Minnehaha Academy Blog

Stephen Swanson '63

Posted by Nick Tofteland on Dec 20, 2019

4Donizetti. Leoncavello. Mozart. Offenbach. Puccini.  These are just a few of the composers of the 106 opera roles that Stephen Swanson has sung.   He is a concert and opera singer, an opera stage director, and a Professor of Voice at the University of Iowa. He has made a living as a singer since 1970.  “It’s been a good life,” says Swanson. 

Harry Opel was Stephen’s biggest influence during his time at MA.  Stephen made it into the Singers as a sophomore, which was very tough.  Part of the audition required sight reading, which thanks to Harry’s training, he did extremely well. “That skill has helped me my entire life.”  Throughout his three years as a Minnehaha Singer they sang some very difficult music and they did it exquisitely well. Harry’s teaching and leadership is what made that possible. “You would have loved him. If you like music, you would have been in awe of him. He was the best there was. The Singers under Harry’s direction were something very, very special.”

Stephen counts Harry among the world class conductors with whom he has worked over the span of his entire career. “Harry had an incredibly high standard, a great love for music, directing, and the people in his ensemble. Nothing but the best was good enough for Harry. He inspired us to be better than we were.  And then, when we were better than that, he said we still had another step forward.  He was an amazingly good musician.  He did not compromise his standards in literature one tiny bit, even though he got some flack from people who said his music was too highbrow. The music that the Singers performed was a Christian testimony as well as an educational experience.” Stephen stayed in touch with Harry and his wife after high school, and they were friends until the Opels passed away. 

The Next Step

After MA, Stephen went to North Park College on a music scholarship and got two degrees, a Bachelor of Music, and Bachelor of Music Education.  “I had always wanted to be a second Harry Opel. Then I realized I would never be as good as Harry as a Music Educator, so I thought I better stick to singing!”  After North Park, he earned a Master’s Degree at Northwestern University. He started his professional opera career with two summer young artist’s apprenticeships at Wolf Trap Farm Park for the Performing Arts (one of the premier training programs for young professional singers) followed by a third summer there as a young artist.  From there he went to Europe and spent two years in Switzerland and 17 years in Germany, singing opera. 

In 1994, Stephen was hired by the University of Iowa as an Associate Professor of voice. He received tenure four years later, followed by a promotion to Full Professor. While presenting a Master Classes for the Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre he worked with Eli Aronson, ‘17, who was one of the young artists there and was delighted to discover that Minnehaha is still producing great singers.

To The Students

What is Stephen’s advice for current Minnehaha students?  “To paraphrase Harry, always be the best you can be, and be better than that the next day. If you are doing your best, be satisfied, and realize that tomorrow you will be even better.”

Topics: Alumni Stories

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