Alumni Opera Singer Gets Creative to Stay Active During Pandemic

COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t derail Jason Duika ’06

Jason Duika ?06, left, is pictured with friend and pianist Kevin Bylsma performing an opera conce... Jason Duika ’06, left, is pictured with friend and pianist Kevin Bylsma performing an opera concert on Duika's front lawn, an event titled “PorchOpera.”ALMA — Within days after COVID-19 made its presence felt in the United States, Alma College graduate Jason Duika ’06 — a professional opera singer — saw his entire season of scheduled roles wiped clean.

So, he got creative. Together with friend and pianist Kevin Bylsma, last summer, he told a few people in the neighborhood around his home in Dexter, Mich., that he was planning to perform an opera concert on his front lawn, titled “PorchOpera.” He expected a few of them to show up.

Instead, more than 60 people came by, complete with lawn chairs and face coverings. A video of their performance even made the local TV news in Detroit.

Duika said it was an experience he will never forget.

“There was energy, there was connection,” Duika said. “You’re reaching an audience that doesn’t necessarily go to opera — it’s unfortunately considered such a high-society art form, even if it didn’t start that way — so it’s really good to reach these people. I ended up doing three of these porch concerts over six months and we had about 60 people each time. It was tremendous.”

Duika has undoubtedly come a long way in the field since his youth, when he suffered from a severe case of Tourette’s syndrome. Duika overcame the condition and went to Alma, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in music, before moving on to study at Portland (Ore.) State University and the renowned Indiana University Jacobs School of Music in Bloomington, Ind.

A Verdi baritone, he has made his living as an opera singer since leaving school. He’s made his mark in the field, too, highlighted in 2019 by a solo performance in Vaughan Williams’ “Dona Nobis Pacem” at New York City’s famed Carnegie Hall, as well as the title role in Verdi’s “Nabucco” at the West Bay Opera in California.

Duika said that while there is a sense of excitement that comes from singing before thousands of people at once, it’s overwhelmed by a feeling of professionalism.

“There is adrenaline and that serves the body, but it’s not necessarily about nervousness,” Duika said. “I’ve done lots of auditions and performances, and that has made me able to use that energy properly. But certainly, there’s a moment when you’re done with it where you breathe out and say, ‘God, that was amazing.’”

The pandemic caused Duika to take a little detour in his career, but he’s not close to putting the full brakes on. Instead of going to auditions in person, he said, he’s been performing over Zoom — which has proven to be an interesting change of pace.

“Just recently I had company heads from Paris, Berlin and Vienna in my room at home — which seems a little strange, but these are the times we live in,” Duika said. “It’s great that technology has allowed us to function through the pandemic as opera singers. We make a living through auditions. That’s how we get heard, that’s how we get hired. We’ll be back soon.”

Duika credits his introduction to the world of opera to Alma College instructors Vicki Walker and Tony Patterson, as well as Will Nichols, conductor of the Alma College Choirs.

“When I came to Alma College, I didn’t know I wanted to sing opera. I was in love with pop and jazz and I didn’t give opera a second thought,” Duika said. “I give credit to Alma for showing me something new, turning me into an opera student and allowing me to be the diverse individual I am through this medium.”

One of the concerts Duika was scheduled to perform prior to the start of the pandemic was the title role in Mendelssohn’s “Elijah,” at Alma College; he said he hopes to be able to perform again at his alma mater when it is safe to do so.

Story published on February 22, 2021