singer herself, Lader is also a trained speech pathologist and a coach to both classical and Broadway performers. She discovered vocal cord swelling in Tharp, and began teaching him new techniques to not only save his young voice but help it last a lifetime.
“There’s an old expression: Sing on your interest, not your capital,” Tharp says. “In other words, a singer should not damage his instrument to try to sing big, but rather, preserve its beauty and steadiness. Thank God she showed me how I was damaging my voice and the correct way to use it.”
With Lader’s mentoring, Tharp began teaching in New York in the late 1990s. He taught voice for a dozen years in New York City and in Buenos Aires, but when he yearned to settle in at a university, he came home to Missouri. Now wrapping up his first year as an assistant professor of voice at MU, Tharp says he’s thrilled with the talent at Mizzou and the Columbia community’s support of the arts.
Many opera singers are specialists, favoring styles and composers. But Tharp has made his living with a repertoire that ranges from oft-performed classics to obscure pieces unheard for hundreds of years. He’s equally comfortable on the concert or recital stage, even taking a turn at cabaret with “Three Tenors in Search of an Act,” where laughs can come at the expense of the classical genre. But don’t try to pin him down on a favorite role or performance. The closest he will come are fond reminiscences of ensemble pieces: Opera Omaha’s 1988 American debut of Handel’s “Partenope” (circa 1730) and “Opera Seria,” an operatic, comedic send-up of staging an opera performed with Holland’s Nationale Resiopera in 2006. His lead roles don’t top the list.
“It’s not that I don’t have an ego; I do,” Tharp says. “As a performer, there is a natural egotism that goes with it. But I think it’s good to fight that. It does not make you happy in the long run.”
His dedication and professionalism have made him a favorite go-to director for Will Crutchfield, director of opera at Caramoor in New York.
“To teach young singers takes a level of empathy that not everyone has,” Crutchfield says. “There are some fantastic singers who don’t do well teaching others because they don’t happen to have that particular circuit in their brains that lets them imagine what it’s like for that other voice. Steve does happen to have it.”
Tharp has recorded for several labels and been nominated for two Grammy awards, winning best opera recording in 1998 for Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger” with the Chicago Symphony and Chorus conducted by the legendary Sir Georg Solti.
“It was amazing to perform and record on what turned out to be his last major operatic recording, and then win a Grammy,” Tharp says.
Of the other nominated recording, a solo offering of Edward McDowell songs, he says with a laugh, “Yes, I was nominated for a Grammy and, deservedly, did not win.”
Other awards are for the Three Tenors act, in which the trio nabbed a New York Backstage Bistro Award for Outstanding Musical Comedy, and his recording of Frank Martin’s “Le Vin Herbé,” an Opera NewsEditor’s Choice winner.
But, literally, the most shocking recognition came not for Tharp’s singing, but an accident during the dress rehearsal for the Minnesota Opera world premiere of “Frankenstein, The Modern Prometheus.” The elaborately staged production’s special effects included live wires in the stage fly to give off sparks as the monster comes alive. Unbeknown to the cast and crew, one of the wires came into contact with prop lines that Tharp — as Dr. Frankenstein — would use in the reanimation scene. When he grabbed the second of the wires, he became caught in the electrical current.
“I screamed and cast and crew members laughed, probably thinking, ‘Oh, Tharp is overacting again,’ ” he says. But observant director Nic Muni wasn’t laughing. “I couldn’t speak, and could only watch as he leapt over five rows of seats and onto the raked stage,” Tharp recalls. “He body-blocked me off the wire, most likely saving my life.”
Tharp elected to continue the production, but not to tell his parents about the incident until after the show closed. The next morning he got a call from his mother.
“Apparently the media picked it up and the story ran on NPR; she heard it on the radio,” Tharp says. “So the time I get a great mention on NPR, it wasn’t about my singing at all!”
Songs That Matter
When he isn’t singing, Tharp is listening to music — all kinds of music. Favorites include:
- Bob Dylan: “The most important American artist from the 1960s forward.”
- Jacques Brel: “The essence of what any singer should be in terms of intensity and total commitment.”
- Ella Fitzgerald: “A beautiful voice, but it’s the sheer joy and physical fun that came out of her when she sang that I love.”
As he balances a full-time university teaching load, Tharp chooses his own work carefully. This spring and summer will find him performing in Winnipeg, Canada, plus Mexico City and Berlin where he’ll reprise his tenor soloist role in “Defiant Requiem,” a concert docudrama presenting Verdi’s “Requiem” in the narrative context of 1940s performances by Terezin concentration camp inmates. “Defiant Requiem” has been performed worldwide; a documentary version aired on PBS in 2013.
“It’s a beautiful, true story of how art can affirm life even in the most extreme, horrific circumstances,” he says.
Tharp also plans to add local performances; he has sung the tenor leads in the fall and spring MU Choral Union productions. He wants to realize a long-standing dream of performing with a fortepiano, which the university owns, and eventually start a local festival to emphasize art songs.
But for now, he is content settling into the role of professor.
“A person couldn’t ask for more supportive colleagues,” he says. “Rob Shay, Paul Crabb, Ann Harrell, Christine Seitz, Janice Wenger and others have been so helpful.”
Harrell, an associate professor of voice, calls Tharp’s transition to the university “completely seamless — or at least it seemed that way.”
He’s a good fit with the program, she adds. “He is a fantastic colleague, supportive and engaged with us and what we’re doing, and also engaged with all the students, not just his own,” she says. “His knowledge of repertoire is extensive, and his varied performance experience is great for the students. He’s easygoing and fun, and his singing is so special.”
Among Tharp’s Mizzou pupils is choral conducting master’s student Steven Hirner.
“The most valuable thing I have learned is the easier vocal production with which I can actually sing rather than the forceful contrived approach of my past,” he says. “Learning to accept my voice for what it is has been exciting and is an experience that will continue to benefit me in years to come.”
Same song, second verse: Tharp is already passing on the lessons of experience, helping his new students learn to sing on their interest and save their capital.