Bass-baritone Matthew Burns graduated from VCU Music with his Bachelor of Music degree in 1997 and since then he has steadily climbed the ladder of the opera world – performing with regional opera companies across the country, performing regularly with New York City Opera, and joining the roster of the Metropolitan Opera. At the time of this writing, he was in Albuquerque, NM preparing to perform the title role in Gianni Schicchi with Opera Southwest.
But he didn’t start out at VCU with his sights set on being an opera star.
“I came to VCU right out of high school and I’d been on stage two or three times in high school musical theatre shows, but I didn’t have much stage experience — I just really wanted to learn how to sing,” said Burns, who started out as a music education major.
It was the opportunity to work as an assistant stage manager for the fall Opera Scenes production during his freshman year that drew him in. “Michelle Harman-Gulick and Melanie Day let me get up on my feet the next year and try it out. I was completely green, but they were supportive of letting me get up and mess up – or not mess up, depending on how you view the performances!”
For the rest of his time at VCU, Burns was able to be involved in everything the opera program did. “If I had gone to a larger university or conservatory program at 18 or 19 years old, I might have not been a performer. That is something that I’ve found absolutely invaluable about my experience at VCU.”
But Burns is quick to note that it wasn’t just the opera program that’s contributed to his success. “I was also in every choir at VCU too. My sight-reading skills when I left VCU were at a really high level.”
The voice faculty at VCU helped Burns build a strong musical foundation. “I was taught from the ground-level. VCU gave me sight-reading, gave me my voice, gave me musicianship and gave me stagecraft,” Burns said.
But they also gave Burns the knowledge that he had what it took to make it as an opera singer. “I didn’t really grow up with classical music or opera in my life, so I didn’t know how to judge my own value. So I depended on Melanie Day, or Mr. Batty, or Dr. Guthmiller, and I would say every so often as I progressed, ‘Do you think I can do this for a living?’ And the reply would always be ‘Yes.’”
Burns recalled singing in L. Wayne Batty’s Madrigals group as well as both Commonwealth Singers and Choral Arts Society with Dr. John Guthmiller, while also singing in the evenings with the church choir that Dr. Guthmiller conducted. “At one point I think I had 21 credits — I was in five ensembles, including Opera Theatre, and I made the Dean’s List because I didn’t have time to do anything else besides my homework!”
Burns’ education and dedication continued to see him to success after graduation as he went on to earn a Master’s degree in Vocal Performance from the Manhattan School of Music and a post-graduate Artist Diploma from the Juilliard Opera Center program (now part of the Metropolitan Opera).
Melanie Day, director of VCU Opera, had this to say about Burns’ rise from freshman assistant stage manager to accomplished professional opera singer:
“From the beginning, he knew what he wanted to do, and he embraced the journey itself. He worked hard to focus and channel his personal energy and his ‘outside’ life in order to solidify his technique while his voice was maturing and to become truly competitive as a well-rounded singer-actor. I could not be more proud of the tremendous effort invested to achieve the success he has enjoyed!”
Burns has performed with opera companies across the country as well as performances in Japan and Hong Kong. (Read his professional bio here.) He has received numerous accolades from opera critics and organizations and has been described by The New York Times as having “a beautiful bass-baritone voice.”
When asked for any words of wisdom that he might offer his VCU Opera counterparts, Burns had this to say: “If you love opera, or you want to make a professional life as a singer, then stick with it. Even if you don’t become an opera singer, there’s always a place for you in the opera world, whether as a chorus member, as a patron of the arts, or an audience member. But as long as you love it, stick with it.”
Burns has certainly stuck with it. As an example, Burns was first introduced to the character of Leporello in Don Giovanni. “I laughed in opera for the first time and thought, ‘Okay, I can do that.’” But it was 12 years between that first introduction and his first opportunity to sing the role with Boston Lyric Opera. And the work he had done in the interim — studying, rehearsing, performing many other roles, paid off. “The level of applause I received at the end was humbling. It’s a role that I love and the audience loved and it was just a big love fest at the end. We did 8 shows and all the reviews were positive and it was just a big career moment for me.”
But it’s not all about the career for Burns. While spends much of the year on the road, he makes his home in New York City, with his wife, soprano Anne-Carolyn Bird, who has an equally demanding schedule. The couple fell in love while performing La Nozze di Figaro in Dayton, Ohio and eloped in 2008. Now, they continue to seek a balance between two demanding careers and raising their 20-month-old son, Henry.
Virginia audiences will have the chance to hear Burns and Bird fall in love all over again when perform together in the Virginia Opera’s production of La Nozze di Figaro in April 2013. Save the date!
–Tiffanie S. Chan