Behind every member of LA Opera’s Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program is an entire team of coaches and staff helping each individual become the best performer they can be. Nino Sanikidze is the program’s head coach. In her role she wears many hats from coach and mentor to accompanist and administrator. It’s also a role where Sanikidze can bring to life her passion for music collaboration, working with singers, and nurturing the next generation of great artists.
Sanikidze grew up in the Republic of Georgia, where she says “it is very cultural for everyone to study music.” “You turn five years old and you learn to play piano, guitar, violin, or whatever. Of course, not everyone becomes a musician, but you start to appreciate music. My friends from music school, who are now doctors, lawyers, and scientists, still appreciate and are very educated in music.”
After originally thinking that she would become a physician, Sanikidze eventually pursued multiple degrees in music both in Georgia and then here in the United States, including a Doctor of Musical Arts in Collaborative Piano from the University of Maryland, College Park. It was during the latter that she auditioned for and received a place in the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program at Washington National Opera, where she worked closely with that company’s general director at the time, Plácido Domingo.
It was Domingo, who asked Sanikidze to move to Los Angeles to help with the company’s new young artist program. For Sanikidze, it was a no brainer. She had freelanced at LA Opera in the years before and really enjoyed the collegial spirit at the company.
Sanikidze — and the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program — have been at the company for ten years now.
Working with young talent in the program is incredibly exciting for Sanikidze. “The artists are still young enough that we can mold them, but they are also musicians who are formed enough to have their own opinions,” says Sanikidze. She thrives on watching the young artists – both singers and pianists – grow and come into their respective crafts. Of singers, she continues, “Some of them come to the program with a voice that just needs developing and honing, but that you know will be the voice they’ll have for the next 20 to 25 years. Others come in and are still searching for that definitive ‘what makes them great.’ Finding those artists is exciting; it’s like finding a diamond in the rough.” Regardless, all the young artists are hungry to work and learn in an environment beyond school. What young artist programs and coaches like Sanikidze provide is a place for them to feed their curiosity and grow in the field.
The rigor of the program also means that there is no typical day for Sanikidze. One minute she’s in voice lessons with new young artists, getting to know them and their capabilities (which she says can sometimes be hidden under excessive preparation). The next minute, she is advising another young artist on an upcoming audition. Other times, she may be involved with the mainstage productions as a prompter or pianist. Sanikidze manages all of this along with an artistic career as a pianist, which has included accompanying some of the greatest singers in the business from Plácido Domingo to Ana María Martínez (whom she recently accompanied at the funeral of former First Lady Nancy Reagan).
Sanikidze is a true artist and passionate about nurturing young talent. Artists feel comfortable chatting with her and other heads in the program, because they all know what it’s like to be in the young artist shoes. Every piece of advice, every coaching session is all for the greater good of developing each young artist into his or her own individual mold.
It is the latter unique aspect of LA Opera’s program that excites Sanikidze the most. The program is truly “custom made” for each singer or pianist. Sanikidze says, “I have a general plan in my head for each young artist, in terms of the roles and how much music they will learn in the two years they are here. “ Yet these goals are different for each young artist and the other coaches are encouraged to develop them individually. (For example, no two tenors in the program will ever sound the same, so their respective musical repertoires may have nothing in common.)
Of course, Sanikidze stresses, she does not do this all on her own. The program has great support from General Director Plácido Domingo, Music Director James Conlon, Senior Director of Artistic Planning Joshua Winograde, and Associate Chorus Master Jeremy Frank, as well as voice teacher Dr. Stephen King (who has taught most of today’s most successful opera stars). Each is instrumental in guiding the artists to individual success. Sanikidze considers herself a “soundboard” for the young artists. She mentors them and helps remind them what they have learned from coaches, like Dr. King, in between lessons. She keeps them on track.
The young artist program has nurtured an incredible amount of talent in its first decade. “We are very proud of our heritage,” says Sanikidze. In fact, LA Opera has invited back several of its young artists over the years for roles in mainstage productions, which is a great source of pride for the company as well as for members of the board and patrons, who have watched these artists grow into world-class singers. “The track record is really beautiful,” says Sanikidze. It’s a record she works to continue, though she is the first to say, “I don’t know what tomorrow will bring.”
For more information about the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program, click here. To find out more about our current and upcoming seasons, check out our website.