When professional opera singer Adam Lau ’06 started college at Whitman, he was absolutely sure about one thing:
“Marine biology. Boom. I was set.”
A master’s degree in vocal performance, a young artist residency at the Florida Grand Opera, a host of glowing reviews for main-stage performances and a pile of vocal competition wins later, Lau has reconsidered.
“It’s so interesting how life gives you these little tests to see what you’ll do,” he said, remembering the moment when the emphasis of his double major in biology and music shifted for good.
“It was the one semester I wasn’t taking any music, and something was missing,” Lau said. “[Associate Professor of Biology] Delbert Hutchison pulled me into his office. That year I was kind of unsure how to proceed, what direction I wanted to go. I really loved singing, but I had my doubts. He nudged me in the right direction, and told me that when you’re given a gift, it’s your responsibility to give it back.”
That advice struck a chord with Lau, and resonated with the encouragement he’d been getting from former Whitman music professors Robert Bode and Lee Thompson. When Bode suggested Lau enter a college music competition, the young basso cantante rushed to prepare two pieces at the last minute.
In German. Which he didn’t speak.
Lau made it to the final round of the competition, and while singing for the judges had a life-changing epiphany: there simply would be no turning back from music for him.
“It just felt right,” he said of that performance. “Performers talk about ‘electricity’ on stage. I could almost feel the audience breathing with me.”
From then on Lau devoted himself to developing his musical talents; biology took a back seat.
He placed second in that contest – though he came back the following year and won the whole thing – and soon after that, cancelled his plans to spend the next semester abroad studying coral reefs in the Turks and Caicos islands. Instead, Lau tried out for the school musical and landed the part of Grand Pooh-bah in The Mikado.
From there, Lau’s career snowballed: summer of his junior year, he was accepted to Brevard Music Center’s summer institute, where he performed a lead role in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. After graduating from Whitman he went on to Rice University, where he earned a Master of Music degree and learned Italian – an opera singer needs to be able to sing proficiently in Italian, German, French and English, as well as Latin and even Russian – then sang freelance for a year, flying from one production to the next and living out of a suitcase for months at a time.
In 2012, Lau won a two-year young artist residency at Florida Grand Opera, where he appeared in main-stage roles including Colline in La bohème, the Sprecher in Die Zauberflöte, Angelotti in Tosca, Palémon in Thaïs and the High Priest of Baal in Nabucco.
“What was nice about Florida Grand was that, because it’s a young artist program, it was the last step for me before going ‘pro,’” Lau said. “It gave me two more years to grow as a musician and a singer.”
Time to grow is especially important for his particular instrument, he explained. “Basses are the last voice type to develop – they take the longest to mature, vocally. With that delay, having those two extra years was priceless.”
Now in his early 30s and out on the scene as a professional, Lau said his voice is still coming into full stride.
“What’s nice about my voice type is we get to do such a large spectrum of characters and roles – it keeps things interesting. Recently it’s been a lot of old man characters; a lot of times I’m wearing beards, which makes it tricky because they don’t teach you how to sing while something is glued to your face.”
Costuming for his role as the High Priest in Verdi’s Nabucco, for example, involved facial prosthetics and hand casts. “I looked like Sauron from The Lord of the Rings,” he said. “It took a good hour to transform me into that creepy priest.”
Lau’s upcoming productions include Cosi fan tutte with Opera Naples; Don Giovanni with North Carolina Opera; Richard the Lionheart and The Barber of Seville with Opera Theatre of Saint Louis; and the world premiere of An American Dream with Seattle Opera.
He’ll work on the memorization and practice of many of these roles simultaneously. “There is a lot of multi-tasking,” he said.
Lau’s advice to young people interested in pursuing a career in opera applies to many other careers as well: do your homework and prepare, be patient, and don’t take rejection personally.
Watch Adam Lau sing:
Haydn's The Creation