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Artist Profile: WWU music department presents ‘Opera Scenes’

Bellingham’s Jay Rozendaal has a varied career path, incorporating his passion for music and his interest in theology. He’s currently senior instructor of voice and opera at Western Washington University, where he has been a faculty member since 2006.

For the upcoming “Opera Scenes,” Western’s Opera Club’s freshmen through seniors perform scenes from “Die Fledermaus,” “Orphée aux enfers,” “Don Giovanni,” “Little Women,” “Hansel and Gretel,” “Le Nozze die Figaro,” “La Fille du Regiment,” “H.M.S. Pinafore,” “Norma,” “Die Zauberflöte,” “Werther,” and “Trial By Jury.” Performances are Friday and Saturday, Jan. 23-24, in WWU’s Performing Arts Center, room 16.

Here’s the story of Rozendaal’s life (so far).

Question: Where you born, and when did you come to Bellingham?

Answer: I was born in Holland, Mich., and grew up primarily in a string of small towns in western Michigan. I finished high school in western Illinois.

After living on Orcas Island and in Seattle, my husband and I both returned to school in the late ’90s in New York City, but our hearts were always in the Pacific Northwest. When we returned we landed in Bellingham, thinking of it as a stopping-off point from which we would figure out where we really needed to settle. Nine years later, we’re still here!

Q: You have a career in theology as well as music. How do you combine the two?

A: It was clear to me for many years that there was more to me than my musical vocation, and that became increasingly difficult to ignore once I had been working professionally for around 10 years. Over the years I worked with Houston Grand Opera, The Dallas Opera, San Francisco Opera, Santa Fe Opera, Seattle Opera, and this past summer with Central City Opera in Colorado.

The Episcopal Church has a careful process to support those who are discerning a possible vocation to ordained ministry. While I continued my work with Seattle Opera, I went through that process, which led me to General Theological Seminary in 1999, and ordination in 2003. I did a year of advanced study in Christian spirituality, and was co-director of the Center for Christian Spirituality at General.

During that time I was able to start exploring more specifically the connection between the two vocations. It has to do with the potential of both art and the spiritual life to draw us beyond ourselves more deeply into both transcendent and everyday experience. They both have the capacity to move us into richer relationships with each other and with the divine — like art, that is often beautiful and comforting, but sometimes is very uncomfortable!

I continue to serve in the area as a “supply” priest, and I am still a priest associate at St. Paul’s in Seattle, where I serve liturgically once or twice a month, and have shared in pastoral care, spiritual direction, and led retreats.

Q: For people who shy away from opera, why might they enjoy “Opera Scenes”?

A: Opera is a living art form that is continuing to evolve. You can no longer count on going to the opera and seeing something that looks like a museum piece. It’s lovely to see things in a museum — it’s also lovely to see things that reflect something of our own life experience.

In February,Seattle Opera audiences will get to see Handel’s “Semele” from the 18th century and based on Greek mythology — but it will not look anything like either the 18th century or ancient Greece. Increasing numbers of modern, “updated” productions invite the audience to look at an old story in fresh ways.

We are also fortunate to live in a time when an increasing number of new works are being written on contemporary themes and, most importantly, they are being embraced as regular parts of the operatic repertoire. Works like “Nixon in China” and “Dead Man Walking,” to name only two, have been performed frequently to enthusiastic audiences.

Opera is looking forward, and the students at Western are building its future performers and audiences. The scenes program this weekend features the work of student directors and designers, and they always bring great imagination to their work. It will be a terrifically fun and varied evening.

In April, we will feature our more advanced soloists, and our wonderful choral singers in a double bill of tragedy and comedy; “Goyescas” and “Gianni Schicchi” —one rare work (the first) and one popular (the second), both set in the 1920s. It promises to be an exciting evening of operatic theater.

Q: Why do you like working with students at Western?

A: It’s always a joy to see young people pursue something they enjoy and care about. I enjoy helping them unlock their potential as artists, in whatever way that will take shape in their lives. Our students grow into young artists of many sorts, and into young adults who will participate in shaping the future of the arts and society - being in a position to witness and share in their development is an absolute privilege.

Q: How do you enjoy your leisure time?

A: One of the things we enjoy about Bellingham is being in a city that is big enough, but not too big. The cultural resources of this city are remarkable, plus Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., are nearby. Also, the natural beauty of the region, tucked between mountains and water, is something I really love.

My leisure time is filled with many things, but my primary pleasures are reading and baking. I discovered a passion for baking bread a few years ago, and most weekends you can find me in the kitchen dusted in flour.

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