The National Opera Association (NOA) has awarded former Tabor College professor and alumnus Dr. Carl Gerbrandt its prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award for his significant and distinguished contributions to the area of sacred opera.
Gerbrandt, 69, graduated from Tabor in 1962 and returned to teach voice at the college from 1963 to 1966. His parents, sister, and wife also attended Tabor, adding depth and richness to the Gerbrandt family’s legacy at the college.
According to Tabor College historian Peggy Goertzen, Director of the college’s Center for Mennonite Studies, “Carl Gerbrandt is an impressive example of a music professional who can trace his academic preparation and inspiration to Tabor College and its faculty.”
Now Professor Emeritus at the University of Northern Colorado School of Music in Greeley, Colo., Gerbrandt directed the Opera Theatre program at UNC for 21 years. He also served as Music Director and Conductor of the renowned Greeley Chorale for 20 years.
In a career filled with curtain calls and encores, Gerbrandt described receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award at the annual NOA convention, held Jan. 9 in Atlanta, Ga., as “one of the highest moments” of his life.
“To be so honored among the great names of the opera world such as Beverly Sills, Marilyn Horne, and Sherrill Milnes, is a lifetime experience; one I shall never forget,” he said.
While at the convention Gerbrandt presented a session on the staging of oratorio, using Mendelssohn’s “Elijah” as his focus, and gathering a group of professional singers, including his son, Greg, in the title role of Elijah, and putting them through their paces on stage. The session, lauded as one of the most inspirational of the convention, can be added to a long list of his musical directing accomplishments.
In all, Gerbrandt has presented many recitals, masterclasses, and choral workshops nationwide, while performing over 70 opera and oratorio roles. He made his professional directing debut at Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center with Mozart’s “Die Entführung aus dem Serail.”
Additionally, his staged production of Mendelssohn’s “Elijah” was filmed by PBS-TV and broadcast nationwide. He has directed over 40 operas, and his “Opera in Education” productions have been seen at three national music conventions and by thousands of young people.
His expertise in the utilization of sacred subjects in opera has culminated in his book, Sacred Music Drama, which he wrote while serving as Visiting Scholar at Cambridge University in England. The first edition of Sacred Music Drama was published in 1993 by Prestige Publications of Princeton, N.J., with a second edition printed in 2006.
The book has been described by the NOA as the “go to” resource for the organization and its members, and the definitive book on the subject of sacred opera.
As a performer, Gerbrandt appeared as bass soloist with the Annapolis Naval Academy in films of Handel’s Messiah, as well as other major symphonies and opera companies throughout the country. He continues to teach voice part-time and is currently directing Mozart’s “Magic Flute” for the Opera Theatre of the Rockies, Colorado Springs professional opera company.
Young Carl learned to sing while harmonizing around the family piano. Born in Meade, Kan., Gerbrandt grew up in the Mennonite community of Reedley, Calif., where his late father, Jacob, was a teacher, pastor, and administrator. Earlier, his father founded the Meade (Kan.) Bible Academy. Carl’s first exposure to opera came from listening to Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts with his mother, the late Mary (Klassen) Gerbrandt.
Carl’s mother, Mary Klassen, graduated from Tabor in 1925, and his father, in 1926. His parents were married in August of 1926. Carl’s oldest sister, Geraldine, also attended Tabor in 1952.
As a student at Tabor, Carl was a member of the Tabor College Choir under the direction of Dr. Paul Wohlgemuth, who was well known for achieving excellence and precision in choral sound. Gerbrandt also played French Horn in the Tabor College Concert Band, under the direction of Dr. Larry Feil.
About his decision to attend Tabor, he said, “I came to Tabor in 1960, transferring from Biola University, primarily due to the influence of Dr. Wohlgemuth. He had been chair of the music department at Biola and was called to Tabor to assume a similar position. So, the decision to follow him to Tabor was really quite easy.
“I would say without hesitation that the greatest influence on my life at Tabor was Dr. Wohlgemuth,” Gerbrandt added. “He became my life-long mentor, until his untimely death of course; and secondly, president Roy Just, and Dr. Feil. Paul, more than anyone, helped me see the potential in a singing and music career, and that with a Christian lifestyle.”
After completing his Master’s of Music in choral conducting and voice performance at Wichita State University in 1963, Gerbrandt returned to Tabor to serve as an instructor of voice, from 1963 to 1966.
“This position and working with Paul and the Tabor family gave me the stimulation to stay the course of music performance, but more important to continue my work in church music,” Gerbrandt added. “This I have done through church choirs all my life.”
Gerbrandt was encouraged by his voice instructor at Wichita State, Arthur Newman, to try out for the school’s production of “La Boheme,” and got a leading role. The next year, the gifted baritone made his professional debut with the Wichita Symphony. His performance career had begun, but he never gave up teaching.
Gerbrandt went on to earn his doctorate at the prestigious Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University, the first academy of music established in the U.S. He worked there for many years, eventually becoming the school’s opera director as well as its first Director of Admissions. His post-doctoral studies in voice and opera were taken at Nordwestdeutsche Musikakademie in Detmold, Germany.
Gerbrandt had a chance to go to New York and maybe become an opera superstar. But by that point he had begun a family with his high school sweetheart, Marilyn Friesen, a 1962 Tabor graduate. Gerbrandt didn’t want his children to grow up in the big city.
In 1983, he took a teaching position at the University of Northern Colorado, where his contribution to Tabor College music continued in an indirect way. One of Gerbrandt’s prized voice students was Brad Vogel, who earned his Master’s in Music from UNC in 1988. Vogel went on to join the Tabor music faculty in 1997. And today, Dr. Vogel is the Professor of Choral Music and Director of the Tabor College Choir.
“I studied with Carl just one year, but have simply kept in touch and have kept aware of his activities through my connection with choral colleagues at UNC,” Vogel said. “Every student patterns his early teaching off of his own teacher, and I have certainly utilized many exercises and concepts learned in my studies with Dr. Gerbrandt. His knowledge and experience certainly helped me find my way as a teacher of voice.
“Tabor College has produced and continues to produce musicians who make a lasting impact in the musical world, in both the church and in the professional field,” Vogel added. “I think it’s wonderful that Carl Gerbrandt is recognizing the place Tabor College, particularly its faculty, had in sending him on his professional journey. That recognition is both rewarding and inspiring.”
As conductor of the heralded Greeley Chorale from 1987-2009, Gerbrandt directed the 100-voice choir on six international concert tours and presented 10 world premieres.
These were indeed unique international tours that most mid-sized community chorales could only dream about: Australia in 1988, Eastern and Western Europe in 1992, a tour in which the chorale was selected as one of only three choirs internationally to perform at the Vienna International Choir Festival; and in 1996, several of England’s great venues were filled with the sounds of the Chorale. In 2001, the chorale performed with the Beijing Ballet Orchestra in China. Then, in 2005, the chorale sang a High Mass in the Vatican before the Pope, and in 2009, performed a concert tour through Greece and into Ephesus.
Gerbrandt has long since retired from singing, but he is following the career of his son, Greg, who has been singing in many of this country’s outstanding opera companies: Central City (Colorado), Glimmerglass (New York), Nashville Opera, and others. Last fall, Greg debuted with the Boston Lyric Opera, one of this country’s top opera companies. He will return to Boston to sing the role of Figaro in “Barber of Seville” later this spring. Currently, he is singing the role of Malatesta in “Don Pasquale” with Ashville Opera Festival. Greg makes his home in New York City.
Gerbrandt and his wife Marilyn have been married 48 years. She continues her teaching at the elementary level, working with home-schooled students in the area of creative writing. In addition to Greg, the Gerbrandts have a daughter, Lynée Graves, who lives with her husband and four children near Denver.