Breathe the Music
Darrell Babidge helps opera students flourish
Written by Sarah Ostler Hill[image lightbox=”true” height=”550″ desc=”Photo by Nathalie Van Empel”]/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Darrill_full.jpg[/image]
The first thing you notice about Darrell Babidge, assistant professor of voice in the BYU School of Music, is that, for one whose record as a teacher and performer is so distinguished, he is incredibly humble. But with students winning the Metropolitan Opera competition, singers Skyping him from all over the world for lessons, and his own performing across the globe, he is a hidden gem in BYU’s faculty.
And he almost chose a different career path.
Babidge grew up in a small town in England. He was on track to go into the legal field when the company he was working for sent him to a recruiting office. Surprisingly, perhaps even to himself, he confided that he’d like to pursue a music career. The advisor brushed him off, assuring him there was no money in music.
Then and there, Babidge decided to pursue passion over profit.
“If you’re passionate about something, you have to make it your study. Go for it. Mine was music. I walked away from that advisor totally resolved to study music,” Babidge said.
Babidge already played the piano, but his real musical epiphany came when he attended his first opera at the age of 24. There, he was struck by how performers could use their whole body to produce a sound unlike any other. A passion was born.
A Passion for Music
“I’ve always loved music. It hits the soul more immediately than other things. With singing, it’s even more profound. You’re able to engage your body and soul at the same time. It is the most immediate art form,” Babidge said. “And with opera, you find a way to sing from a primal place. You connect with something holistic.”
Still, opera isn’t Babidge’s only musical love.
“I love listening to all genres of music. We always have music playing. I actually don’t listen to that much classical music outside of school,” he said.
Babidge couldn’t pinpoint a favorite album but said, “I most recently bought the new David Bowie album.”
He particularly feels that listening to sacred music strengthens his personal testimony. One of his favorite composers is Handel. “There’s something very transporting about his music. I can listen to his vocal compositions all day,” Babidge said. Conversely, his testimony helps him connect with his performances.
“If it’s anything to do with sacred music, where the spirit can really be touched, I feel like my faith helps me portray those pieces. I can be very moved. I might not have the voice of Caruso, but I would hope that people are moved by my portrayal because I feel a connection to the text.”
When learning a new piece, Babidge takes a clinical approach. If he has a few months to learn an opera role, he will memorize a certain amount of measures a day. “It’s important to study the role with text and music. It needs to become a part of you. That way, when you get to rehearsals, everything is there.”
The older Babidge gets, the more life experiences he has to draw on and these, he believes, makes him a better interpreter and performer. “As a teacher, I encourage my students to really tap into their experiences, to live and breathe the music rather than perform on the periphery.”
Babidge always prays that he will be in a good place for his performances, so he can best portray that which the composer created.
A Love for Teaching
Babidge has most recently been praised as the teacher of two winners in the Metropolitan Opera’s Annual National Council Auditions, which some see as “the Super Bowl of singing competitions.”
“I am amazed at how quickly some of these vocal students can develop their talents to a professional level,” he said. His student performed the lead role at the Royal Opera House in London’s Covent Garden. Rachel Willis-Sorensen, and her role as the countess in The Marriage of Figaro, was the cover story for the Fall 2012 issue of BYU Magazine. She credits Babidge’s voice lessons as a major turning point for her and said she takes a lesson from him whenever she can get back to Provo.
She isn’t the only person to travel in for lessons. Babidge and his wife, Jennifer – herself a renowned opera singer – have a whole roster of students who Skype for lessons and some who fly in annually for an intense week of coaching. “We have students around the country and others in Europe.”
Babidge’s students can also be found performing in such places as the Santa Fe Summer Opera program, the Metropolitan Opera, Houston Grand Opera, and major opera houses in Europe, or performing on Andrea Boccelli’s most recent album. With about 10-15 vocal performance students at BYU, and others in his private studio with his wife, Babidge is instrumental in helping students understand how to make their voices naturally bigger.
“I do different things with different students,” Babidge said. “Each student is a unique fingerprint, and so I have to work differently with each one. You have to be a good improviser at times too. Don’t get me wrong — I come from a very technical angle, but I have had to learn to adapt to each personality, as well as physiological differences. It would be impossible for me to write a book about singing.”
That may be disappointing to some aspiring musicians. But the man who has performed at Carnegie Hall as a soloist, sung a lead role with the Glyndbourne Opera Festival, and portrayed the Savior in Robert Cundick’s “The Redeemer,” can easily be found among the faculty of BYU’s School of Music. Right now, Darrell Babidge could be coaching another vocal student to excellence, inspiring a member of his audience to pursue their passion for music, or listening to David Bowie.