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Bemidji State’s new voice professor to present premiere recital

Cory J. Renbarger is seen as the villainous Marullo in Verdi’s “Rigoletto” performed by the Florida Grand Opera. Submittted Photo

BEMIDJI—If passion is what makes a great performer and teacher, Cory Renbarger can claim that distinction, for on his office door is the anonymous quote: “Music is what feelings sound like.”

Renbarger, the new voice professor at Bemidji State University, was a semifinalist for the Metropolitan Opera competition in 2008 and that was when he decided to go back to school for his doctorate. Renbarger also has an Artist’s Diploma in Opera from the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music.

As is the custom for music faculty, a yearly recital is offered for the students and public. Renbarger is excited about his upcoming premiere recital at 7:30 p.m.  Wednesday in Thompson Recital Hall.

A baritone, Renbarger will be accompanied by a former colleague from Houghton College in upstate New York, Sharon Johnson.

“Johnson is the coordinator of collaborative piano there, and she studied with Margo Garrett of the University of Minnesota which is a big deal,” said Renbarger. “She will be here for a couple of days before the recital to give master classes to BSU music students.”

The program for the recital includes the “Songs and Dances of Death” by Mussorgsky, which is the pinnacle of the 19th century heavy, dark, nationalistic and emotional Russian musical literature, Renbarger added.

It is 25 to 30 minutes of singing Russian with virtuosic piano lines.

“The pieces center around their 19th century life with children, vagrants, military life; portrayals of life and hardship,” said Renbarger. “It is that weight to life, and people don’t shy away from it. In fact, they’re kind of proud of it, because that’s reality.”

He will follow up with German Lieder: Schumann, Strauss and Schubert and then conclude with some arias.

Renbarger spoke about his excitement with BSU and his “fantastic” students, and says he is looking forward to continuing the music tradition. He will be singing the baritone solos in the Brahms Requiem in Sioux Falls, S.D., in May with the Augustana College chorus and orchestra. And he just signed an agreement for a role in Duluth’s Lyric Opera of the North for Verdi’s “La Traviata” in June.

Bemidji opera lovers will not be disappointed, for Renbarger is staging a full-length opera at the end of April: “Dido and Aeneas,” by Henry Percell with BSU students.

“I am a performer at heart,” said Renbarger, “so that’s where all my teaching stems from. I don’t just teach techniques or information; it’s trying to get students to ‘say something.’”

His primary concern is to teach the drama and how to get the best sound from their voices. Renbarger went on to explain he cannot teach students what to say, because that’s an individual thing and that’s when art can happen.

“My students know their characters (in a production), have to say a lot,” said Renbarger. “That first hour of rehearsal is just spent talking about the characters and who they are; what do they want? The students soak it up like a sponge. We call that character sleuthing.”

The students practice quite diligently here, Renbarger added, and the facilities are fantastic.

Renbarger went on to say that his family: wife, Amanda, and daughter, Bella, feel very much at home here in Bemidji. The people have been very nice and they have family in the area, which is part of the reason for the move back to Minnesota.

“I had 12 voice students at the U of M, when I was completing my doctorate there, and realized that I loved teaching,” said Renbarger. “I am a performer but it’s a whole different kind of nerves when your student gets up there on stage, and I am so proud of them. They have worked hard for their recitals and struggle right up to the last minute, but they’re going to do really well.”

Renbarger said it’s a another kind of joy because when the students go on stage, you have no control over it; it’s parental almost, and that’s something you don’t get out of being a performer and not a teacher.

“I speak to my students and tell them that there’s a trust,” said Renbarger. “It’s kind of like an acting school because we need to expose ourselves to feelings. We need to talk about things that make us uncomfortable.

“I ask my students why people are willing to pay money to go see an opera or a musical.”

Renbarger went on to say it’s because the audience wants us to live the emotions: kill, die, love and lose — all that stuff — magnified 100 times.

“We are asked to do all these things that people are afraid to do in their real lives,” Renbarger said. “So they will pay all that money so they can feel all that emotion that we have to (as actors) experience. It’s dangerous, but extremely rewarding.”