Four Stetson Voice Students Become Latest Opera Orlando Apprentices

From top left to bottom right: Kenneth Browning, Nicholas Dieux, Tajah Garrett and Rachel Castillo are the second batch of students selected by audition to participate in the Opera Orlando Apprenticeship Program
From top left to bottom right: Kenneth Browning, Nicholas Dieux, Tajah Garrett and Rachel Castillo are the second batch of students selected by audition to participate in the Opera Orlando Apprenticeship Program.

Few undergraduate voice students can claim experience with a professional opera company on their resumés. This is the case of four Stetson music performance majors, who will get a jumpstart on their careers through an apprenticeship program with Opera Orlando.

Sarah Purser

Nicholas Dieux ’25, Rachel Castillo ’25, Tajah Garrett ’26 and Kenneth Browning ’26 represent the second batch of Stetson students selected by audition to participate in an Opera Orlando season. All four students are Voice Performance students in the Bachelor of Music degree program.

“This is a chance for them to get credits working with a professional company, network and learn about the industry, and then take those skills back to the university,” said Opera Orlando Education Director Sarah Purser. “We’re hoping it benefits the students, and that it hopefully benefits the entire program at Stetson.”

Washington Garcia, DMA
Washington Garcia, DMA

The collaboration with Opera Orlando “represents a unique and prestigious opportunity for our students,” said Stetson’s School of Music Dean Washington Garcia, DMA.

According to Garcia, “this partnership exemplifies Stetson’s commitment to providing real-world, professional experiences within our curriculum.” Students will work with opera professionals in every phase of production, giving them knowledge and exposure they otherwise wouldn’t have at this point.

“By bridging academic training with professional practice, the apprenticeship program provides our students with the skills, confidence and connections essential for succeeding upon graduation,” Garcia said.

Hitting a High Note Early in Their Careers

Chadley Ballantyne, DMA
Chadley Ballantyne, DMA

Associate Professor of Voice Chadley Ballantyne, DMA, commends the apprentices’ talent, artistry and dedication. 

“Each singer chosen for the apprentice program with Opera Orlando has a real passion for vocal performance,” he said. “They’ve been working hard in the classroom, the studio and on stage, continuously honing their skills and enhancing their artistry.”

Dieux and Castillo will sing in the chorus of the company’s October production of “Macbeth,” while Garrett and Browning will sing in the chorus of the February production of “Cendrillon.” All four students will sing in the September production of “Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezín.”

Nicholas Dieux '25
Nicholas Dieux ’25

In addition, all the students will perform in a season preview, receive one-on-one vocal coaching from the company’s Grammy-winning General Director Gabriel Preisser, and participate in master classes.

Dieux hopes the apprenticeship puts him on the path to achieving his eventual dream of singing with The Metropolitan Opera.

Kenneth Browning '26
Kenneth Browning ’26

“I’m excited to work with professionals and get a glimpse of what the industry is like,” he said. “I can’t wait to learn how pros operate and hopefully match their work ethic. I hope it will show the future companies and programs I audition for that I can work at their caliber, even as a young artist.”

For Browning, who stepped away from college and music during the COVID-19 pandemic, the opportunity confirms his calling. 

Tajah Garrett '26
Tajah Garrett ’26

“I thought I wasn’t going to come back to music, but now I know it’s the right thing for me,” he said. “The validation was nice.”

For Garrett, the audition in the world-class Steinmetz Hall “wasn’t as intimidating as I expected it to be” because everyone immediately put her at ease. 

“I would hope that this apprenticeship will help me with networking and people closely involved with the Orlando opera industry,” Garrett said. “My main goal is to get my name out there.” 

Rachel Castillo '25
Rachel Castillo ’25

The audition represented Castillo’s second attempt at the apprenticeship. 

“It’s such a thrill to sing on that stage,” she said. “It makes me think about my future in performing and what opportunities await me down the line. Someday I hope to be back at Opera Orlando, singing the lead role in an opera.”

Following in Formidable Footsteps

In 2023, Nidia Guevara-Nolasco ’24 and Isabel (Izzy) Barbato ’24 became the program’s inaugural apprentices, performing in the opera’s fall production of “Tosca.”

Purser said both apprentices rose to the occasion. 

“They both handled it like champs,” she said. “They were also commuting from DeLand, so they were managing a commute with a demanding rehearsal schedule and a demanding performance schedule. They were absolutely on par with the professionals.”

Isabel Barbato '24
Isabel Barbato ’24

Barbato, who will attend Yale’s Institute of Sacred Music beginning in the fall, was impressed with how well-executed the program was from its inception. 

“Nidia and I were kind of the guinea pigs, being the first two to be a part of this program, but it really didn’t feel like that,” she said. “It felt very professional and well-organized on both Stetson’s part and Opera Orlando’s.”

Her participation gives Barbato an edge as a young performer. “I’m able to put that on my resumé as a really cool thing to be an apprentice artist in college. A lot of people don’t have that opportunity until after they finish their undergrad.”

Nidia Guevara-Nolasco '24
Nidia Guevara-Nolasco ’24

Guevara-Nolasco lauds the wealth of experiences the apprenticeship afforded her: coaching under Preisser, a master class with Maestro Eiki Isomura, and performance opportunities before a variety of audiences. 

“Being able to work with people in the industry and getting firsthand experience was amazing,” she said. “I feel that it helped me to gain more confidence as a performer, both in myself and my instrument.” 

Guevara-Nolasco will pursue her master’s at the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University in Houston beginning in the fall.

For now, Stetson is the only participant in Opera Orlando’s program, which reflects the School of Music’s commitment to providing experiential learning opportunities, according to Garcia.

“Our commitment to equipping musicians for success in their fields is deeply rooted in our rich tradition of excellence and our forward-looking educational practices,” he said.

– Cheri Henderson