Music Student's Career Builds to a Crescendo
When Jennifer Darius finished her audition for the University choir five years ago, Peter Bagley knew he had heard something special.
"I thought to myself, 'This is a marvelous instrument'," recalls Bagley, professor of music and director of choral activities. "It was a very musical sound and a very warm voice, particularly for an incoming freshman. I asked Jennifer if she had studied voice, and she said no."
Darius had come to UConn to study medicine. Although she had been in the chorus at Windham High School, she had never had a singing lesson. Bagley, taken with her voice, encouraged her to start. She began to take lessons with Constance Rock, who would become her mentor and friend. She joined the chorus, and continued studying the sciences.
As time passed, however, Darius began to have second thoughts about a career in medicine. "Things progressed and I became more and more interested in the music," she says. "By spring semester of my sophomore year, I knew I wanted to switch my major." And she did.
Rock saw it coming. "I could hear it every week. Her voice would just get better and better," says Rock, lecturer in voice and diction at UConn and The Hartt School of Music at Hartford.
Rock glows when she talks about Darius: "Her voice is the kind that gives you goose bumps," she says.
Darius started as an alto, but turned into a soprano. "It took a while," Rock says, "but that happens with the larger voices like Jen's - a very round full voice. After we worked with her voice, you could tell it was going to be something special, and it was going to be a soprano."
Darius says Rock was patient. "As we progressed, my top range started to develop," she says. "Connie could hear that my voice wanted to explore that higher range and was beginning to be able to do that. She worked on that and found ways for me to explore that range comfortably and slowly."
Darius and her family live in Hampton. Her parents are from Haiti. She and her two sisters grew up singing Haitian and French songs. As a child, she took lessons in violin, piano and clarinet, but had no special training in classical music.
Singing has now become Darius' life. "The opportunity to make music is phenomenal," she says. "You learn how to sing in different languages, and the enjoyment of knowing what a particular piece means and being able to express a feeling that somebody else - a poet or composer - is trying to portray in a piece of music is a wonderful opportunity. Doing scenes with the opera program was so much fun and a great way to connect with other people. I fell in love with it."
Rock says Darius is "a wonderful person. She is confident, very intelligent, a beautiful soul, a natural musician, and a hard worker." What makes Darius so special is not only her magnificent voice but also her understanding of how to use it - "a combination that students don't always have," she adds.
With some singers, she says, "you can hear a wonderful voice in there, but no matter how many different ways you try to get them to understand how to use it, they just don't get it. But Jen has it all. She's got a wonderful stage presence and languages are very easy for her, which is great, because we sing in so many languages." Darius is bilingual in French and Creole.
Being a music major is time-intensive. Darius takes a one-hour lesson with Rock each week and practices daily with her accompanist Sandra Haas. Then there are rehearsals - for an upcoming opera, choir performances, and preparation for competitions and auditions. On weekends, Darius works behind the circulation desk at the music library.
All her hard work has paid off. She recently received a prestigious award at the Metropolitan Opera district auditions at Yale University, where she was competing with top talents. The Francesco and Hilda Riggio Award is given to encourage and assist a contestant below age 29 who has shown great potential. One of the judges of the competition, the executive director of Opera News, the leading opera publication in the U.S., is writing an article about Darius for the June issue.
When her name was called as the winner of the Riggio award, Darius "was completely shocked. I was just floored. I went into this audition because Connie wanted me to see what it was like to sing for other people. I didn't think that anything would come out of it," she says.
Darius had to prepare five arias. "You sing one of your choice and the judges usually choose another. In my case, they asked me to sing a third. I was done singing my second aria and I said 'thank you' and walked upstage. Then the usher came back out and said they wanted to hear another. And I sang the third."
Darius sang "Tu Che di Gel" from Turandot by Puccini, followed by "My Man's Gone Now" from Porgy and Bess by Gershwin, and "Porgi Amor" from The Marriage of Figaro.
"I just wanted to make Connie proud," Darius says. "I knew she'd be sitting in the audience. She is so nurturing. She only wants what's best for her students. She has worked hard to help me through so much. Everything I have done singing-wise, vocally, and all my training - I owe everything to Connie."
Darius is now busy rehearsing for The Marriage of Figaro, Mozart's four-act opera to take place April 22 in von der Mehden Recital Hall, where she will perform the role of the Countess. (She will share the role with another student). She has been rehearsing for the part all year.
"I've never done anything like this before, only a one-act opera and opera scenes," she says. "I can't wait. It's an opportunity of a lifetime."
Darius, who will graduate in May, plans to stay at UConn to earn her master's degree.