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Being recruited to the chorus of a major opera company when still a high school senior is about as common as having the NBA sign you up at 18, which makes singer Wes Mason the local LeBron James of opera.

Mason, a sophomore performance major at Old Dominion, was auditioned by the Virginia Opera Company as a senior at Maury High School and now, at 19, has his first substantial role in the new production of "Romeo and Juliet."

Joseph Walsh, assistant artistic director for the Virginia Opera Company, is the one who recruited the young talent.

"It is extremely rare for us to take anyone out of high school and put them in the chorus," Walsh said. "But with Wes I saw a great potential. He really has a career ahead of him in opera if that is what he chooses."

When planning the future, most college sophomores worry over which classes to take and how to parlay their degree into their first "real-world" job.

Mason is more concerned with his voice changing.

Unlike other university students who might consider their laptop, cell phone, Blackberry or iPod to be critical equipment for success, the 19-year-old's voice is his instrument and all the studying in the world can't keep his lyric baritone from having a mind of its own over the next few years.

"It's probably one of the only instances where you're better off not having more early experience and waiting until after you take a master's to really go after the big prizes," Mason said.

Most substantial operatic roles call for a "seasoned" voice character, but there are solid roles for younger voices, such as Mason's. In his debut with the Virginia Opera Company he will play the role of Paris in "Romeo and Juliet." He is also the understudy for the larger, more challenging role of Gregorio.

"Romeo and Juliet" opened Nov. 11 and runs through Nov. 20 in Norfolk, and then takes to the road for performances in Richmond on Nov. 25 and 27 and in Fairfax on Dec. 2 and 4.

Walsh said is hard to tell whether Mason will end up as a baritone or transform to a higher vocal register, as did famous tenor Placido Domingo, who also started his career as a baritone.

His voice will continue to mature well into his mid-20s, Walsh noted.

"It's hard to plan because it's hard to predict how my voice will mature," Mason said. His dream role is that of a Rodolpho in "LaBoheme," which requires a tenor. For now he would love to play Papagano in Mozart's "Magic Flute."

Mason did audition and was accepted at more than one conservatory, but chose instead to study at Old Dominion under adjunct voice professor Sandra Gelb. Here, he can take roles in the chorus at the Virginia Opera Company. He has sung in the chorus for a number of performances, including "Don Giovanni," "The Merry Widow," "La Traviata" and "Faust."

For his mother, artist Georgia Mason, his performance in "Faust" was emotional. "I cried the whole time," she said. Mason played the role of Christ and was hoisted high above the stage on the cross. "When I saw him up there, as Christ, it was the most unbelievable feeling. I can't describe it well. It was just overwhelming on so many levels, as a parent and from a religious standpoint."

Mason attributes part of his success to the the time he spent last summer honing his skills at the Segle Colony on Lake Schrom in New York, which was supported by a $1,000 scholarship from the Thoroughgood Music Study Club of Virginia.

"My biggest challenge right now is keeping my sanity," Mason said. He is a full-time student, volunteers to sing at various local churches, works 10 hours a week at the Old Dominion music library and spends up to 15 hours per week in rehearsals at the Virginia Opera Company.

Walsh said the standard pathway for singers like Mason is to audition for young artists programs at major opera houses where singers are paid to train and perform light roles, similar to what he is doing now. Then, after a year or so, the program would direct Mason to a professional manager.

"You can't get anywhere in opera without a manager," Walsh said. "There will, of course, be coaching sessions along the way, small roles as well. It all begins with that degree in music that he's pursuing now and then, with that underneath him, he's off, down the path to a career as an opera star."

Not knowing what path his voice might take, Mason will just have to play it all by ear.

This article was posted on: November 17, 2005

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