Dayton Opera honors Maria Callas

Renowned pianist, conductor Howard Watkins will return to his hometown.

“She could imagine almost anything and give voice to it.”

From the poem, “In the House of the Voice of Maria Callas” by Steven Orlen

When Kathleen Clawson took over as Dayton Opera’s new artistic director, she was tasked with coming up with new and innovative programming to enhance the opera season.

When Clawson realized 2023 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of famed soprano Maria Callas, she had an idea. Why not devote an evening to the famous soprano, celebrating her artistry and featuring some of her most famous arias?

“Maria Callas was the epitome of an opera star, and it struck me that she should be the ‘star’ for this year’s Opera Star Recital,” says Clawson. “Although her tumultuous life was filled with both triumph and tragedy, I chose to focus on the gift of her astonishing artistry for this celebration.”

" Maria Callas: A Centennial Celebration” will take place on Sunday, Feb. 5 at the Benjamin and Marian Schuster Center in downtown Dayton. Four young rising stars have been enlisted to perform. The icing on the cake is Howard Watkins who is serving as music director and pianist.

Watkins is an assistant conductor at the Metropolitan Opera, on the vocal faculty of The Juilliard School and on the graduate vocal arts faculty of the Bard College Conservatory of Music. He regularly collaborates with notable musicians in every corner of the world.

“Howard is from Dayton and is a big deal!” says Clawson. “He graduated from the University of Dayton and his family is still here. He’s one of the most sought after collaborative pianists in the world.”

Why Maria Callas?

“Ask any soprano and she will tell you Maria Callas is one of her idols,” says Clawson. “Callas had such a wide vocal range. Sopranos are categorized as coloratura, lyric, and dramatic and Callas could sing roles written for all of these and even roles usually performed by mezzo-sopranos! This gave me the idea of hiring four ‘rising stars’ of different vocal types to sing her most famous arias. It takes four sopranos to fill in her repertoire.”

Among the four sopranos are Heather Phillips, who received her master’s and bachelor’s degrees from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. She was recently featured in the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra’s New Year’s Eve concert. Her parents, Tom and Beth Phillips, live in Springboro. The other sopranos are Murrella Parton, who lives in Mason, Toni Marie Palmertree and Sarah Saturnino.

“The four singers you will hear at this concert are keepers of this flame, says Clawson. " All four are exceptional musicians, with unique voices, and prodigious technical skill. With them, we celebrate the artistry of La Divina, knowing her legacy will live on for another hundred years.

Because Callas was so well known for her encores, all four of the featured sopranos will sing it. One hundred local singers are also being invited to be in the audience and sing along. “That way they can say they’ve sung with the Dayton Opera,” says Clawson.

Meet Howard Watkins

Clawson says Watkins’ knowledge and expertise are incomparable and says Dayton is so fortunate to have him here for the concert.

“Just as Callas was guided and shaped in her interpretations in her work with the great conductors of her day, our rising stars have an exemplary musical artist in Dr. Watkins as their music director and pianist,” she said.

As a youngster, Watkins’ first experiences with music in Dayton took the form of guitar lessons.

“I had weekly classical guitar lessons for a period of time and after a couple of years my sister started studying piano and my parents purchased an upright piano from a local piano store there,” he recalls. “It was the kind of thing where the store provided free piano lessons and so I took a couple of those lessons, but then my parents said if I wanted to take piano in a more consistent way that that would be fine. So I started studying piano with the neighborhood teacher, Anne Davis, who lived right across the street from us.”

Eventually, the guitar was displaced and piano became his musical outlet. In junior high, he started playing saxophone in the band at Precious Blood Elementary and that continued into his years atArchbishop Alter High School where he was in marching and concert bands, eventually undertaking study of the bassoon as well.

Watkins says while all of this was wonderful and he enjoyed it greatly, he had doubts about whether or not he could sustain a living as a musician. When he entered the University of Dayton as a freshman, it was as a chemical engineering major with the idea that he would go to medical school afterwards. He continued studying piano with Pat Howard, an adjunct professor at UD, and his interest in music only increased as the academic interest in engineering waned.

“I decided after my sophomore year to make the change to what I truly wanted to do,” recalls Watkins. “Coincidentally, a new professor came to UD that year – Tibor Szasz, a wonderful performer and scholar – and I worked with him intensively over the next two and a half years. He had done his doctorate at the University of Michigan, so that ended up being one of the schools I looked at for grad study and I did end up going there to do a master’s degree in solo piano, and eventually a doctoral degree in collaborative piano.”

Career highlights

When asked about highlights of his career, Watkins says there have been so many incredible times that it’s hard to think of just one thing.

Here are just a few:

  • Numerous performances in all the various spaces of Carnegie Hall.
  • A recital at the United States Supreme Court with the great mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, hosted by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a deep lover of opera. Watkins also performed at another event for Ginsburg at Harvard University.
  • Collaborations with opera stars including Renée Fleming, Joyce DiDonato, Kathleen Battle, Lawrence Brownlee and Thomas Hampson.
  • A concert at Tulsa Opera in commemoration of the 1921 race massacre called “Greenwood Overcomes.”
  • A program in Hamburg with Hampson and singers in the Elbphilharmonie concert hall amid the COVID-19 pandemic which celebrated black composers and their contributions.
  • Teaching in summer programs and at conservatories.
  • And most recently, a premiere Jan. 12 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art of a song cycle by Shawn Okpebholo. New York Times critic Oussama Zahr wrote: “The pianist Howard Watkins, dignified and unshowy, resisted moroseness as well as sentimentality, locating the power of the piece in its observational lens. Even in the wrenching song ‘Ahmaud’ — a tribute to Ahmaud Arbery who was gunned down in Georgia in 2020 by vigilantes — Watkins avoided milking the delicate, quietly devastated piano part as Giddens sang the lyric with the immediacy of a dramatic monologue.”

Watkins says he is especially excited about the upcoming celebration of Maria Callas at Dayton Opera.

“Callas was one of the greatest singers in the history of opera in what she represents to all of us in her deep commitment to great singing and artistry married to complete immersion in the drama and text,” he says. “A Callas performance is never only about beautiful singing though it does contain that; rather, it guarantees storytelling at the highest level and draws the listener into the drama at an unparalleled level. Performing with these young singers in the repertoire that Callas sang is a chance for us to remember her artistry while experiencing their own fantastic singing and acting.”


What: “Maria Callas: Centennial Celebration” presented by Dayton Opera

When: 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 5

Where: Schuster Center, 1 W. Second Street, Dayton

Tickets: $5-$100.

Related programming

  • Take Note: One hour prior to the concert ticketholders can learn more about the Dayton connections to the show including Pianist and Music Director Howard Watkins is a native of Dayton, Ohio. Mr. Watkins received his undergraduate degree from the University of Dayton, and he completed his Doctor of Musical Arts Degree at the University of Michigan. In 2004, he was honored as the recipient of both the Paul C. Boylan award from the University of Michigan and a Special Achievement Award from the National Alumni Association of the University of Dayton. Soprano Murrella Parton holds a Master of Music degree from the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and recently moved to Mason with her husband. Soprano Heather Phillips is a native of North Canton, Ohio. Miss Phillips holds both a Master’s and a Bachelor’s degree in Vocal Performance from the University of Cincinnati, College-Conservatory of Music (CCM). Her parents, Tom and Beth Phillips live in Springboro.

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