by Tony Spano, Jr.
Making his second appearance with Pacific Serenades is bass-baritone Michael Dean. Currently the Chair of the UCLA Music Department, where he has taught voice since 2004, he is originally from San Diego. Dean has had a prestigious career as a vocal performer in concerts and operas around the world. It was surprising for me to learn that, with his extensive experience, including singing roles on stage and in recordings, Michael did not start off his musical education as a singer.
"I originally studied piano and composition as my major at UC Santa Barbara," Michael shared with me. "I auditioned for the chorale at UCSB, and the director encouraged me to become a voice major. At the time, I didn't know opera that well." After being cast in opera at UCSB, Michael decided to move on to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and then continued his education at SUNY Fredonia and the Curtis Institute of Music.
"Being in San Francisco was a wonderful place for me to come of age. I performed in opera there and was accepted into the Merola Opera Program for young artists with the San Francisco Opera. That's where I started doing serious singing and was encouraged to audition for Curtis."
While on the east coast, Michael branched out in new directions. He explained, "I became a member of the Baroque and early music family, learning from great singers and doing a lot of recording. That opened up opportunities for me in Europe. My wife was singing there often, so it made sense for me to work there, as well. After success in Europe, I started getting calls to sing back in the US, like at the New York City Opera."
After moving back to the States, Dean started teaching at the New England Conservatory of Music. Having students to consider, the drain of an operatic career became a burden. "I started doing more orchestral repertoire instead of opera so I could concentrate on my students. And once my wife and I started a family, we decided to focus on teaching and orchestral concerts," Michael said.
When early music-colleague (and Pacific Serenades performer) Juliana Gondek let Michael know about an opening at UCLA, where she is a faculty member, he jumped at the chance to move back to Southern California. "I just love it here," Michael said. "The students are musically and academically bright. It's an ideal situation, especially after winters on the east coast and in Europe!"
His first Pacific Serenades performances were in 2007, when he premiered Artistic Director Mark Carlson's Songs of Rumi, for baritone, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. Michael was thrilled with the opportunity and at the time said, "Rumi is one of my favorite poets," he said. "I've always hoped someone would set music to his words. And having Mark composing this work is wonderful because he takes text very seriously. He tries to evoke the colors he sees in the words. Some composers have musical ideas before they see the text, but Mark's music grows organically from it."
In fact, after getting to perform the songs three times on our concerts, he loved them so much that he asked Mark if he would please program them on a UCLA Faculty Composers concert, which he did in 2009. Since then, Michael has recommended those songs to many other singers.
No stranger to new music, Dean has premiered many new works throughout his career as well. "It's a joy to work with composers on new pieces. Sometimes there are revisions in the rehearsal process, and being able to collaborate directly with the composer is a great experience. That's something you don't get with Mozart or Bach."
Tony Spano, Jr.