In spring 2019, Holly Bewlay, associate professor of voice, took three students she had directed in the campus production of Henry Purcell’s seventeenth-century opera Dido and Aeneas to Windermere Boulevard Elementary School in Amherst. They performed one portion, replete with witches conjuring up a storm, and connected with their audience of fourth- and fifth-graders.
Afterward, one boy raised his hand and described what sounded to him like “magic” in Purcell’s music. He said it made him think of the mind-control elements in Harry Potter stories.
That simple response gets to the heart of what Bewlay tries to convey to her students. While nailing the technical aspects of music is important, infusing music with magic by tapping into the emotions that lie within the notes is paramount for success.
“Through the vibrations of their voices, they should shake the audience to its core,” said Bewlay, whose face lights up when she talks about her twin loves—teaching and singing. “I want them to connect heart-to-heart with the listener.”
A Young Singer
Bewlay understands this kind of connection because she has lived it since childhood. While growing up in Busan (then Pusan), South Korea, she won a singing contest at age 10. That experience sealed her love for the vocal arts.
A few years later, she went to live with relatives in Tulsa, Oklahoma; her parents’ idea was that she’d have wider educational choices. Bewlay hoped this new education would include formal vocal training.
“My parents were business people and didn’t have a vision for my singing,” she said. “I got them to pay for voice lessons because I told them singing would help me learn English.”
This little fib turned out to be the truth. Not only did she quickly master English, but at age 14, she was also accepted as one of the youngest members of the Gilbert & Sullivan Society of Tulsa.
In the ensuing years, the soprano starred in several operas and operettas, including Die Fledermaus, Così fan tutte, and L’elisir d’amore. In 2017, she played the signature role in Buffalo Opera Unlimited’s production of Madama Butterfly, and in 2019, she played the role of the heroine in the Buffalo Opera-Lytes production of The Mikado.
She’s also been featured as a soprano soloist with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus and multiple other symphonies and orchestras. Despite a full-time teaching schedule, which includes private lessons with vocal students, Bewlay continues to hone her craft.
“I believe music is healing, and people in our community could use it."
Inspiration in the Music
“Music still inspires me every day,” she said. “I’ll ask myself questions like, How do I forge a deeper connection to Beethoven? I want my students to do the same.”
In 2018, she created a new course, Vocal Chamber Music, which is part of the Music Department’s new performance concentration. With 13 vocal students in concert with the college’s String Chamber Ensemble, Bewlay directed Dido and Aeneas. It marked the first fully staged opera production in the history of Buffalo State.
As much as she loves opera, Bewlay said, she wants to expose her students to multiple musical genres.
“I grew up learning Korean songs, classical singing, and opera, but some of our students grew up learning different genres,” she said. “The college’s mission of reaching students where they are is my personal and professional mission, too.”
While most of the students are enrolled in the music education program, some are pursuing a bachelor of arts with a performance concentration, and they hope for a life onstage.
“Those students want to know everything about my journey—how I got started, how I train today,” she said.
A Way for Music to Heal
A couple of students who performed in Dido and Aeneas expressed a desire to dig deeper in their vocal training by putting on another opera. Thus, Bewlay is now preparing for a production of the radio opera The Old Maid and the Thief..
However, to Bewlay, who also describes herself as a community activist, music is much more than an art form to be performed in symphony halls. Along with the trip to Windermere, she’s taken her students to Jericho Road Community Health Center’s Vive Shelter and plans to have them visit homeless shelters and more refugee centers in the future.
“I believe music is healing, and people in our community could use it,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if they speak a different language. When they hear voices singing together in harmony, they reap the benefits.”