Imagine a baseball scout who travels the country, searching for the next can’t-miss phenom who looks like a future major-league player.
That, in essence, is what Gayletha Nichols does.
Only she scouts for the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. And she’s hunting for future opera stars.
Nichols, a 1979 Simpson graduate, will return to campus Sunday night to visit with students and share her expertise about how to launch a career in the highly competitive field of opera performance.
Bernard McDonald, Simpson’s director of opera, said he is thrilled about the visit.
“This is a wonderful opportunity for Simpson students to receive expert counsel about starting out as young professional singers, careers in music in general, and what it was like to be a music student at Simpson in the 1970s, from a distinguished alumna and artistic administrator who is at the very top of the profession,” he said. “It is not possible to be a young singer in America today without crossing paths with Ms. Nichols.”
Nichols joined the artistic staff of the Metropolitan Opera in the fall of 2000 as executive director of the National Council Auditions.
She will be in Ames on Saturday to serve as a judge for the Iowa district auditions. District auditions are held throughout the country. Winners advance to 14 regional competitions. From there, 20 to 24 young performers will compete in the semi-finals in New York City.
All will be trying to follow the path of John Osborn, ’94, who won the National Council Auditions while a Simpson senior. Abby Rethwisch, who graduated last month from Simpson, and Shannon Prickett, ’09, will be among the 30 or so performers competing in Ames.
It’s sort of like “American Idol” for opera singers, with one important difference. The TV show takes performers right off the street.
“That’s not really true for us,” Nichols says. “We’re always looking for people who have been through very rigorous classical musical training already. It’s not really like you can be a singer in the shower and somehow make it to the Met.”
So how long does it take Nichols to spot a future star?
“Sometimes it only takes four measures and you just think, ‘Wow,’ and then you keep listening to make sure you’re right. And then you ask for a second piece to make sure that you’re sure that you’re right.”
It works the other way, too.
“I can tell in about eight measures, ‘No, this is never going to happen.’ The instrument is what it is. There is something that’s in the instrument inherently that stands out.”
Nichols grew up in the country near the small town of Attica, about 45 minutes from Indianola, and began taking voice lessons at Simpson when she was 16 years old. That led to an offer for her to join the chorus for the first summer festival of the Des Moines Metro Opera.
“I’d never even seen an opera at that point,” she says.
After graduating with degrees in music education and vocal performance, Nichols taught voice lessons. Between 1992 and 2000, she was director of the Houston Opera Studio, the young artist development program at Houston Grand Opera.
Nichols said she has always seemed to possess the ability to assess young talent, “but I didn’t realize it was anything special” until later in life.
Of Simpson, she says, “I have great memories of my time there.”
“The Simpson College Music Department enjoys a distinguished reputation in the nation’s vocal community, to an extent that I suspect even the college is not aware,” she added. “Simpson was a great beginning for me, and it continues to be for others. I am happy to be able to help the current generation of Simpson students get an insight into professional opera and how to get started in the business.”