What was supposed to be a casual inquiry for Joseph Mayon turned into the opportunity of a lifetime.
It all started mid-June when Mayon reached out to Deanna M. Hunt, the executive director at the Union County Performing Arts Center in Rahway. His professional career had reached a crossroads and he was transitioning from teaching to full-time singing and performing.
“I was planning to do a recital just to get arias worked up, especially in the Wagner repertoire since I’m a heldentenor,” says Mayon. “So I reached out to Deanna and asked about coming to do a recital there.”
The two had met during a late spring performance of “Oliver! Jr.” that Mayon directed at UCPAC, featuring students from his Mayon School of Performing Arts in Rahway.
“Deanna explained she’d been wanting to get classical music and opera here at UCPAC — it’s been one of their objectives,” Mayon said. “She also wanted to address goals of community outreach and exploring a whole new opera program, so at that point we decided, ‘Let’s collaborate! Let’s make it happen!’ ”
And just like that, Mayon entered the next phase of his career as artistic director of New Jersey Opera Theater at UCPAC, which will present opera and classical music programs in co-production with the performing arts center.
“I really just wanted to sing some songs for friends and family, and it’s turned into this wonderful collaboration,” he says.
The inaugural season will begin Sept. 30 at 7 p.m. at UCPAC with “Night of Opera by Richard Wagner.” The one-off concert will feature Mayon and others in a selection of arias and duets from Wagner’s popular operas.
The program will be presented chronologically, beginning with “Tannhäuser” and ending with “Parsifal.” Selections will also include “Lohengrin,” “Die Walküre,” “Die Meistersinger,” “Siegfried” and “Götterdämmerung.”
“For anybody who loves Wagner, we’re doing the whole Act 1, Scene 3 from ‘Die Walküre,’ which includes the whole grand love duet, the whole ‘Ein Schwert,’ the ‘Winterstürme,’ ‘Du bist der Lenz’ and that whole section from Act 1 between Siegmund and Sieglinde,” says Mayon.
The four featured artists — three vocal soloists and one pianist — are linked through New York Dramatic Voices, a program of the Anthony Laciura Foundation for the Arts founded by Laciura in 2017. The organization supports young vocal artists through performance and mentoring opportunities, and focuses on singers transitioning from lighter vocal repertoire to more dramatic and heavier roles.
“Anthony has really devoted his time to nurturing young artists like myself especially through his foundation,” Mayon says.
Laciura sang at the Metropolitan Opera for almost 30 years in comprimario and character tenor roles. He retired from professional singing and moved into teaching, acting and directing. His primetime credits include the valet Eddie Kessler on four seasons of the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire.”
Mayon will be joined onstage by mezzo-soprano Lorraine Helvic and soprano Elisabeth Shoup. All three study under Laciura at NYDV and specialize in dramatic repertoire.
“Lorraine and Libby are two of my favorite people and two of my favorite singers,” Mayon says. “Lorraine helps run NYDV and I could listen to her sing a phone book! Libby has this huge voice of steel that has a beautiful golden edge to it.”
They will wear concert dress and act out some of the selections, particularly during the famous Valkyrie scene from “Die Walküre.”
“It’s impossible to just stand there and look at each other while singing this,” Mayon says. “It’s some of the most sensual music ever written.”
Matthew Lobaugh, music director of NYDV, will provide piano accompaniment.
The concert launches a new chapter of Mayon’s artistic and vocal development. He began singing professionally as a lyric tenor two decades ago and cut his teeth on the lighter bel canto works of the popular Italian composers, but felt “the shoe never really fit singing Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi.”
Before studying with Laciura, Mayon was under the guidance of the late Dominican tenor Francisco Casanova. “He was a spinto tenor specializing in Verdi,” Mayon says. Casanova sang on international stages and sometimes filled in for Luciano Pavarotti at the Metropolitan Opera.
“It wasn’t until 2019, I believe, one of my coaches asked me to sing Loge in a ‘Das Rheingold’ concert,” Mayon says. “And I remember thinking, ‘Wagner?!’ Especially because Casanova always told me not to touch Wagner’s works.
“So I sang the concert and my coach — who’s heard me sing everything from ‘Faust’ to ‘L’elisir d’amore’ to Verdi — looked at me and said, ‘You really should look into this repertoire, it sounds perfect in your voice.’ So I kept looking into this repertoire and in the dramatic tenor repertoire, and it just really fit. I’d say within the last year is when the voice really started to take off.”
It’s not uncommon for operatic singers to cross over into a new fach, the German word that codifies operatic voices into different classes based on range, weight, color, etc. The fach also guides singers on how to develop their voice and style, and which roles to seek out.
“I really feel like I learned to sing through Wagner,” Mayon says. “Wagner just knew how to write for the voice and I find it to be so soothing to the voice when you compare it to a composer like Strauss.”
Mayon comes from a background rich in the arts. His mother owned a performing arts studio for 30 years in his native Louisiana. “She threw me onstage when I was 4,” he says. His vocal and musical education continued at the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan followed by Louisiana State University, the University of Denver and the Brooklyn College Conservatory of Music. He moved to New York in 2001 and bought a house in New Jersey in 2016.
In 2017, he founded the Mayon School of Performing Arts, which offers K-8 students private lessons, group classes and afterschool programs to develop skills in musical theater. “It’s been a satisfying journey and I’m very happy,” he says.
Earlier this year he left his role as music and choral director at St. John the Apostle School in Clark. “It was an incredible experience,” he says. “I wouldn’t be the artist I am today if I hadn’t spent those five years teaching these amazing students who inspired me to do better. However much I taught them, I learned even more about myself, about music and about understanding music.”
When he took the job in 2018, he was forthright with the school’s principal about segueing into a full-time singing career after five years. And he stuck to it. “My coaches and teachers and everybody that’s on my team was like, ‘You know, it’s now or never, so if you want to go for it, go for it,’ ” he says.
He never expected that the leap back into singing would develop into something with such a wide-ranging impact.
“I wasn’t looking to start an opera company at all,” he says. “I was closing the doors on a big portion of the Mayon School and enjoying my time focusing on my performing career. This was not something that I was looking for, by any means. I’ve done it before and I know how much work it is, but everything just really started to come into place, and I had to run with it.”
His strategic plan is aimed at finding ways to support, serve and advocate for the surrounding communities while fostering public interest and appreciation for opera.
“The most wonderful part of working with UCPAC and at their venue is the outreach aspect for getting local high school and college students involved to help in the mentoring program,” he says.
Mentorship and community engagement is at the cornerstone of his vision. He will make paths into Rahway’s surrounding communities to provide performance opportunities to top musicians and vocal students from the local orchestras, bands and choruses. The students will join UCPAC’s professional musicians in the orchestra and chorus, or will understudy lead roles alongside seasoned artists.
The season will continue with Gian Carlo Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors” in December. The one-act English opera from 1951 is about the shepherd boy Amahl and the Three Kings on their journey to Bethlehem to visit the Christ child.
“Singing-wise, it has a killer cast,” Mayon says. “Steven Fredericks is joining us.” The two sang together in a past production of Charles Gounod’s “Faust” with Fredericks as Méphistophélès and Mayon in the title role. The bass baritone lives in Tenafly and is a friend of Laciura’s.
“Amahl” will be followed by a staged version of Act 1 from Wagner’s “Die Walküre” in January. The musical drama from 1870 is the second installation of Wagner’s four-part Ring Cycle about gods, demigods and mortals vying for a cursed treasure of stolen gold that has been forged into a ring.
The first act of Vincenzo Bellini’s “Norma” will be presented in February. “I first met our Norma at LSU many moons ago and she’s a doctor now, but I’m not going to announce the cast just yet,” Mayon says. The lyric tragedy from 1831 has become a benchmark for dramatic coloraturas with its famous Act 1 aria, “Casta Diva.”
Fundraising initiatives will culminate with an opera gala concert on April 5. A summer opera festival will build on the one-act previews presented earlier in the season with full performances of “Norma” in June and “Die Walküre” in July.
Another of Mayon’s goals is to maximize affordability for concertgoers through special ticketing promotions. Tickets for the inaugural concert, originally priced at $40, are 50 percent off with the discount code “WAGNER.” Students 14 and younger will receive complimentary tickets.
“This is really needed, especially at this time when so many opera companies are not doing well and a lot of programs are being cut,” Mayon says. “We need to save the opera. We have to change something about it to make it more accessible, affordable and available while still making sure that the singers and artists are taken care of. It takes a village, it really does. It takes support from everybody doing just a little bit and I feel very fortunate to be doing my part.”
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