Opera singer and 2016 Davenport Central grad thrilled to be back home for weekend concerts

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Nick Fahrenkrug, a vocal performance master’s student at Louisiana State, performed as Harlekin in “Ariadne auf Naxos” in 2018 with Utah Vocal Arts.

After a tumultuous two years, Nick Fahrenkrug is happy to be back in his hometown of Davenport, to sing a famous Schubert song cycle Saturday and Sunday for the return of Opera Quad Cities.

A 2016 graduate of Davenport Central and 2020 alum of Lawrence University (Appleton, Wis.), Fahrenkrug is a second-year master’s student in vocal performance at the Louisiana State University School of Music, where he studies with baritone Dennis Jesse.

The Davenport baritone, with Greek pianist Eleonora Apostolidi (a doctoral candidate at LSU School of Music), will perform the complete song cycle “Die Schöne Müllerin” by Franz Schubert. The free concerts are 7 p.m. (both days) Saturday, Jan. 8 at Redeemer Lutheran Church, 1107 Tanglefoot Lane in Bettendorf, and Sunday, Jan. 9 in the Great Hall at Davenport’s Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, 121 W. 12th St.

Apostolidi (left), a pianist, and Fahrenkrug, a baritone, perform as The Apollo Duo.

“We’ve been working together for about a year now, but we didn’t really know each other when we first started working together,” Fahrenkrug said recently. “It didn’t really come together until a few months ago.”

They first performed the Schubert at some retirement homes in Baton Rouge this past fall, and gave a first full performance at a church Fahrenkrug works with in November.

Of the hour-plus song cycle, he said: “It’s a great, highly relatable story of love and loss that a lot of our repertoire offers, but I think especially in the other end, just because of how long it is and how thorough it is, it’s a great meditation for whoever cares to sit through the whole thing, on those themes of love and loss.”

Fahrenkrug reached out to Opera Quad Cities president Ron May, since he had him as a vocal teacher while in high school at the Creative Arts Academy in Davenport.

“It’s kind of been for me a long time coming. I’ve always wanted to collaborate with them as the local opera troupe,” Fahrenkrug said. “We were looking for venues to perform at.”

“We wanted a more active partnership with some area organization, to give part of the proceeds to. So then that’s how Opera Quad Cities popped up,” he said. “We’re like, well, they’re still around. We know they weren’t active, but we reached out to them. Basically, at the perfect time where they were trying to brainstorm ways to kind of resurrect from this hibernation of COVID-19.”

Composed in 1823 (when Schubert was 26), the set of 20 songs is based on the poetry of Wilhelm Müller, says an Opera Quad Cities release. The main character is a young wanderer who falls in love with the beautiful daughter of the local miller.

Throughout the song cycle, he keeps all his thoughts to himself. There is no interaction between characters other than the conversations that the wanderer has with the brook. Eventually, the wanderer realizes the miller’s daughter might be in love with a hunter, and not him. In his despair, the song cycle concludes with a dramatic and tragic final aria.

Opera Quad Cities was formed in 2001, to broaden the appreciation of artistic singing in the QC community. “The goal of Opera Quad Cities is threefold: to demystify the stereotype that opera is ‘stuffy’; to support local artistic singers who have little opportunity to showcase their talent and training; and finally to showcase singers in such a way that it encourages them to remain in our community to perform,” said Ron May, president of the group.

Opera Quad Cities has presented a variety of productions from children’s operas like “The Three Little Pigs-a la Mozart” to high drama such as Bizet’s “Carmen,” performed at the Adler Theatre. Past productions have included “The Magic Flute” (Mozart), “La Boheme” (Puccini), “Cosi fan tutte” (Mozart), “Rigoletto” (Verdi), “The Marriage of Figaro” (Mozart), and “The Pirates of Penzance” (Gilbert & Sullivan).

A scene from Opera QC’s “Pirates of Penzance” in 2019.

Opera QC staged “The Pirates of Penzance” in June 2019 at St. Ambrose University’s Galvin Fine Arts Center.

Falling in love with singing

Fahrenkrug started playing violin and clarinet in grade school, and first sang in choir in middle school.

“I always have loved singing, but at that point, I still am in the delusion of not wanting to give myself over to music, for fears of becoming a starving artist and all that,” he said recently. “I didn’t really have any pressure from my parents at all. They’ve always been very supportive. But just trying to weigh the options, then towards the end of high school after being in choir and All-State choirs and I was in show choir all four years — I finally came to my senses and it was just like, I really enjoy math and science, but I’m much better at music and it was coming to my senses with what my purpose actually was.”

Fahrenkrug gravitated toward specializing in classical voice, though he was in Davenport Central’s production of “Hairspray.”

He loved his time at Lawrence University Conservatory of Music, with a highlight performing his junior year in Leonard Bernstein’s landmark “Mass” (written for the 1971 opening of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.).

“It’s just this incredible piece that’s hardly ever staged,” Fahrenkrug said. “My opera director, Copeland Woodruff, is an extremely experimental creator — that it was just a fever dream. All of his shows really are, but especially that.”

“I think that’s the most unique thing I’ve ever been in, there was nothing really classic about it,” the student said. “It’s definitely the most experimental piece I’ve ever been in.”

Portraying the Count in “The Marriage of Figaro” in 2020 at Lawrence.

Fahrenkrug also was pumped to play The Count in Lawrence’s production of Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” (with the same director), which had a contemporary, steampunk look.

“That show was a ton of fun, the cast was first-rate and obviously with a ensemble show like that, it’s always so much more fun and gratifying to have close relationships with all the people you’re performing with,” he said. “And I think that’s what really made that show, aside from those other more superficial things, the cast is what made that show also extremely memorable.”

Fortunately, “Figaro” was done the first week of March 2020, before COVID shutdowns, and Lawrence’s 2020 commencement had to shift online, in the first spring of the pandemic.

“It was anticlimactic but you know, hopefully commencement at LSU this upcoming spring will still happen,” Fahrenkrug said. He was originally scheduled to do the Robert Schumann song cycle “Dichterliebe” as a senior recital, which got cancelled.

Fahrenkrug turned lemons into unique lemonade, as he began his “Dichterliebe: Within + Without” video project during the shutdown, conceived as a response to the initial outbreak of COVID-19.

“I was not interested in going through the motions of performing a voice recital to an empty room,” he said. “At the time, we didn’t even have the livestreaming system that Lawrence now uses.”

He began talking with professors and others about creating a voice project that would cater to a virtual, screen-based viewing experience. He quickly realized his initial recital repertoire wasn’t going to work, so he shifted his vision.

Nicholas Fahrenkrug graduated from Davenport Central High School in 2016.

“From there I decided to pare down the music to only Schumann’s Dichterliebe, and took the following three months to realize and complete the entire video cycle, which very much realized itself in real time,” Fahrenkrug said. “What I mean by this is, that while I was able to form a loose concept in the beginning, it really was more a set of guidelines and boundaries from which I could play in, rather than a preconceived vision of how everything would go. It was truly the most artistically liberating project I’ve ever worked on.”

“Dichterliebe” is a famous 1840 song cycle by Schumann, and his 40-minute video can be seen on YouTube. Fahrenkrug was pleasantly surprised to be honored with an Acknowledgement for Artistic Achievement for the art film from The American Prize.

While in college, he won three straight NATS titles (2016-2018) from the Wisconsin chapter of the National Association of Teachers and Singing (NATS) competition, in the men’s college classical division.

Pursuing opera at LSU and beyond

While at LSU, he has performed multiple roles with the Turner-Fischer Center for Opera, including Guglielmo (“Così fan tutte”), Giulio Cesare (“Giulio Cesare”), Marco (“Gianni Schicchi”), and Marquis de la Force (“Dialogues des Carmélites”).

Fahrenkrug in a duet from “Pagliacci” in January 2020, which won first place at the National Opera Association Scenes program.

In his first year and a half, the opera program has worked as COVID rules have changed, with a combination of outdoor and indoor performances, masked and unmasked. Fahrenkrug said it was challenging to sing while wearing a mask.

“It was very difficult managing breath support when you’re not able to get fresh air,” he said.

“Because I think LSU being such a huge institution, they can’t require vaccinations,” he said of COVID vaccines, noting about 95% of the opera singers were fully vaccinated. Not one student ended up getting COVID, Fahrenkrug said.

“Louisiana is similar to Iowa and that way probably even more relaxed,” he said. LSU has over 34,000 students.

Last summer, Fahrenkrug participated in the Seagle Music Festival in upstate New York, on Schroon Lake. It’s the oldest and one of the most distinguished summer vocal training programs in the U.S., founded in 1915 by renowned singer and voice teacher Oscar Seagle. He will return this summer.

Fahrenkrug (in red sneakers) as Matt in “The Fantasticks” this past summer (’21) at the Seagle Festival. 

“It’s very much in the wilderness up in the Catskills. It’s it’s basically like summer camp for older kids,” Fahrenkrug said. “You’re like in cabins and there’s no AC, but there are beautiful rehearsal studios and a great theater; it’s a very intimate space.”

“Those are really great places to study, work like that because it’s just, the outdoors, I think are really inspiring and there’s not a ton of distraction,” he said.

Eleonora Apostolidi is a prize winner in many national and international competitions. She is an active solo and collaborative performer who has appeared in prestigious venues such as Merkin Hall, Carnegie Hall and Wiener Saal.

She’s a doctoral candidate in Piano Performance with a minor in Collaborative Piano at the LSU School of Music, where she is a graduate teaching assistant. She previously earned her Master of Music degree at LSU, following her undergraduate degree from SUNY-Purchase.

What’s next for Opera QC?

“Our Young Artist Competition hopes to return in the near future,” May of Opera QC said. The competition recognizes singers from high school age to maturing artists with monetary awards to further their efforts.

“Recent performers have continued their singing careers throughout the United States and Opera Quad Cities feels fortunate to have provided an extra ‘stepping-stone’ to their success,” he said. “As the COVID-19 era progresses, Opera Quad Cities is committed to return to in-person performances that are invigorating, safe for performers and audiences, and continuing in excellence at the highest level.”

The next major performance will be an Opera Showcase June 17 and 19, 2022, at Moline’s Bartlett Performing Arts Center, where a variety of solos, duets, and choruses will be presented in a concert setting with full orchestra to celebrate the best of opera.

This weekend’s concerts are free to attend, but donations will be accepted. All guests are required to wear masks per COVID-19 protocol, and Fahrenkrug will sing unmasked.

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