From the ‘nosebleeds’ to the opera stage

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Max Zander, a Great Neck native, said he remembers his sophomore year at Great Neck South High School when he went on a class trip to see Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro” up “in the nosebleeds” at the Metropolitan Opera House.
Zander said he found it “mind-blowing” that some performers made off-stage entrances with booming voices that could be heard throughout the theater without a microphone.
“When it was over, someone made a comment about doing the production without microphones,” he said. “I totally didn’t know that and that blew my mind that people had the power to do that.”
“I was suddenly very interested in having that kind of power,” Zander said. “Opera still wasn’t something I was going to pursue at the time but that was a big moment when planting that seed for me.”
Now almost eight years later, he has accepted an offer to join the Indianapolis Opera as a resident artist.
Zander was born and raised in Great Neck.
Although his family “appreciates” music, he said, they were hardly a “musical family.”
Zander said his grandmother had tried to teach him piano when he was in elementary school, but he had more interest in watching television with his younger brother.
While attending Saddle Rock Elementary School, he joined the school choir and began playing the cello.
In 5th grade, Zander said, he was selected to perform with the all-county chorus.
“By no means was it planting the seed for my future,” he said. “But what it did do was convinced me to stay in the choir programs in middle school and high school.”
Zander said that when he moved on to Great Neck South Middle School, he was the only male performing in the choir.
But once he reached Great Neck South High School, he said, his involvement with and understanding of the opera changed.
Zander credited South High for being one of the only public schools with an opera program.
During his junior year, the school was given tickets to take some students to the Richard Tucker Opera Gala in New York City. Tucker had lived in Great Neck and was an operatic tenor.
It was there that Zander said he realized that the opera was a “very manly art form.”
“In that moment, it was brought to my mind that it was a manly thing to do,” he said. “That was a really cool moment for me.”
Although he began taking voice lessons and was involved with the school’s theater program, Zander said his passion was to write music and become a composer.
“For me, writing music is the only true way to make something from nothing,” he said.
Zander said that while applying to colleges, he saw that not many schools would accept someone with minimal composition experience into their program.
But after the advice of his high school guidance counselor, he looked at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music.
He applied and auditioned to get into the school for voice, Zander said, ended up getting accepted and decided to attend the school.
It was at the Jacobs School of Music where he met his voice coach, Patricia Stiles, who he said played a vital role in his development in singing.
Within five minutes of meeting Stiles, Zander said, she figured out that he was a visual learner and improved his singing ability.
The summer after his freshman year, he said he traveled to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he performed a role in a production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” which was his first time performing in an opera.
“That was another thing that made me say ‘OK, I like this,’” Zander said. “Then the balls kind of kept rolling from there.”
The summer after his junior year, he traveled to Italy, where he played the lead role in Gaetano Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore,” or “The Elixir of Love.”
“It was such an awesome experience in getting to sing an Italian opera for Italian audiences in various theaters in Italy,” Zander said. “It was the largest role I’ve done to date, in opera terms.”
He received both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in vocal performance from the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music.
Zander said that during his final year completing his master’s degree, he saw a listing for auditions to be a resident artist with the Indianapolis Opera.
Three days after auditioning, he said, he received an email saying that he was selected for the program.
Resident artists with the Indianapolis Opera present operatic performances and educational experiences throughout Indiana and neighboring states.
Zander said that one of his favorite things about being a part of the program is performing for children.
Before performing for elementary school students, he said, he and his colleagues were talking with children and asked them what they knew about the opera.
Zander said he was shocked when a child responded that it was “something for rich and fancy people.”
“That was like a shot in the chest for all of us,” he said. “How does someone already have that impression? That’s a huge problem because frankly, opera has a stigma of being for rich and fancy people.”
“When operas of the past were being written by Mozart and all of these people, it was the people’s art form,” Zander added. “It was something that people wanted to see. It wasn’t this fancy thing and that’s something we really need to fix.”
As well as success in the industry, he said he wanted to play a role in giving children better exposure and a better experience with the opera, something he said he was fortunate to get at a young age.
“The more people that can be exposed to this art form, the better its future will be,” Zander said. “I would love to see that barrier get broken down, that stigma go away, and have people get excited about opera.”
While performing and school have kept him away from home for a while, he said he returned to Great Neck this past summer to spend time with family and perform with a company in New York City.
Zander said his parents, his brother, his friends and everyone in his network have played a big role in his achievements.
“To have such a wonderful support system, I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” he said. “I know not everyone has that, and that’s what really encouraged me to pursue my passions.”
“I don’t take that for granted and I’m blessed to have that,” Zander added.

By Joe Nikic

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