A New Voice at the New School: Baritone Vocalist Aims for Opera Career

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Asked to name his favorite opera, senior classics major Jonathan Mortensen ’12 at first shakes his head, daunted by the magnitude of the question. But then he settles.

“It has to be Otello,” he says, referring to Giuseppe Verdi’s four-act work based on Shakespeare’s Othello. “Specifically the character Iago. It’s the best bass role.”

Mortensen, a resident of Lancaster, Pa., will leave Philadelphia this fall for Mannes College, the classical music conservatory of The New School in New York City. Over the course of the next two years, he will dedicate his time to fine-tuning his vocal skills and earn his master’s in vocal performance, with a focus on opera.

“I want to spread out as much as I can,” Mortensen says. “My goal is to be a professional singer, so I’ll take on opera as well as musical theater. Because the two are so different technically, classical training is a strength.”

Vocal performance wasn’t always a career goal. As a first year student in 2008, Mortensen’s plans included history and Russian. A dedicated student, his interests grew to include ancient history and Latin, eventually leading him to declare a major in classics. The classics study combined his interest in history with his interest in language, and he saw himself on the path to teaching Latin and pursuing advanced degrees.

At the same time, Mortensen was involved with Saint Joseph’s University Singers, SJU Concert Choir and the men’s a cappella group, 54th and City. It was through these groups that he met Thomas Juneau, D.M.A., director of University Singers and adjunct instructor of voice in the department of music, theatre and film.

“When I first met Jonathan, I was not only tremendously impressed with his level of knowledge; I was amazed that there was this vocal talent who loved classics and spoke Latin,” says Juneau. “I am so happy that he will be adding his talent to the world of opera which he so loves.”

Mortensen began taking voice lessons from Juneau, who proved to be an influence on the young performer.

“I was interested in opera and performance in high school, and my love of classical music was nurtured by my mother,” says Mortensen. “But taking voice with Tom Juneau was a motivating factor in making this a real possibility.”

Though vocal performance began to take a lead role in his life, Mortensen remained dedicated to his study of the classics. He participated in the Summer Scholars program, completing a research project on Augustinian poetry under the mentorship of Maria Marsilio, Ph.D., director of classics and the Honors program, and professor of modern and classical languages.

“Jon's training in Latin language, history and culture will enrich and enliven his study of music in voice at The New School,” says Marsilio. “Whether he’s reading in meter Horace’s Odes I.11 or Virgil's Aeneid, or singing Handel’s Messiah, Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, or Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd – Jon's intellect and vocal talents are memorable and will grace the stages and concert halls of the world.”

Suzanne Sorkin, Ph.D., associate professor of music and chair of the department of music, theatre and film, anticipates that Mortensen’s education at The New School will take him to great places.

“Jonathan has been a tremendous asset to the music program at Saint Joseph's,” says Sorkin.  “He’s a gifted young baritone with a dynamic and inspiring stage presence, uncompromising work ethic, and genuine passion for performance.  Studying music at the graduate level is an important and necessary next step for Jonathan, and will challenge him to further develop his ability as a musician, vocalist and performer.”

For Mortensen, music and vocal performance combine all of his interests into a single, lifelong pursuit.

“It’s a transcendent art,” says Mortensen. “When you encounter music, you get to participate in a moment that has occurred in different eras and live within it. Opera meshes history and language; it develops your intellect in a way that other music does not. I wouldn’t have made a different choice.”

Mortensen is a member of Phi Alpha Theta, Mu Omega Chapter; National Honors Society; and was the sole SJU student to earn the F. Russell & Ruth Greenspan Scholarship in American History in the 2010-11 academic year.

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