By - SHAUN T. KOH / MUSIC CORRESPONDENT - COUNTY LIVING
“I suppose I could have been a doctor and helped people live physically,” said Mitchell Hutchings recently. “But, I chose art so I can help people live emotionally.” The art this Parkwood High grad and Monroe native speaks of is opera.
In March next year, Hutchings, 28, will make his Carnegie Hall debut in New York City in Mozart’s “Requiem” and Beethoven’s “choral fantasy” with the National Sacred Honors Choir.
Debbie Watwood was the choral director when Hutchings was at Parkwood. She now teaches at Central Academy of Technology and Arts in Monroe. “I have kept in touch with Mitchell like I have many of my other students, and I’m very proud of him and his work,” she said.
Watwood said the first time she heard him sing, she knew he had a “God-given gift”. But she said he wasn’t very confident. “It took many words of encouragement and a vast amount of patience to actually show him what he was capable of.”
After high school, Hutchings went on to Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte and became active in the widely-respected opera program.
In 2004, he was cast in the chorus of Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers.” The composer is best known for the popular “Carmen.” “Although I didn’t have a leading role, I was able to really absorb the entire atmosphere of the art form — which was completely foreign to me at the time,” Hutchings explained. He also came to realize that opera, which is often sung in other languages, is quite accessible nowadays with its timeless stories. There are big-screen “super-titles” that display the translation in real-time above the stage.
When he transferred to Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, he got active in the rich musical theater tradition there. He also cemented his commitment to opera when he went on to study and perform in Italy before returning to the United States and to Florida State University, where he obtained his master’s degree. “I can appreciate all music. If it has a purpose and possesses a stable musical form with pleasing melody and harmony, I will like it,” Hutchings said.
His voice-type is that of a bass baritone that often depicts villains. Those would be roles such as Marcello in Puccini’s “La Boheme,” Scarpia in “Tosca,” Jud Fry in “Oklahoma!” and the title role in “Sweeney Todd.” He said although most operas are in Italian, he “has a special place in my heart for what the French school was composing for baritone during this time.” Some day, he would love to sing the role of Valentin in “Faust” by Gounod.
Being an opera singer has its ups and downs. He said one of the benefits of being a musician is being able to travel to many interesting places around the world. “We also can often be a part of some of the most prestigious gatherings in a given city,” he said. But it is a taxing lifestyle, and the number of people who can actually “make it professionally,” is probably in the hundreds, he estimates.
This fall, Hutchings and his wife, Sarah, a composer, moved to western New York where Mitchell assumed the position of assistant professor of voice, at Houghton College, where his chosen profession requires a lot of hard work, dedication and a tough skin. But he gets to go to work and play. “I have the opportunity to live as another person for an evening or afternoon. And through this other person, I get to weave a story in such a way that can dramatically change an audience’s perspective on a given subject matter.”
Critics have been pleased with his performances. “Most promising baritone in quite some time,” hailed the Lincoln Times News of Burlington. “…a passionate performance (as Angelotti in ‘Tosca’)” said the Pensacola (Fla.) News Journal. “Lively,” said the New York Times.
While he is excited about his ability to move an audience, he is similarly enthralled by the way music can also move him. “There is absolutely nothing like singing with a full orchestra. And most of the time, there is zero enhancement from amplification, microphones, synthesizers or anything,” he said. “I have never had a mic-check before an opera.” The recognition also makes the hard work worth it. This summer, he was awarded second place in The American Prize in Opera. Watwood is proud of her former student. “Seeing all Mitchell has done since graduating high school has me as proud as any mother could be for their own child."