Wednesday, November 3, 2010
FROM BAROQUE TO BOOT CAMP
Jamison Walker, the short, stocky man with the shiny pate, is in a Sunday School class on the Old Testament. He’s just the student, but he can’t help himself. Every Sunday, the 35-year-old raises his hand and waits to be called on, then speaks for paragraphs, using complex sentence structures without uttering a single “um” or “uh,” as he offers his interpretation of the words of the prophet Isaiah — insights from years of personal study.
As his enthusiasm for the poetry of Isaiah increases, so does the volume of his voice, and the walls reverberate in the chapel at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in Bunnell.
In his navy blue suit, he’s not a preacher, but it seems like he could be. He has a kind of confidence and self-awareness that some might interpret as arrogance, stemming in large part from his overflowing vocabulary, which he’s not afraid to use. But he also has a self-deprecating sense of humor, quipping that he tries not to be too ostentatious with his circumlocutions.
I’ve gone to church with Jamie for several months, and it took me most of that time to become acquainted with him; I guess I’ve been reserved, still getting to know people in the congregation, even after living here for about 10 months. The first time I said more than “hello” to him was a few months ago — I felt compelled to, after I heard him perform.
I don’t remember the title of the song, but I remember thinking that I’d heard it before, and I wasn’t a fan of it. But when he sang the piece, holding nothing back, his tenor voice so rich and powerful, I knew I was witnessing a master at work, a rare alloy of intense training and God-given talent.
If you have never heard Jamison Walker sing, you need to go to the concert at 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 5, at Palm Coast United Methodist Church. It may be your last chance. The classically trained opera singer will soon go to boot camp, and eventually, the U.S. Army Officer Candidate School.
‘He’s singing like a god’
Alana Fitzgerald, who is still Walker’s accompanist, saw it early. The Flagler Palm Coast High School music teacher cast Walker in “The Sound of Music” when he was in middle school.
“He was more interested in skateboards, but even then you could tell he was a special talent,” she says. “He was charismatic. … Almost anybody can sing, but they don’t touch your heart. You could teach them forever and they would never have that.”
Walker moved from musical theater to opera while he was still in high school, after he watched a PBS recording of Luciano Pavarotti singing in Hyde Park, London.
He’s singing like a god, Walker thought. How can I do that?
He decided he would become a famous tenor. The best in the world.
He studied. He auditioned and attended summer workshops all around the state, earning superior ratings everywhere he went, including at the Florida Vocal Association. There, he met Joy Davidson, a famous mezzo-soprano, who recruited him to study at the New World School of the Arts Opera Conservatory, in Miami.
He was on his way.
Discipline of a drill sergeant
But the school wasn’t what he had hoped. It wasn’t accredited, and his instructors sometimes misused his voice, giving him the wrong songs, or taxing his voice too much. His range decreased.
One day, after two years at the New School, he was sitting in the hallway in the music building, bored stiff, until he listened to the second-most important recording in his life. This time, it was soprano Birgit Nielsson singing the final scene to “Salome” in 1972, at the Metropolitan Opera House.
After her piercing high note to close the performance, the audience answered with a deep, visceral ovation. His dream was rejuvenated.
With his classroom education stalling, Walker decided to look elsewhere. On top of his assigned coursework, Walker reached out to a famous tenor, Rockwell Blake, and corresponded with him several times. Blake recommended he find a 19th-century book called “The Complete Treatise on the Art of Singing.” It was out of print, but he found Vol. 2 and got to work.
Without telling his professors, Walker then began on an intensive study of the “Cessa di piu resistere,” which Blake himself reintroduced to Rossini’s famous opera, “The Barber of Seville,” in 1988, at the Met. It was regarded as the most difficult comic piece for a tenor because of its coloratura, or extensive runs and trills.
“There’s a phrase in it that is a page-and-a-half long, and it takes 28 seconds to do it in one breath,” Walker told me last week over breakfast at a restaurant. He tapped his finger on the table like a metronome, his eyes shining, and quietly demonstrated the trills as a server walked by.
“It’s really hard,” he said, almost apologetically. “Most people can’t do it. Physically, it’s beyond most voices’ ability to move.”
At 20 years old, Walker worked on the piece in his spare time. His roommate went away for the summer, leaving Walker all alone. Every day, after work and class, he went to his apartment and listened and sang to the same piece, over and over again. He spent five hours per day for the full summer. He didn’t stop. In all, he worked on the piece for six months until he perfected it, hitting every nearly imperceptible note, and adding the dynamics — the touch — that most tenors overlook in such technical pieces. He compared his performances in his apartment to the recordings of the professionals, and he knew he was as good, or better. More steel to the sound.
A ladder to nowhere
During this same period of growth as a singer, Walker also made big changes personally. Alana Fitzgerald invited him back home to Flagler County to teach a master class at FPC. While he was teaching, a high school senior walked in late — right in front of him — as he was teaching.
“I thought that was a little brassy, so I asked her out, and she said yes,” Walker said. Within a few months, Kristi had graduated high school, and they were married.
The years started to move more quickly for Walker. He and Kristi had children. He had to work long hours to support his family, and he wasn’t about to abandon them and spend the family’s money on trips to New York for auditions. After the New School’s accreditation woes, Walker left the opera conservatory with 160 credits and no degree, and he entered the Army.
There, he gained a reputation as a singer once again. He sang the national anthem in every possible setting — about 50 times in two years — before his superior officers encouraged him to take an honorable discharge and pursue his dream.
He followed their advice, but, with a family to feed, it wasn’t so simple. He still couldn’t afford to travel to auditions in New York or Europe, and that was the only way to land the roles at opera houses that would pay as much as $20,000 per performance.
Instead, he worked as an accountant at Florida Hospital Flagler for a year or two.
Then, in the middle of the housing boom about six years ago, Walker got a job using a spray gun to paint home interiors. He would keep one ear phone in, the other dangling, and, covered in white paint from head to toe except for an oval on his face where the painter’s mask had protected his mouth and nose, he touched up the corners of walls and ceilings with a paint brush. On a ladder, alone in a carpetless, echo chamber of a new house in Palm Coast, far from the bright lights of the world stage, Walker’s soaring tenor voice resonated in the freshly painted walls, as he put on a concert of the great opera music — for no one.
A professor at Stetson University talked him into coming back to school and starting over on his education. Into the next two years, he crammed four years of classes and got all As. Then he got his master’s degree at Florida State University, while supporting himself by teaching voice lessons.
What next? Walker debated pursuing a Ph.D. in music, but the jobs were drying up all around the country.
If fame and money were distributed based on merit, Walker wouldn’t be faced with this decision: Should he risk his family’s future and chase the dream, or re-enter the Army and let it go?
Without any other options to speak of, Walker walked into the Army recruiting office and said he wanted to become an officer. The age limit was 35 to begin Officer Candidate School, and he had a few years left before it was too late. He felt it was his last best chance to make a career for himself.
But by this time, Walker weighed 300 pounds. The recruiting officer didn’t do much recruiting.
“He laughed me to scorn,” Walker recalled. “I was way fat. I needed to change.”
He needed to lose 120 pounds — a nearly impossible task for most people. But this is the man who studied an obscure, centuries-old aria for six months. He already had the discipline of a drill sergeant.
He borrowed a workout program from a friend and got to work. Routines that should have taken one hour took two. He was so out of shape he had to lay on the floor for 15 minutes in between sets to recover. As he panted and considered the months that lie ahead — the strict dieting, the aches and lonely routines — he must have thought about giving up.
But in one year, he lost that 120 pounds.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done physically,” Walker said. As I sat at the table across from him at breakfast, Walker showed me a picture of himself when he had weighed 300 pounds. He said he keeps it in his wallet as a reminder when he’s tempted to eat junk food.
‘I never once doubted his talent’
The difference between Walker and the opera singers who make a living on stage may come down to one word: exposure. He was never able to scrape together enough money to fully chase his dream. A couple of years ago, he was prepared to sing at an inexpensive competition in Georgia. It was a minor prize, but one he could win, and one that might attract some attention. He was ready to leave.
Then his car broke down.
The repairs had to come first. He never made it to Georgia.
After another concert locally, two women with great wealth approached him and told him they wanted to support him. How much would it take to send you to New York and Europe to audition at the great opera houses for a year? they asked.
Walker was skeptical at first, but they assured him they were serious. He spent three weeks preparing a line-by-line budget to pay for everything from his family’s rent while he was away to his meals on the road. He came back to the ladies, and with the report: It would cost about $100,000. That’s it? they said. They told him they’d talk to their husbands about it.
Walker got his hopes up. Maybe it wouldn’t be necessary to go back to the Army after all.
Weeks later, the ladies said they’d reconsidered. The economy was too bad, and they didn’t feel they could spare the cash after all.
Kristi said her husband was devastated. But only for a moment. He picked himself back up and continued with his plans.
“I never once doubted his talent or ability,” Kristi wrote in a recent e-mail. “It is incredibly difficult and disheartening to watch his dream of singing slip away as he steps towards a new journey. I know that his decision for the military will be more stable for us as a family and our future. For all his hard work in music, the constant knockdowns, his perseverance … I am eternally grateful, and for this he will always be a hero to me.”
Walker tries not to dwell on what might have been. With his last concert in Palm Coast coming up, he’s focused on one thing: the music. That’s what he’s always taught his voice students.
“Ultimately, we learn the technique and we study so that when we stand on stage, nobody ever knows we did that stuff — they just feel,” Walker said. “People give up their time and money to come to a concert so they can get out of their own reality and into the reality that I fabricate. And if I do my job, it will be a short evening, but it will be filled with memories that will last a long time.”
Walker’s story is not over. It still may be that someone — a patron of the arts, perhaps — will discover him and give him a chance to sing for a living. And somewhere in the outpouring of emotion Nov. 5 at the concert, and wherever he is in the world as he pursues his future career, there will be a nearly imperceptible longing underscoring the notes he sings — a steel that will reveal to all who are listening that the dream is still alive, in one form or another, just as it was when he was 20, belting out that 28-second run of trills alone in his apartment.
He can’t help himself.
The story first appeared in The Palm Coast Observer.
See Jamison Walker's YouTube page to listen for yourself.