It took opera singer Curtis Storm time to overcome his stage fright. Belting out powerful, emotion-laden melodies before an audience made him nervous and self-conscious. While still not fully at ease, he’s making progress.
“I’m naturally a reserved person but I’m older and wiser now,” he said. “I’ve learned to let go of my own fears, breaking through those worries of overdoing it or looking like a fool.”
Storm, 28, has been singing for about a dozen years. You wouldn’t necessarily know it just by talking to the soft-spoken Kemper Elementary music teacher, but his voice packs a soaring punch. He’ll show off his pipes at 7 p.m. tonight in a multi-song performance at the Cortez Cultural Center.
The concert is trilingual: German, Russian and Italian. All the pieces revolve around love in some form or fashion.
The first, a four-movement “cycle” by Gustav Mahler, delves into the depths of a vagabond’s struggles with lost love. He lurches from sadness to fleeting optimism, to anger, and finally a subdued acceptance.
The two Russian arias are by Sergei Rachmaninoff and Peter Tchaikovsky, respectively. Storm said people only familiar with Tchaikovsky’s Nutracracker Suite might be caught off guard by the intensity of his other work. This particular piece, from the opera Eugene Onegin, is about a duel to the death between two close friends.
“It’s dripping with emotion and a dark foreshadowing of demise. It hooks you in,” he said.
He’ll close out the set with a well-known aria by Giacomo Puccini, called “Nussen Dorman” — in English “None Shall Sleep.” In short, it involves a cruel princess, high-stakes riddles and threats of beheadings.
Storm will be accompanied on the piano by Linda Mack, the Durango Choral Society’s conductor and a retired Fort Lewis College professor.
Raised in a musical household, Storm didn’t take singing seriously until he joined the choir as a high school sophomore. An off-hand compliment from a stranger after a spring concert gave him confidence in his raw talent. Soon afterward he began lessons with a voice instructor who trained him for 10 years. During that time he earned a degree in music education from Rochester College, outside Detroit.
Storm describes his road to Cortez as “serendipitous.” A lifelong Michigan resident, he found himself cobbling together part-time jobs after graduating college. Storm worked as a high school paraprofessional and as a home-health worker helping special-needs teenagers with social interaction. His wife, Nicole, is a kindred spirit — she’s a music teacher too (at Mesa Elementary). But when she lost her job at a Detroit-area school in 2010, the couple found themselves in need of work. Fast.
“It was application blitzkrieg. We applied here, there, everywhere,” Storm said. Despite their Michigan roots, they decided to look far and wide: Oklahoma, Kansas, Idaho, even Japan. It was late summer before Storm heard of Montezuma-Cortez School District Re-1. He applied for the Kemper job, having nothing to lose.
“We did a phone interview, and a few days later they offered it to me. This all happened five days before the school year started. We packed up and moved 1,600 miles that weekend,” he recalled, admitting the extent of his Cortez knowledge was an online photograph of Main Street and U.S. Census data showing a population of 8,000.
“Here we were, moving from the Detroit (metropolitan) area, with its four million people,” he said. “We had no idea what to expect.”
Storm said the generosity of community members helped make settling in easier. A church friend helped them find an apartment on short notice, and Kemper staff put together a care package of groceries to stock their tiny kitchen.
“They overwhelmed us with kindness. Being so warmly received made the transition from living close to family, to having none nearby whatsoever, more bearable,” he said.
This spring is a busy one for Storm, with five vocal performances upcoming. Some are solo, like tonight’s concert, and others are part of a chorus.
As a teacher, Storm hopes to instill in his students an appreciation of classical music. When he gives the kids a sample of his operatic talent in class, it usually prompts giggles. He knows they aren’t laughing at him, per se, or because there’s anything inherently comical about it.
“They just feel awkward because they don’t know what to make of (this genre). They’ve never heard it in person before, so they’re embarrassed,” he said.
For Storm, it isn’t about perfection, for himself or the students. Unlike a recording studio, where the goal is to “nail every note and rhythm,” live singing is bound to include more flaws. He thinks that adds character and realism. And by encouraging his students not to be afraid of mistakes, he helps them come out of their shells.
“If you mess up, half the time no one will notice. And it looks and sounds far better if you’re smiling and confident than if you’re cowering in the corner.
“Even more than fundamentals, I want them to love participating in music. I want them to somehow keep music with them as they leave Kemper,” he added. “Don’t just let everyone else make the music. Be part of it, in some way.”