Opera legend joins Wichita Grand Opera

Getting to know Samuel Ramey

Written by Julie Schillings

Wichita resident Samuel Ramey may not be a household name in Kansas, but to millions of opera fans across the globe, he is regarded as one of the music world’s most charismatic and prolific American opera stars of the late 20th century. In other words, he’s kind of a big deal.

Kansas roots

Born in Colby, Kansas, Ramey grew up playing football, basketball and listening to Elvis Presley. He enjoyed performing in high school plays and his natural singing abilities became evident in the ranks of the church choir. “My three siblings and I all sang for fun, and my mother had a beautiful voice,” Ramey recalled his mother was always singing church hymns around the house. “She was so happy to have a professional singer in the family.” As a teenager, Ramey had no formal training and had never seen an opera performance when he stated his intention to major in music at Kansas State University after graduating from Colby High School.

The Summer of '63

“My interest in opera began at Kansas State University where my vocal instructor had me working on an aria from ‘The Marriage of Figaro,’” Ramey said. From that point on he spent hours in the university library listening to operatic recordings.

Ramey auditioned for a summer workshop at Colorado’s Central City Opera, and his first real exposure to live opera was the day he joined the chorus on stage. Ramey’s journey toward becoming one of opera’s major stars had begun. “I decided that summer to become an opera singer,” said Ramey.

With the encouragement of fellow student performers in the summer troupe, Ramey transferred to Wichita State University where he studied with former New York City Opera performer Arthur Newman. After earning his degree, Ramey spent a year with an opera company in North Carolina and made his move to New York City in 1969.

International Superstar

In 1973, Ramey made his debut at the New York City Opera with a small role in Bizet's “Carmen,” and later that season he took one of the major roles, that of Don Basilio, in Rossini's “The Barber of Seville.” His career took off. He began singing in Europe and soon became an international opera star, appearing on television, in film and making numerous recordings.

Ramey holds the honor of being the most recorded operatic bass in history. He has earned nearly every major award including three Grammy Awards, Gran Prix du Disc Awards, and “Best of the Year” awards from journals including Stereo Review and Opera News. In 1994, Ramey was named the Native Sons and Daughters' Kansan of the Year and was awarded a high honor by the French Ministry of Culture in 1998. Last year, he received a lifetime achievement award from the National Opera Association.

For more than four decades, Ramey has traveled the world becoming an operatic superstar. He has sung lead roles at the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera, Paris Opera and Vienna Opera, just to name a few. But he never lost his love for Kansas and the school that taught him the basics — Wichita State University.

Ramey finally made his first professional operatic appearance in his home state with Wichita Grand Opera (WGO) in 2007, starring in one of his signature roles, Scarpia in “Tosca.” Since then, he has performed with the WGO on numerous occasions.

In 2014, Ramey returned to Wichita, joining the faculty at WSU, where he mentors graduate students in developing their operatic repertoire and preparing them for auditions. He also became a member of the faculty of WGO’s Opera Academy of the Midwest in 2015 in the same capacity, and now he joins the Wichita Grand Opera in a newly-created position where he will serve as WGO’s Ambassador and Artistic Advisor.

Wichita Grand Opera President and CEO, Parvan Bakardiev, commented, “Margaret Ann Pent and I have endeavored to make the Wichita Grand Opera one of the finest companies in the region.

We are incredibly excited to add Samuel Ramey to the team, both as an ambassador to the community and for his comprehensive artistic knowledge and experience. Sam is an unparalleled artist and a true gentleman, and he, our Board and our executive staff are ready to get to work as we write a new chapter in the legacy of the WGO.”

Dr. Dennis and Ann Ross, noted Wichita philanthropists and music lovers, led the initiative to recruit Ramey to the ranks of the WGO and are underwriting Ramey’s new position. Wichita Grand Opera intends to increase their impact locally, regionally and nationally with three high-priority initiatives led by Ramey.

OPERA ACROSS KANSAS — Wichita Grand Opera will expand the art of opera to communities across the state of Kansas. As an expansion of successful performance series in Wichita, McPherson, Salina and Overland Park, WGO will form statewide advisory councils with a long-term goal to establish additional performance residencies in more Kansas cities.

OPERA ACADEMY OF THE MIDWEST — The Opera Academy of the Midwest is a vital stepping-stone in the careers of up-and-coming Kansas artists. Just as medical students go through a residency program before becoming fully-licensed doctors, the Academy provides opera singers with an intermediate step — an opportunity to be on stage next to world famous performers — before they embark on a professional career.

“I am extremely excited about developing a relationship with WSU’s music school and helping advance the careers of many talented students as well as advance the art of opera,” Ramey said.

WICHITA OPERA BUSINESS ALLIANCE — The presence of an opera company is a cultural asset for any community, and Wichita is fortunate to be home to the only professional opera company in the state of Kansas. Corporate recruiters use the presence of performing arts as a recruitment tool in attracting the best talent to Wichita. Forging relationships with the business community will support Wichita Grand Opera’s impact.

Adding this new dimension to his career, Ramey said, “Wichita Grand Opera is a magnificent artistic asset to the city of Wichita and the state of Kansas. I’m looking forward to the challenge of helping the WGO move forward into its next phase. Parvan Bakardiev and Margaret Ann Pent deserve a tremendous amount of credit for their artistic vision and dedicated work in creating this company from the ground up. The WGO Board of Directors has my sincere thanks for this opportunity, and my profound admiration for WGO’s numerous achievements in its first 16 years.”

 
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