Ian Castro
© Eduardus Lee
Like certain roles or repertoire, the right training is a natural fit. Which is why Ian Castro didn’t hesitate when he was offered a position at the Dutch National Opera Studio. “I was looking for a high-level program where I can try things and be in a safe space to fall forward, so I can really learn from everything,” he says. “For that, I knew I needed to be here.”

Launched in September 2018, the Opera Studio is a two-year program that prepares aspiring singers and répétiteurs for an international career with a rigorous blend of coaching, workshops and performing experience. Castro, 26, is a tenor from New Jersey who had the good fortune to take master classes with Rosemary Joshua, the Welsh soprano who auditions and mentors singers accepted in the program.

“She pushes me in ways that I would not on my own, but always in a very understanding and positive manner,” Castro says. “I felt she was exactly what I needed to bring myself to the next level as a professional singer.”

Castro started out singing in high school musicals. He began his formal training at Montclair State University, which runs one of the best musical theater programs in the US and for the first two years he focused on the American songbook and Broadway fare. “But my voice quickly outgrew that repertoire, so I switched to the classical program,” he tells me.

By the time he graduated, Castro had the talent and skill to win a full scholarship to The Juilliard School in New York. Working hard, he got through that program in two years, albeit much of the time not in person. When the pandemic shut down schools and concert halls, his classes moved online, forcing him to work remotely with his teachers – hardly an ideal situation for a singer. But Castro was able to turn it to his advantage. “Without the pressure of having to learn specific roles and jump back and forth between different productions, I was able to step back, take a breath and make sure that everything I was working toward, technique-wise and stylistically, was at a really high level,” he says. “I don’t think I would be where I am now, especially at the Opera Studio, without having had that time to focus and digest the finer details of the repertoire.”

Castro was in three productions at Juilliard, but even before then he had significant experience that included the role of Ferrando in a Light Opera of New Jersey production of Così fan tutte and Oronte in Alcina at the Music Academy International in Mezzano, Italy. He also spent part of the summer of 2018 at the Internationale Meistersinger Akademie in Neumarkt, Germany, which is where he met Joshua. They stayed in touch, with her offering informal training and career advice. In November last year, she suggested that he try for the Opera Studio program.

The audition had to be done virtually. Joshua was in the Netherlands and Castro was in the living room of his voice coach and accompanist in the US. Because they were already so familiar with each other, it quickly turned into a working session. “Mostly Rosemary wanted to see if I was someone she wanted to work with on a daily or weekly basis,” Castro recalls. “We hit it off swimmingly and she offered me the position at the end of the audition. It was an amazing moment – I was ecstatic, over the moon.”

Life since then has been a whirlwind. Castro was scheduled to return to the Meistersinger Akademie in 2020 and then do a vocal residency at the Festival D’Aix-en-Provence, both of which were rescheduled to summer 2021. “It was great, especially in Aix, where we did a concert version of Mendelssohn’s Elijah, which was my first foray into oratorio,” he says. “I learned a whole lot about what my voice can do.”

But it didn’t leave time to go back to the US, and in mid-June he went directly to Amsterdam. “It was definitely overwhelming at times, bouncing between France and Germany and the Netherlands,” Castro admits, citing the support of his fiancée, young mezzo-soprano Alexandra Kilcoyne, as critical in making it all manageable.

After six weeks at the Opera Studio, Castro still feels a bit overwhelmed. “But in a good way,” he says. “Things move significantly faster than in an academic setting, but it’s not been like, here’s a ton of information, now go do something onstage. The staff here really knows how to manage time and the trajectory of your studies in a way that everything feels very secure.”

Ian Castro
© Joep Hijwegen
Along with vocal coaching, there have been acting and language classes as well as training in how to audition properly. Castro is scheduled to appear in the DNO productions of La Traviata and Anna Bolena later this season, but for a start has been focused largely on Mozart roles, mostly to learn the style and characteristics of his music. It’s already been an eye-opener. “It’s different from what I learned in the States, where it’s very textbook – Mozart has to be done a certain way or it’s not right,” he says. “Here, there’s so much more than just what’s written on the page. You can experiment with dynamic choices and stylistic choices. It’s a lot more work, but the people at the Opera Studio are willing to take the extra time to help you discover what unique and special qualities you can bring to a role.”

Being in a professional environment has also lifted Castro’s sights beyond the day-to-day grind of learning his craft. “I have a few technical things and linguistic things that need to get fixed, but at the end of the day I’m here to achieve a certain level of artistry,” he says. “It’s about exploring what makes my sound special and makes me different from any other tenor.”

Castro is the beneficiary of a scholarship from the New York Opera Foundation, but Opera Studio members are also paid a stipend that allows them to live and work like regular DNO employees, which has eased the transition to a new, foreign city. While he’s not exactly new to Europe, walking the streets of Amsterdam has been an exhilarating experience. “Coming from a car culture, being in a city where you can easily get on a tram or bike, or walk anywhere you need to go, is amazing,” he says. “And the music and art scene here is everything you could possibly wish for. Being inundated with so much history around every corner is just mind-blowing.”

Ultimately, Castro expects the Old World environment will inform his artistry. “Being in the places where these composers lived and worked definitely brings a new level of understanding,” he says. “Of course, they lived in different times. But music is basically an extension of someone’s culture, and experiencing that culture helps you understand things like the significance of story elements, or why certain rhythms are important.”

In practical terms, Castro has specific goals in mind for the next two years. “I plan on leaving the program with at least 10 roles learned, to the point where if I’m cast in one of them in the next five to 10 years, I can dust it off and really delve into it in a deeper way,” he says. “I want to give myself the best foot forward. Here at the opera house there are so many coaches and teachers happy to work that way, so I should be able to build up a repertoire that will benefit me.”

Long-term, Castro is aiming for an international career. “One of my favorite things to do is travel, so I am hoping to be able to go around the world and perform,” he says. “After we live here longer, my fiancée and I will decide whether we want to make our home base in Europe or the US.”

But first, there are adjustments to make. “The big takeaway so far is that I’m not viewed as a student, but as an artist,” Castro says. “I can really experiment in a way that I never could in an academic setting. It’s a whole different mindset and it's taking a bit to become comfortable with. But at the end of the day, I’m here because I’m compatible with professionals, learning how to make real art of what I can do onstage.”

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With the Young Artists To Watch project Bachtrack aims to shine a bright spotlight on deserving artists from all over the world that might not be getting as much visibility as they would have without the limitations caused by the pandemic.

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