Alumnus takes to international stage

Cecilia Bartoli’s homepage claims the renowned coloratura mezzo soprano brings classical music close to the hearts of millions of people throughout the world. One of those hearts belongs to Western alumnus Houman Behzadi.

In August, he will meet his idol Bartoli, and study with her and her mother in Switzerland at the Gstaad Vocal Academy. The tenor is one of 15 international singers chosen for the program, part of the Menuhin Festival.

“It’s been a long dream of mine,” Behzadi says. “I’ve always loved her. I told my mother 15 years ago I wanted to study with her.”

He learned last year Bartoli and her mother taught at the summer academy in Gstaad. “I gave it a shot. I recorded three or four Rossini arias and a couple of Mozart and sent them with my bio. I just received a letter of acceptance. I’m very excited about the whole thing.”

It’s a tremendous achievement for any young singer to win such an audition, but Behzadi had an added twist.

“I come from Iran where opera was banned 30 years ago. To get to the point where I can stand and sing on stage for her – I try not to think about it. It makes me nervous.”

His journey to this point has been determined.

Growing up, Behzadi couldn’t go to the opera or even learn to sing. “I’ve always loved singing,” he says. “In Iran, there was no opportunity to sing opera or have lessons. So I picked up the violin – it was more available to me.”

Looking for a university to continue his studies, he chose the Don Wright Faculty of Music at Western.

“I needed a place where there was a good music program and a place that was nurturing. London has a nurturing nature. People are kind and accepting and willing to work with you, not for what you have, but for your potential. Montreal and Toronto have the programs but not the people. London has a willingness to give a chance,” he says. “It was there from beginning to the end of my time at Western.”

He credits professor emeritus Peter Clements, academic counsellor Diane Mills and Odilla van Delinder for helping him obtain his student visa and arrive in the nick of time. Behzadi landed in London on Sept. 7, 2001 – just one day late for classes and four days before 9/11.

After earning his bachelor of music and artist diploma as a violinist, Behzadi’s love of singing spurred him to take lessons from Torin Chiles, music performance studies. “He really pushed me to audition for the opera. I resisted – I thought they would laugh.”

Chiles kept encouraging. “He told me ‘You have a special instrument,’” Behzadi says. “And I landed a main role in Street Scene. I enjoyed the whole experience on stage, the singing and acting. I’d been singing mostly Baroque music, so Torin suggested I study with Rufus Müller of Tafelmusik. Müller told me Baroque wasn’t my thing but bel canto was.”

The program at Gstaad focuses on bel canto singing, a style of “beautiful singing” that originated in Italy and prevailed throughout the 18th century and first half of the 19th. “It was the height of classical singing,” Behzadi says. “It is the art of singing required from Handel to Mozart to Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti.”

It requires an agile voice, capable of runs and flourishes, swift register changes and technical acrobatics – all while sounding natural. And Bartoli is a master of the technique.

“Her mother was the only teacher she ever had. They are looking for people who are studying the same repertoire as she has. I love her musicianship – her attention to detail, her articulation – that appeals to me as a violinist. She is one of the best phrase makers,” Behzadi says. “That is my first attraction to her – her marvelous understanding of music.”

From Aug. 22-28, Behzadi will be immersed in vocal technique, diction, character development and interpretation. “It is comprehensive preparation for bel canto aria singing,” he says. The finale is a student concert.

Will it be very different from his stage experience as a violinist?

“That’s an interesting question,” he says. “The more I learn about singing, the more I see it’s about the same thing. Heifetz and Pavarotti used the same techniques to create sound, to phrase the same. A violinist tries to achieve the naturalness of a singer. As a singer, you look for the ability of the violin, to be aware of what is happening around you, to read music faster and develop precise ears. It’s all about the same thing – good music making, technical fluency and musical sensibility.”

Much of the sensibility was honed at university he said.

“Western prepares you for the next step,” he says. “It gives you what you need for another stage. I had my professional life as a violinist, so next I needed to concentrate on vocal technique. All the musicianship is there.”

Upon graduating two years ago, Behzadi went to Montreal to study with Stefano Algieri. He also polished his French and learned German and Italian, along with yoga and the Alexander Technique. Physical preparation is part of his regimen.

In the fall, Behzadi starts a master’s library program, MLIS, at McGill University, while continuing his voice lessons. His part-time work in the Music Library at Western sparked his interest in the field. He also plans to participate in more young artist and summer programs.

“I am looking forward to starting my career as a tenor.”