Vann Vocal Institute Article by Jack Zimmerman

That would have satisfied most people, but Stakely, a big, gregarious man loaded with Southern charm, saw opportunity here. While Stakely has spent his working life at the practice of law, he’s harbored an intense passion for the arts and has spent plenty of time serving on various not-for-profits’ boards. His involvement with the advisory board of the Boston University Tanglewood Institute was what first brought him in contact with Cangelosi a quarter-century ago.

“I met Charlie in the early 1990’s at Tanglewood,” Cangelosi says. “It’s been a long friendship. Near the beginning of my career, he had me come to Montgomery to appear with the orchestra.” From this friendship the Vann Vocal Institute was born.

In 2007 Stakely told Cangelosi about the bequest and asked for his suggestions. “He jumped right at it,” Stakely says. “He did some masterclasses for a couple of years and then said we needed to broaden things out.”

Cangelosi began the broadening-out process by bringing fellow opera singers to Montgomery. They, too, coached young singers, conducted masterclasses, and lectured. It was then that he hit on the idea of a Celebrity Recital. “I realized that it was a waste to have these world-class artists in town and not have them perform for the students and the public,” he says. “I discussed it with Charlie Stakely. I told him we’d have to raise more money, but it would be a great way to kick off what was to follow – the educational component of the Institute.”

Money was raised both for the Institute’s core mission – the training of young singers – and for the Celebrity Recital. “David contacted two foundations in Chicago, the NIB Foundation and the Pauls Foundation,” says Stakely. “And because of David, they are now sponsors. This has helped us greatly and has allowed us to do so much more.”

The Celebrity Recital is certainly a proper kickoff for the following days of high-end vocal instruction. The recital is free and open to the public, and of course, every seat is filled. Sitting in the audience, one is struck by the level of civic pride that Montgomery residents have for the Vann Vocal Institute. Present are doctors, lawyers, local business owners, and Montgomery residents of all ages and from all walks of life.

To be in Montgomery while the Vann Vocal Institute is in session is to witness a community at its best – the coming together of private citizens and businesses to encourage and nurture the talents and aspirations of young singers. Cameron West, President of Huntingdon College, provides his campus to the Vann Vocal Institute free of charge. This includes coaching rooms, and a jewel-box performance space, Ligon Chapel, Flowers Hall. Local business owner Jim Wilson of Jim Wilson & Associates and his brother Wil provide their corporate jet to fly the faculty to Montgomery, and there are countless others who attend to the numerous details of hosting an internationally renowned faculty and students from seven different states.

For the recital, Cangelosi handles the programming duties. “I poll my faculty, ask them for a couple of their favorites, maybe something they really want to do but rarely get a chance to perform,” he says. Clifton Forbis was the first to sing on last year’s Celebrity Recital. His ‘Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond’ from Wagner’s Die Walküre elicited thunderous applause and the audience was no less enthusiastic for any of the other artists who followed.

The morning after the recital, sixty students negotiate the registration process. They are introduced to the faculty, and then the private coaching sessions begin. “We try to provide as much attention to the students as we can,” says Cangelosi. “Our goal, of course, is to get everybody at least one coaching session with someone of their own voice type.”

The faculty works non-stop and Cangelosi runs a continual masterclass for two days. Finally, near the end of the last day, the faculty picks the finest nine or ten students for the “Emerging Artists Recital.”

The recital, held in Ligon Chapel, Flowers Hall, is also open to the public and is always well-attended. The program moves quickly with singers appearing in alphabetical order. The Institute awards prize money to outstanding students chosen by the faculty but every student on the recital receives some financial encouragement.

University of Alabama senior Andrew Nalley (baritone) has been a participant in three Vann Vocal Institutes, and he’s the winner of the 2016 CAS Award for Excellence. “The bang for the buck is great,” he says. “You get to work with world-renowned singers who know their craft. The cool thing is that every year they bring in new people. It’s always nice to have someone who hasn’t heard you take a fresh look at your singing.”  This year Nalley had a coaching with Clifton Forbis among others.

The night before the 2016 Celebrity Recital, the Institute’s supporters and faculty gathered for an opening-night reception. Cangelosi offered inspiring words in which he quoted Benjamin Franklin about the power of community members making small but meaningful donations and coalescing around an idea with a collective intention.  

The following night, just before the Celebrity Recital, a local donor who was so moved by those words stopped Cangelosi and made more than a small donation. “Let’s triple the prize money,” he said.

“Top prize used to be a thousand – it’s now three-thousand,” says Cangelosi. “A $400 prize became a $1,200 prize. For the 10th anniversary, we’re expecting to award $10,000 in overall prize money.”

Now, headed into its tenth year, the Vann Vocal Institute has grown far beyond the expectations of those who were there at the start. Even so, the indefatigable Charlie Stakely is hardly resting on past successes. “I’d like to see the Vann Vocal Institute not be limited to just Alabama and its adjoining states,” he says. “I’m talking to some of the Texas schools right now. I’d like to open it up and with these sponsors we have, I think that’s a possibility.”

“It takes twenty years to become an overnight success,” laughs Cangelosi. “And we’ve been at it for only nine, so we still have eleven years left. If those first nine years are any indication, our future is really promising.”

Despite his ever-present enthusiasm, Stakely views the Institute’s success philosophically. “It was a surprise when Roy Vann gave us the seed money to start all this,” he says. “I think he’d be very proud of what it’s become.”

Indeed he would.

 

Jack Zimmerman is a Chicago writer who has worked for Lyric Opera of Chicago and Ravinia Festival. He has authored more than 2,300 newspaper columns and two published novels.