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The Voice Of Reason Successful Opera Career Helps Frank Hernandez Leave Football Behind

Travis Rivers Correspondent

Six years ago, he was on the football field playing for Wenatchee Valley College.

Now he is an internationally known baritone. At 26, Frank Hernandez, who grew up in the small farming town of Ferndale in northwest Washington, is remarkably far along the road of what many opera experts say will be a major operatic career.

Hernandez began his career here in Spokane while he was a student at Whitworth College. He could have played football at Whitworth, too, but instead he switched to full-time music study.

“I knew I was not going to play football for the rest of my life,” he says. “Chances are slim to none that a person can have a career in sports. But I knew that I was going to have my voice for the rest of my life, and if I didn’t screw it up, I could have a lifetime of music.”

Hernandez returns to Spokane this weekend to sing three concerts with the Spokane Symphony at The Met. The Monday concert was added in anticipation of high interest.

He will sing arias by Mozart, Donizetti and Bellini. the orchestra, under the baton of Fabio Mechetti, will play Schubert’s Symphony No. 5 and Copland’s “Latin American Sketches.”

At 16, Hernandez was a sometime singer. He won top honors in a regional music competition in Bellingham. “My mother called a voice teacher at Western Washington University and told her, ‘My son is going to be an opera singer when he grows up,’ ” the baritone recalls. “I’m sure the teacher must have snickered hearing that.”

But the teacher later told Hernandez, “When I talked to your mother, I had no idea that this kind of voice was going to come out of you.”

So he began sporadic lessons. “I was a jock,” Hernandez says. “I was in every sport imaginable in high school. So, just being a stupid kid, I canceled many of my lessons.”

He attended Wenatchee Valley College on a football scholarship before entering Whitworth, where he studied with Uptown Opera’s artistic director, Marjory Halvorson. After graduation, Hernandez spent two years at Oberlin College working with Richard Miller, a much-admired vocal authority. Hernandez still considers Halvorson and Miller the primary guides of his career.

Success at Oberlin led to Hernandez’s acceptance into the Houston Grand Opera’s apprentice program, the Houston Opera Studio. Almost immediately, though, he was drafted for major roles with the Houston Grand Opera itself.

“I had the small role of Gregorio in ‘Romeo et Juillette,”’ Hernandez says. “Just from my work in that, David Gockley, Houston Opera’s general director, contracted me to sing Sharpless in ‘Madama Butterfly’ and Germont in ‘Traviata.”’

Gockley spotted star quality. Hernandez was dazed. “I asked them when I was signing my contract, ‘Is this normal for someone 24 years old?”’ he says. “Gockley said, ‘No, it’s not normal at all. But we think you’re going to be a star.”’

Star quality in opera nowadays involves not only beautiful singing, but a handsome stage appearance and good communication with an audience. Opera News critic William Albright describes Hernandez as “having a handsome baritone and a hearty presence.”

And he received some surprising breaks. When the baritone scheduled for Marcello in Houston’s “La Boheme” returned to Spain without informing management, Hernandez was called in. “I had six days to learn the role,” he says. In a make it or break it situation, Hernandez made it.

Hernandez was selected to perform Riolobo, the leading male role in Daniel Catan’s “Florencia en el Amazonas,” which premiered in Houston last October. “I get to sing some beautiful music, very melodic like Puccini. But it also has a lot of Latin American atmosphere with instruments and textures you don’t often hear in opera,” he says.

The opera received mixed reviews, but Hernandez impressed everyone.

In February, shortly after Hernandez had nasal surgery to relieve a sinus problem, he again was called on short notice to replace the baritone scheduled for Valentin in “Faust.” Again, the critical notices were good.

Earlier this season, Hernandez sang for opera director Peter Brook in New York. Brook was so impressed, he arranged for Hernandez to fly to Berlin, where he sang for conductor Claudio Abbado. “I sang for Abbado on the stage of the Berlin Philharmonie; that was a real thrill,” Hernandez says.

Although Abbado and Brook wanted him to sing Masetto in their Aix-en-Provence Festival production of “Don Giovanni,” Hernandez had to turn down the invitation. Previous engagements made it impossible.

“I was really looking forward to working with Brook and Abbado,” Hernandez says. “At my age, I can’t imagine ever being afforded that kind of opportunity. Then to have it taken away, that was just … ugh.”

The baritone has been resting in Atlanta between performances of “Faust” in Houston and his concert here in Spokane. Perhaps “relaxing” is an exaggeration. He and his fiancee, soprano Jan Grissom, have been planning their May 25 wedding. “I had no idea what all goes into these things,” he says.

The two met when both were singing in “La Boheme” in Detroit, he as the painter Marcello, she as his spitfire lover, Musetta. Both have busy careers.

Next season will find Hernandez singing Masetto with the Washington Opera as well as appearing in Europe for the first time, as Marcello at the Bordeaux Opera in France. Plus, he has performances in Houston, Detroit and Milwaukee.

Hernandez will return to Spokane in September, along with Grissom, for Uptown Opera’s production of Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: CONCERT The Spokane Symphony performs with baritone Frank Hernandez at The Met at 3 p.m. Saturday and at 7:30 p.m. Monday and Tuesday. Tickets: $9 to $19, available at the symphony ticket office (624-1200), G&B Select-a-Seat outlets or call (800) 325-SEAT.

This sidebar appeared with the story: CONCERT The Spokane Symphony performs with baritone Frank Hernandez at The Met at 3 p.m. Saturday and at 7:30 p.m. Monday and Tuesday. Tickets: $9 to $19, available at the symphony ticket office (624-1200), G&B; Select-a-Seat outlets or call (800) 325-SEAT.

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