Has anyone heard of Simpson College?
November 25, 2013 11:08 AM   Subscribe

My son is interested in Simpson College, in Indianola Iowa. It seems to be a reasonable choice for him, but we can't find any seemingly independent first hand accounts of the School. Can somebody help?

My son is interested in singing Opera. He is applying to the usual suspect music schools - Indiana University, Ithaca College, NEC and so forth. But his teacher recommended a school called Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa. Nobody that I have spoken to in and out of the music business has ever heard of it. But it's well ranked by the US News and World Report ranking. The blogs written by the music director seem fascinating and thoughtful, and a Google search seems to have a lot of positive comments. However, I've worked in business enough to always be suspicious of marketing. Their acceptance rate is about 85%. His grades are not great, but he was accepted pretty quickly, even before his audition. So, we are somewhat confused.

Has anyone gone there? Does anyone have first hand experience?

posted by vilcxjo_BLANKA to Education (42 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Is there any way of getting in touch with current and/or recent students in the music department and talking to them about their feelings about the school?

I started college at a very small university with a pretty significant reputation for the thing I wanted to study. It was the kind of place that nobody else my parents or I knew had ever heard of, but if you work in certain fields, you definitely have heard of it.

That said, it turned out to be a pretty bad fit for me, once I got there, despite being a really great fit on paper. So I would say that if he's considering attending a school that isn't THE school for what he wants to do, and doesn't have well-respected programs in other areas in case he changes his mind about his major, definitely have him think long and hard about whether it's the school for him.

I found myself a month into college, realizing I didn't want to do theatre for a living, not knowing what I did want to do, and with basically no other real choices to switch into (what's worse, it was a very specialized conservatory style environment, where one couldn't simply "change majors"). On top of all that, it was a very expensive school, so even if I'd soldiered through, I'd have ended up with a somewhat useless degree and a whole lot of debt.

TL;DR, I would do a lot more research than just "is this school legit or what". He wants to talk to specific students who currently go there or recently graduated and are in the program he intends to choose. He wants to ask targeted questions about what they think of the program, its reputation in that field, and the situation post-college for a new grad with a degree in that, from there.
posted by Sara C. at 11:35 AM on November 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have no experience with the place. On googling, it's one of thousands of unselective dinky little private liberal arts schools. I assume that the reason a teacher mentioned it is that they have some program with the Des Moines opera. US News ratings are almost completely noise with only the very roughest signal; I would interpret 154th as "undistinguished but not actively bad."

If that's the best place he gets into and he stays in opera, then it might be fine. If he moves away from opera, then it gets harder to justify spending probably north of $15K/year net and living in exciting exurban Des Moines a zillion miles from home, for probably five or six years, to get a well-meaning and student-focused education that's ultimately likely to be non-rigorous and maybe a bit subpar.

tl;dr: most private LACs are not Haverford-lite.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:35 AM on November 25, 2013 [3 favorites]

Hmmm. I'm from Iowa and went to NEC for music before transferring in my sophomore year. Simpson would probably not be particularly high on my list for opera schools, but I don't know a tremendous amount about the school. Can he visit? That would be my recommendation. Go visit, see a production, talk to students.

As far as getting in before an audition, for most schools that's par for the course. Music is a non-competitive major at most schools, so there's no audition requirement. Places like Indiana and NEC obviously have an audition requirement for their music programs.

Has he looked at U of Iowa? They have an exceptional music program. As far as choral music programs in Iowa at similar sized places to Simpson, I would have probably thought of Luther or Wartburg first, but Simpson is still certainly a fine school.

A note on NEC, from someone who attended. Obviously I transferred, so I wasn't particularly happy with it. I think the education there is not the greatest. It's a good place if you are 100% sold on a career in music and are mostly attending for the private teacher and networking with other musicians. I really encourage most upcoming music students to attend a university with a good music program, because it opens up a lot of options and the academics tend to always be superior to conservatory programs. Indiana is of course the best opera program in the country, but plenty of universities have great opera programs - Iowa, Michigan, Illinois, Arizona, Yale, BU. He might want to look into the NEC/Harvard dual program or the Columbia/Juilliard dual program as well.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:37 AM on November 25, 2013 [4 favorites]

And a note on Indianola. I don't know your son, but unless he really loves small town living, approach Indianola with caution. It isn't far from Des Moines, and Des Moines is actually not a bad place to be for a young professional, but it's not going to offer the same sort of experience as actually going to school in a thriving city or a nice college town, like Iowa City or Ames or Bloomington.

South Central Iowa is pretty rural. Definitely visit before attending.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:42 AM on November 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Re the audition thing, in my experience being accepted to the college is totally different from being accepted into that college's competitive arts-oriented program.

I was pretty heavily recruited by NYU and could have attended and declared the non-competitive liberal arts major of my choice, but ultimately did not get accepted to their highly competitive theatre program.

When I was accepted to the school I ultimately did attend, I got two acceptance letters, one from the school as a whole regarding my general application, and another from the theatre department regarding my audition.
posted by Sara C. at 11:44 AM on November 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

being accepted to the college is totally different from being accepted into that college's competitive arts-oriented program.

This is a good point. At a place like NEC, you get accepted based in part on the audition. But at say Indiana, he would get two letters, one accepting him into Indiana, another for the program at Jacobs.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:49 AM on November 25, 2013

I attended Lawrence University in Appleton, WI, and have quite a few friends from there who've gone on to do professional opera and theater work. Lawrence is fairly unique in that it offers a 5-year dual-degree (as opposed to double-major) program which allows students to graduate with both a BA in an academic field and a BMus in a musical discipline through the School of Music (Opera/classical voice being a very popular choice). It's a small liberal arts college, similar in size to Simpson. If he hasn't heard of Lawrence, I'd encourage him to check out their programs (full disclosure: I'm an LU grad, but don't work for or represent the school in any other way).

For me, attending a small liberal arts college worked wonders for building my confidence in my academic abilities, in a way that I don't think a bigger state school could have replicated. Looking at Simpson's webpage, their Opera program, if it's as described, sounds like a fantastic and focused undergrad opportunity that would really help build skills and confidence on the stage. If he can get in touch with any current Simpson students to get their perspective on campus life and experiences in and out of class, that'd probably be really helpful for his search.
posted by augustimagination at 11:49 AM on November 25, 2013

A thing to ponder, how much live opera will he see living in Indianola, Iowa?

Learning performance requires you to see it live. I have an abundance of taped opera performances (we still own a LaserDisc player because there's a ton of great performances that exist only in that format. LaserDisc.) However, opera is something that needs to be experienced in its live performance.

If my kid wanted to be a opera singer, then I'd be looking for schools near a performing company - even a decent regional house. The experience of being a supernumerary in a real opera would be a great way to experience a full, professional house.
posted by 26.2 at 12:16 PM on November 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

ROU_Xenophobe: "If that's the best place he gets into and he stays in opera, then it might be fine. If he moves away from opera, then it gets harder to justify spending probably north of $15K/year net and living in exciting exurban Des Moines a zillion miles from home, for probably five or six years, to get a well-meaning and student-focused education that's ultimately likely to be non-rigorous and maybe a bit subpar."

If he moves away from opera, he's at a small private liberal-arts college which was apparently recognized by U.S. News and World Report as one of the top 10 comprehensive colleges in the Midwest. I don't know on what grounds you're deriding it as academically subpar. You don't need to go to a famous college to get an excellent undergraduate education.
posted by desuetude at 12:21 PM on November 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

If he moves away from opera, he's at a small private liberal-arts college which was apparently recognized by U.S. News and World Report as one of the top 10 comprehensive colleges in the Midwest. I don't know on what grounds you're deriding it as academically subpar. You don't need to go to a famous college to get an excellent undergraduate education.

Simpson is ranked #154 of NLAC with a 6 year graduation rate of only 67%.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 12:42 PM on November 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

it's well ranked by the US News and World Report ranking

A "comprehensive college" is a category created by US News that seems to mean that it is larger than a SLAC but not a university. There are 324 of these in the USA, and apparently Simpson ranked well enough to be recognized for the region of the Midwest within this sub-sub-category.

Honestly, a major university or well regarded college with a significant music department will likely have a better opera program than a small unknown college that managed to distinguish itself in opera in some way.
posted by deanc at 1:09 PM on November 25, 2013

My graduate school roommate is a department chair at Simpson. Drop me a memail, and I can put you in touch with him. He is a good person, and will happily give you the straight dope without any admissions department spin.
posted by 4ster at 1:33 PM on November 25, 2013 [9 favorites]

I don't know on what grounds you're deriding it as academically subpar

That would be the 85%+ acceptance rate, the 60% 4 year graduation rate, the 67% six year graduation rate, and the middling ACT scores of accepted students. Combined with the tuition-driven nature of small LACs like that, my expectation (with no specific evidence) would be a place with a lot of hand-holding, which is good, but in support of expectations similar to those at a generic Directional State University (that is, generally but by no means always lower than Flagship State U or a selective LAC).

You certainly don't need to go to a famous school to receive a perfectly good education. But if he's not completely committed to opera (and I'm guessing this is something his parents can make an educated guess about), then he might be better served going to Lowell or Dartmouth or other UMass campuses that are equally not famous.

Though he could always transfer back if he shifts majors, of course.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:36 PM on November 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

If your son is interested in Opera, I have another school on the west coast that may be a better bet. Feel free to message me if interested in another option.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 2:09 PM on November 25, 2013

The aspiring opera singers I know who went to college in Iowa either went to Luther or the University of Iowa.
posted by Area Man at 2:42 PM on November 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

I went to Simpson for my freshman year. It was not a great experience, but that was as much to do with me as the school. Lutoslawski has it exactly right as far as Indianola's not offering the experiences you'd get in an actual college town.

I wasn't a music major, but the music department definitely has a big footprint there. That said, I'm not sure Simpson has anything to offer that a person couldn't get at, say, Luther or Wartburg.
posted by MrBadExample at 3:59 PM on November 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

On reflection, one thing I definitely feel I should mention--and keep in mind that my experience was over 20 years ago-- is that Simpson is a HUGE suitcase school. The place is pretty much a ghost town on the weekends. There are theater and musical performances on the weekends, but the impression I got was that those were mostly attended by elderly townies and a handful of students who were there for class requirements. I myself went home every weekend while I was there; I cannot imagine what out-of-state and international students did.

In my experience, Simpson has a few things that is does well, but if your son is looking for the whole College Experience, I'd recommend looking elsewhere.
posted by MrBadExample at 4:17 PM on November 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

I saw this question and pinged a friend, "Isn't this where you went to school???". He replied that yes, I was remembering correctly. He went to Simpson 30 years ago for opera, and did end up singing professionally for a time in New York before moving on to other things (mostly due to the rigors of caring for your voice as a professional singer, and due to the level of competition for parts in the city). He speaks fondly of his time at Simpson, though it was a long time ago now. He's managed to do other interesting things since then, and has managed to hold down decent steady employment in a variety of fields, so for what it's worth, his education there seems to have served him well.
posted by RogueTech at 6:47 PM on November 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'd hesitate to send my kid to Simpson. Like others have said, it is a rather small college. Now, I think Iowa's small colleges are pretty damned good but Simpson doesn't strike me as the best option for music. Others have mentioned better... Luther, Wartburg, or state Univ of Iowa. Plus, the town associated with the college is tiny. I think he'd find it rather boring. Even Des Moines is a snooze-fest. Sorry, Central Iowa, hope we can still be friends :( I can totally relate to the alienating nature of going to a big state university but this might be TOO small. I can't think of a single person in my graduating class in Iowa who wanted to apply to Simpson. Wasn't even on our radar.
posted by Foam Pants at 2:19 AM on November 26, 2013

The key thing is to make sure credits will transfer to the most likely more affordable local backup school.
posted by srboisvert at 6:13 AM on November 26, 2013

I am currently a Senior Music Education Major at Simpson College and have had a fantastic experience with Simpson's Operas. I am the Assistant Conductor and Chorus Master for the opera program. I will attach links to some Youtube clips that have been put up by Simpson College Opera. Also, the Simpson website has great information regarding the tradition of opera at Simpson which is unmatched by any other undergraduate school in the nation.


I have had the chance to be Chorus Master for 6 full Scale operas and 1 opera scene program.

Simpson was recently internationally recognized by the New York Times Chinese addition because of our upcoming production of Kurt Weill's Street Scene. Attached is the link to that article, which is unfortunately in Chinese, but none the less exciting for us to have our program seen by millions of readers.


If you would like to set up a visit or would like to contact me, my email is brandon.louis@my.simpson.edu and I'd love to speak to you in person. Simpson is a phenomenal school for opera that punches well above its weight in what we are capable of putting on stage in terms of singers, stage direction and production quality.
posted by BrandonELouis at 2:39 PM on November 26, 2013

Something very important to consider as well is the close relationship Simpson College has with the Des Moines Metro Opera. The Des Moines Metro Opera performs all of their productions at the Blank Performing Art Center which is on Simpson's Campus. Dr. Robert Larsen, the founder of the Des Moines Metro Opera, is a long-time professor at Simpson College who is well-respected in the opera world. The Des Moines Metro Opera is a fantastic opera company that puts on at least 3 operas every summer and many Simpson students work there doing supertitles for the shows, working in the box office and assisting the Artistic Director. The Des Moines Metro Opera has a wonderful Apprentice Program which is a great thing to look into as well for an aspiring young opera singer. With how small Simpson is, there is a lot of one on one time with professors that you can't get at a bigger school, yet we still put on very ambitious and effective productions.

If you have any of questions, please contact me at brandon.louis@my.simpson.edu.

I look forward to hearing from you!
posted by BrandonELouis at 2:48 PM on November 26, 2013

Best answer: I have had a 30-year career as a professional singer and voice teacher. As an apprentice at Des Moines Metro Opera I became familiar with Simpson College and have maintained my relationship with the college. I am simply shocked by the uninformed comments Ive read above. I have sent countless gifted voice students to Simpson and many are singing professionally today. The faculty is first rate, comprised of professional singers and conductors with world-wide reputations. The small size and relationship with DMMO will give gifted undergraduate students opportunities they simply could not get at large universities. Last year one of my students was accepted to the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, one of America's greatest music schools. I believe they only accepted about 16 incoming voice students across the nation. She was also accepted to Simpson and was awarded an enormous scholarship, paying for most of her education. After polling my fellow professional singers, it was 100% in favor of Simpson for undergraduate opera study. She loves Simpson and is positive she made the right decision. I recommend you visit the school, have your son take a voice lesson, see a production and get a list of alumni who are performing professionally. It will knock your socks off!
posted by kgoettel at 7:43 PM on November 26, 2013

I direct the opera program at Simpson College. All of the voice and opera faculty have national and international careers and are experts in their field. I would respectfully suggest that prospective students consult experts in the field, rather than solicit views from all and sundry. Many in the field consider Simpson's program to be the best of its kind. Simpson College and Indianola are home to one of the best American summer opera festivals, so our students are immersed in opera, student and professional, for much of the year. Some of the reasons our students give about why they study music at Simpson College are as follows:

* 2 fully-staged operas a year, one with professional orchestra, exclusively for undergraduate singers
* No competing with postgraduate students for performing opportunities
* May Term Opera Workshop (a biannual intensive immersion program)
* Our proven voice faculty
* Our alumni
* graduate school placement for voice majors (in 2012 100%, all with massive financial incentives - I can provide more info)
* a vast array of performing opportunities: recitals, weekly convocation, operas, choirs, choral masterworks programs, and more
* Our partnership with the Des Moines Metro Opera
* working with visiting directors and designers active in the profession
* one-on-one piano lessons - to develop the all-important professional tools for the singer
* classes are always taught by professors, never graduate teaching assistants
* faculty to student ratio
* dedicated one-on-one vocal coaching (musical preparation, recital preparation, role preparation, advanced lyric diction, etc.)
* weekly sessions with a faculty collaborative pianist
* foreign language study / diction / vocal pedagogy classes
* rigorous and comprehensive music history and theory sequence
* all students study conducting
* study of modern languages

Our alumni outcomes speak for themselves. Please do some research! Contact me or the Chair of the Music Department if you would like more information. See www.simpson.edu/music and www.simpson.edu/opera.
posted by bernard.mcdonald at 9:01 PM on November 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Well, we know that Simpson is certainly active in social media, given that three connected people just joined metafilter to comment here.

My concerns have nothing to do with the strength of the opera program at Simpson (or anywhere else for that matter). My concerns are that given the high proportion of students who switch majors at some point in college, the student and his parents might consider more than the strength of the opera program. Though, again, transferring to another school is simple enough that this concern might be minor.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:22 AM on November 27, 2013 [14 favorites]

That is a good point. Switching majors at Simpson College does happen, so the highly distinctive vocational music program combined with the other academic offerings on campus make the college attractive to both serious music majors and those who want to remain active in music at college as they pursue other academic interests. Some students even pursue the BM in music performance and a BA in other areas, most recently in French, German, and philosophy. Many science and business students play in the symphonic band, jazz band, and sing in one of our four choral ensembles. One last thing: the most important initial determinant of success of a young singer's career is the choice of voice teacher. Full disclosure again: I am a Simpson professor. Singers choose Simpson because of our voice faculty, not simply because of the name of the college. That opera is a prominent part of our comprehensive program is an added incentive, as is the opportunity to experience and be involved in professional opera with the Des Moines Metro Opera.
posted by bernard.mcdonald at 8:56 AM on November 27, 2013

I am a Simpson College alumn and active in the opera world.
As Bernard Mcdonald has pointed out the vocal music instruction at Simpson is top-notch.
The total experience at Simpson is a positive one and I know that they have only worked to strengthen that perception. If there are specific questions regarding my experience after Simpson and how Simpson prepared me specifically, I would be happy to field those questions.

Any college experience is up to the student. Faculty, staff, opportunities, etc mean nothing if the student expects to just make it by being there. I for one wasted much opportunity at Simpson, because I was very immature and naive about the broader world. Luckily, the education and work ethic were built into the experience in such a way that I was able to appreciate just how valuable it was when I was actively pursuing the career outside of the institution. That said, I have had very good opportunities and fewer set backs due to my talent level and the good ole luck factor.
There is a huge variety of Simpson experience, but few professionals I know now that had that experience find fault in it. That says something and if you look at the variety of jobs and the level at which many Simpson grads are attaining in the professional world, one can see that Simpson is doing something special.

That said, at the core of the Simpson experience is a devoted faculty, a highly skilled staff, and a campus community that cares deeply about young students.

All the best!

posted by johnmmoore at 1:26 PM on November 27, 2013

Best answer: Hi! Another Simpson College alum here, also from the voice program. I graduated in 2012 with a BM.

I'm currently a grad student and in comparing my undergrad experience with my colleagues, I find that I have had many more opportunities to develop my abilities.

There really is something to be said for an undergrad-only music program. One of the main things that sets Simpson apart from other colleges is that students receive much-needed experience. There are no master's or doctoral level students around to take roles or the professor's attention. Simpson is devoted to nurturing the undergraduate singer, which is something that cannot be said for many other programs in the nation.

User 26.2 mentions that there isn't much "real opera" in Indianola, Iowa. I absolutely HAVE to disagree. There are 3 full-length operas (student-cast) every school year and in the summers, Des Moines Metro Opera occupies Simpson campus. Many music students (myself included) find a way to participate, whether they sing in the chorus, are working behind the scenes in costumes, the box office or as a member of the house staff.

Another aspect of Simpson College is the dedication to the vocal health of the student. This is a topic that cannot be stressed highly enough-- although SC tackles big projects, like full-length opera roles, they make sure that the student is capable. I never felt as if I were being pressured to sing unhealthily or too much. My experience at SC taught me how to care for my most precious and individual asset.

If you have any further questions, I would love to answer them. Feel free to directly message!

Tl;Dr, Simpson faculty cares about their students, the faculty is experienced and knowledgeable, undergrads get tons of stage experience. 10/10 would attend again.
posted by shelbyhendryx at 8:52 PM on December 1, 2013

Best answer: Hey there,

I am a recent graduate of Simpson College with a degree in Vocal Performance. I cannot begin to tell you all the opportunities that this degree and education has given me. I have never had a problem receiving auditions for summer programs because of the reputation of Simpson College Opera Program. I was accepted into multiple Graduate schools and was offered very good financial packages at all of them. My experience at Simpson has more than prepared and excited me for what’s next in my music career.

During my 4 years at Simpson I was able to perform in 8 different operas, Take 2 International tours with the Madrigal Singers (to Italy and Spain) and 4 regional tours with the Chamber Choir not to mention a tour with the Band. I was also lucky enough to be a part of 2 Madrigal Dinners and 2 Masterwork concerts.

The faculty at Simpson are at the top of their fields with degrees from top graduate schools and universities across the country and abroad. Because Simpson is a small school you get one on one time with your professors and you really get to know them. It is such a great community of scholars to learn from. At larger schools as an undergrad you have the chance of being taught by a graduate assistant and not by a professor with an advanced degree and performing resume. At Simpson as an undergraduate you do not have to compete with graduate students for roles, accompanists, teachers, and solos in masterworks concerts. Some might look at this and say that there is no competition. As an 18 or 19 year old undergraduate singer there is really no way to compete with a 23-30 year old graduate students. The voice needs time to develop and be nurtured while still receiving a front row education with a hands on approach. Simpson College offers that and MORE.

I came into Simpson College unsure of what my major was. I was an accounting major, a saxophone performance major, and a vocal performance major. I ended up deciding singing was the future that I wanted. If I would have decided that music (specifically opera) wasn't for me I would have not hesitated to pick up different classes and switch my major. Simpson College is strong in a lot of programs. My roommate had a job at KPMG Accounting Firm straight out of Simpson. I have a lot of friends and colleagues that have very successful careers in many different fields. Small liberal arts colleges offer something no large school can. The ability to fully understand what you want to do with your life/career. You can take any classes in any department across campus and the "gen eds" that are required help the student receive a full education, not just in their specific field.

In response to the other posts saying that there is nothing you can get at Simpson that you can’t get at Luther, Wartburg, or other small liberal arts schools with strong music programs. I highly disagree. I grew up in Iowa and attended music summer camps at many of these schools. Met their faculty and students and have friends there. If your son is serious about opera and a career singing it there is no better liberal arts school in the Midwest, PERIOD. Simpson College with its faculty and collaboration with Des Moines Metro Opera gives the students real life opera experience, not just as a singer, but as a stage manager, set designer, costume designer, make-up artist, director, chorus master, and the list could go on forever. In short, Simpson College is the PERFECT place for an aspiring young singer with dreams of becoming a professional in the opera world.

Please contact me if there are any specific questions you have about the school or myself. I would be happy to hear from you!

Tad Ennen
posted by tad.ennen at 12:19 PM on December 2, 2013

I directed a production of Massenet's Cendrillon for Simpson early in 2013. Generally, one never knows the caliber of students that one will have in an undergraduate program, especially someone such as myself who comes from the professional/non-academic world. But I was blown away by the level of talent that Simpson students had: very young people with fantastic voices and absolutely hungry to learn about acting for the stage. Simpson is an unusual case for an undergraduate program, the biggest asset being two fully staged productions per year. There aren't a lot of programs that can guarantee undergraduate performance opportunities.

What I loved about Simpson was its size. It is a very intimate school and students certainly get more for their money and are watched over by faculty. The voice teachers there are exceptional and all have vast professional experience to back up their philosophies.

I would say that if your son is serious about a career in opera, then Simpson is the best undergraduate choice. It is true that it is less well known, which is a shame because a lot of top professionals in the field are alumni of the program at Simpson.

Please email me for further thoughts!

Crystal Manich
Stage Director
posted by cmanich at 5:39 PM on December 2, 2013

posted by Curious Artificer at 7:12 PM on December 2, 2013

Also consider checking out St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN which is known for both academics and its music programs.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 10:59 PM on December 2, 2013 [5 favorites]

I grew up in Iowa, and I remember Simpson having a great vocal music reputation. I know I saw students from Simpson perform at Madrigal dinners and holiday concerts. The college is small, and has no particular reputation for academics, and while the closeness to Des Moines is good, Indianola is isolated.

I, too, went to a very small, academically indifferent Iowa college because of a super stellar performing arts program. In my case, Clarke College in Dubuque, which has a nationally recognized theater program. I absolutely loved my program. It WAS super stellar, and the small size meant incredible hands on learning and experience. However, I had other interests as well, and I did feel limited in what else the college offered. Later on, I wished I had gone to a larger school.

Good luck with your decision.
posted by Malla at 4:51 AM on December 3, 2013

If you are looking for additional schools, you could consider Oberlin College in Ohio - the conservatory is quite well known, and I know they have an opera program. I don't know if it's too late to audition, and I don't know how well the opera program specifically is known vs. the other music programs. Note that the college and conservatory programs have separate admissions programs, you can apply to both and get both a BA and BFA in 5 years.
posted by insectosaurus at 6:31 AM on December 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

The odds of your son making a career in opera are vanishingly small even if he is accepted into and attends one of the top 5 conservatories. It's a dying industry with hundreds of singers chasing every paid gig.

Lutoslawski is right. Go to a good university that has a decent academic music department. Dollars to donuts your son isn't even interested in opera (if you're both lucky ) by junior year.

I'm not all and sundry either. I'm a tenured music professor at an R1 university. I watch opera dreams die every single year.
posted by spitbull at 2:36 PM on December 3, 2013 [4 favorites]

Also, the most important determinant of an opera career is not your choice of voice teacher. It's whether you can get into Juilliard, Indiana, or three other schools at most.
posted by spitbull at 2:41 PM on December 3, 2013 [3 favorites]

I have to agree with spitbull that the odds of your son getting into a career as an opera singer are quite small. I say this as someone who graduated with a similarly not-ready-for-the-job-market degree in music theory/composition at the aforementioned St. Olaf college. This isn't to discourage your son's dreams, but that he should have a backup plan/major. This could be in a complementary field that is more in demand, such as liturgical music, music education, etc. or it could be in another field altogether. I can't comment on Simpson college's music program, but one of the criteria for picking the school should be the breadth of its other offerings.
posted by baniak at 7:40 PM on December 3, 2013

Baniak is right. Any prospective undergraduate musician should cast her or her net wide, and seek a program with rigorous academics and breadth in music and other areas. Simpson's academic music program is comprehensive, in keeping with the best NASM schools offering degrees in music. What differentiates it from other undergraduate schools is the extent of its operatic activities exclusively for undergraduates, relationship with the Des Moines Metro Opera, and graduate school placement for voice majors.

I will respectfully disagree with spitbull. A bad voice teacher at a famous big school will wreck your opportunities. We all know people who have had that experience. My graduate studies were at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, and Indiana University. None of those institutions have an undergraduate opera program to equal that of Simpson College, and graduate students, not professors, teach many of the undergraduate courses at both CCM and IU.

Once again, I recommend that any prospective student visit the institution, have sample lessons, and investigate the alumni outcomes of a college's undergraduate program. Full disclosure: I am a professor at Simpson College.
posted by bernard.mcdonald at 8:37 AM on December 4, 2013

Best answer: I thought I would offer a response to the OP’s original question about Simpson College.

Simpson College is alive and well, thriving, and an excellent option worth considering for the aspiring vocal music major. The college offers 75 majors and minors. Music alumni include the CEO of Hal Leonard Publishing, Inc., the Metropolitan Opera National Council Director, the founder of Des Moines Metro Opera, the current artistic director of the Des Moines Metro Opera, numerous professional opera singers (including a post by one of those alumni above who is featured here), numerous college music professors, numerous successful music educators, and on and on. In short, we are indeed the real deal. ☺

I am one of the members of the Simpson College voice faculty – and please feel free to view my biography page on the Simpson College Music website. I also serve as stage director for some of the operas we perform, and co-teach the opera workshop class with my colleague Bernard McDonald. Prior to my position at Simpson, I sang opera professionally in the US and in Europe. The successful opera program at Simpson with its attention to excellence is what drove my decision to apply for a position at the school when I heard of an opening. I felt I had something to offer to the next generation(s) of singers as a teacher and was careful to only accept a position at a school that matched my own professional standards. Simpson had those standards and continues to have those standards.

I can also speak as a parent. My son chose Simpson for his undergraduate vocal studies even though he could have attended just about any school he wanted. Why? That’s how much I believe in the program here at Simpson – both as a faculty member and as a parent. So I can speak honestly to the OP’s original question from the standpoint of being a voice faculty member, parent of an aspiring opera singer, and as professional singer.

The three recurring themes being posted by those who have not attended Simpson College - yet are providing answers in this thread- revolve around rural vs. urban college/university settings, academics, and the odds of making it as an opera singer. I thought I would take the time to address those three themes due to the chances that this thread will come up in future searches by others.

From the Simpson Admissions page

"The Simpson admission committee takes a holistic approach to admissions.
Members of the committee consider each application individually. They consider various academic factors and secondary factors as indicators of a student’s potential to succeed in Simpson’s rigorous liberal arts curriculum. Primary factors include, but are not limited to, high school GPA, course selection, ACT or SAT scores, and academic achievement. Secondary factors include, but are not limited to, extracurricular activities, awards, service, community involvement, work experience and the required essay."

From my standpoint about the Music Department…

Applying to Simpson College with the goal of being a major in vocal music involves an audition for scholarship. This would fall under the above secondary factor of awards and is part of any traditional talent based program. Simpson has 1800 - 1900 full time students. Music Majors usually total 105 - 120 students out of the overall student population. In the past decade, the number of voice majors we have studying in an undergraduate degree program at any given time has averaged in the 75 – 95 range depending on the year.

As others have pointed out in this thread, to have a successful career singing opera certainly is driven by the supply and demand issues of the industry. This is nothing new. It has been that way since the time of Handel with a history of always more singers being trained than jobs available. One has to have the voice, the looks, the intelligence, the acting ability and the desire to pursue the career. Even then, there are no guarantees of success. A tremendous amount of perseverance and expense is involved. That is a given that we know, teach, and prepare our students for as they move on to graduate schools, pursue their careers in music education, music performance, music business, and the technical side of the lyric stage.

The Simpson Music Faculty takes great care to nurture, and guide our students in the right direction. We provide wonderful opportunities for our students at the undergraduate level for performance and growth as musicians in today’s world. A voice major can pursue a Bachelor of Arts in Music degree, a Bachelor of Music Education, or a Bachelor of Music in Performance. It doesn’t matter which degree a student is pursuing when it comes to their performance opportunities at Simpson. Everyone is given equal consideration when it comes to casting, solos, ensembles, and participation. Nor does it hamper one’s success for a career in opera to hold one degree over another. As has been mentioned above in this thread, there are no graduate music students here, so all of the opportunities remain for undergraduates alone.

One of the issues raised in this thread is the reality that a student should prepare for many options career wise. I absolutely agree. We encourage our music majors to consider a double major for that very reason, or in many cases to pursue the Bachelor of Music Education degree as well so they can begin their professional career in music immediately upon graduating from Simpson. The good news is that a double major can easily be accomplished at Simpson. In addition, a student can add a minor or two with careful planning and mapping out of a their four year undergraduate degree program. In some cases, it may take 5 years to complete a double major based on when the student begins their pursuit of both majors, what the two majors are, and if there are any conflicts in class schedules. However, most students at Simpson can complete a double major within a typical four year undergraduate experience.

A brief recollection of some of our former students from the past decade who majored in music combined with another major find them today in the following careers: teaching German, teaching English overseas, airline pilots, teaching history, coaching sports, serving in the military, management in retail, crewing on Delta Air Lines, working in the medical field, working for an arts organization, working in administration of an opera company, singing professionally, are college professors, etc... . In short, we are realistic at Simpson and do our best to prepare a student for the realities of a career. Singing opera is grand, but as noted – very competitive and simply is not for everyone.

That being said, we do indeed have a long history of successful Simpson alumni who are singing professional opera throughout the world. And we will have more in the future. In all cases, they have the voice, the looks, the talent, the intelligence, and the desire to pursue it. Without an assessment of the OP’s son, I think everyone is bordering on speculation as to whether or not he has the goods.

I would like to think that any music major that posts here and provides an opinion about the process they went through is able to be honest in assessing their own level of talent (voice, looks, intelligence, acting ability, study/work ethics, vocal niche combined with the supply and demand issues, and desire). Sometimes a student has difficulty making that assessment in the early years, and that is where we as faculty help with our guidance and assessment. Does a tall handsome baritone with a good voice, intelligence, good work ethic, acting ability, talent, etc… stand more of a career chance in opera than a crowded vocal Fach or niche such as a soubrette soprano who also has a good voice, intelligence, work ethic, but may not cut as attractive of a stage presence, etc…? Yes. I would hope that faculty at any institution would be able to guide each singer appropriately knowing what the competitive field is like in terms of supply and demand for their particular voice type/Fach.

Over the years, I have worked with wonderful singers who just never could seem to get it all together. Poor work ethics, late to rehearsals, faulty technique, couldn’t learn their music, had poor vocal hygiene/health, suffered from the stress, or generally had some issue that held them back. The same is true for students. Even some that possess the most promising golden voices, fail to show up to class, fail to do the required work, and simply do not make it. And I have seen some of the most unlikely candidates in the profession and as students attain wonderful professional success against all odds. There are just too many factors involved to not consider. I feel safe in saying that we could apply that to any profession.

If we go back to the OP’s original question – the OP’s son is interested in singing opera. To anybody in the opera business in the US, Simpson College is well known. The G. Schirmer Opera Anthology series for soprano, mezzo, tenor, baritone, and bass are all compiled and edited by Simpson Faculty Emeritus Professor, Dr. Robert L. Larsen. Every classical singing voice teacher in America most likely has all 7 volumes on their studio music shelf and finds the need to use them on a daily basis. It may be safe to assume that every singer owns one of the G. Schirmer volumes in their respective voice category. These volumes are used at every opera audition day in and day out, year round.

Dr. Larsen also founded the Des Moines Metro Opera in the early 70’s. The 42nd DMMO season coming up next year makes it hard not to imagine that with over 1500 apprentice artists over the years and all of the principal artists over the 41 prior seasons having spent their summer on the Simpson College campus as part of the Des Moines Metro Opera summer season, that the OP did not encounter somebody in the opera business that had heard of Simpson College. I would be inclined to say that if they spoke to anyone in the opera business that is well acquainted with training programs in the US, they would be aware of Simpson College. One could even include in the discussion that the inventor of peanut butter, George Washington Carver, attended Simpson College. What’s better than peanut butter and opera? ;-)

I am willing to accept that the OP and those he consulted have not heard of Simpson either from his locale, or not being able to talk to those who may have known. There are many posts above that have mentioned the excellent attributes of the quality musical education one can experience and obtain at Simpson by a dedicated faculty who are focused on nurturing and developing the next generation(s) of opera singers, musicians, music educators and students in general for their career pursuits. I would suggest to the OP that they take the time to really research the Simpson College website, the music department, the opera pages at our website and again, consult professionals in the opera business about our program. It is very typical for students interested in opera at Simpson not only to audition for us, but also for schools like NEC, Oberlin, Indiana, Eastman, Julliard, etc… . We are very confident in our product that we offer the aspiring undergraduate opera singer an excellent education.

The last issue raised was one of a rural setting vs. an urban setting. I would like to think that a student who has done their research (and parent) would choose quality of program over the social setting of free time in a rural or urban setting. Who said that music majors have any free time in a jam-packed quality program in the first place? ☺ We are talking about 4 years of a person’s life where the emphasis should be placed on preparing for a career. That career really begins on the first day of college class. That is their start as a young professional in music.

I attended a small college very similar to Simpson in a rural Midwest town, and yet ended up living in New York City, Houston, San Francisco, and Vienna, Austria for a combined 27 years of my life to date. I don’t feel that attending college in a smaller rural setting hampered my ability to enjoy and live in an urban setting later in life. ☺ Nor did it hamper my ability to compete for jobs within my vocal category. I would caution that particular advice being given as a determining point of where to attend – especially with what is available in our Des Metro area. Not to mention, the reality of pursuing a singing career usually involves graduate school and apprenticeship programs which are usually located in more urban areas on larger campuses. All of our students that proceed with their careers immediately go to one of these larger urban areas – so they will get that experience after their 4 years as an undergraduate at Simpson. In my estimation, a young adult may indeed be much more prepared to live in that setting at the age of 22-25 than they are at the age of a freshmen (18).

Besides, the Simpson campus is only 12 minutes from the airport (the way I drive), and 20 minutes from all the shopping and eating that any college student could ever want or afford when they get off campus. A series of Broadway touring productions, a professional opera company, a professional symphony, and many other opportunities in Des Moines are available to our students year in and year out. Can’t go to the MET? Not a problem. The HD broadcasts are available here. We also can easily attend performances at Lyric Opera of Kansas City, Opera Omaha, Cedar Rapids Opera, Des Moines Metro Opera, Minnesota Opera, and Lyric Opera of Chicago due to our proximity. That actually provides a very well balanced level of talent and production styles in the professional world for our students to observe.

In closing, we embrace the realities, challenges, and unique attributes required for opera at the undergraduate level and take pride in our preparation of students as they seek career guidance for their training and pursuits beyond the undergraduate level - whether that be in opera or not. I always use a sports analogy when discussing the realities of a professional performing career in opera. In spite of millions of youth playing Little League baseball and Pop Warner football, thousands may end up playing in high school and college – but very few make it to the NFL (1,590 play on NFL teams) or MLB (750 on the active roster/450 on the inactive roster). Of course, there are other leagues for football and minor league baseball teams, but the numbers are limited for the NFL and MLB players who made it to “the show”. Opera is the same. No question about it. Simpson College has many alumni singing professional opera, or the equivalent of being in the NFL/MLB.

We also have many alumni who are successful in the field of music, as well as outside of music that majored in music while attending Simpson. I would not hesitate to recommend to the OP and his son our unique program – and I am speaking from the standpoint of being a voice teacher, a parent, and a professional singer.

Feel free to contact any of the Simpson faculty, Simpson alumni, as well as current Simpson students with questions about the school and our program. We are the real deal – whether you have heard of us or not.
posted by BruceBrown at 3:22 PM on December 4, 2013

Mod note: A couple of comments removed. Simpson College people who have signed up to comment here, we appreciate your input and enthusiasm for your school, but this has apparently become some sort of orchestrated PR endeavor, and this is not how Ask Metafilter works. We will be deleting any more comments from new users on this thread.
posted by taz (staff) at 7:02 AM on December 6, 2013 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks bunches to everyone who commented. My son has not finished his auditions yet, or even started. I'm really impressed with the Simpson advocates' zeal. We'll see what happens.

I will post the final result when it occurs, but that will be next April.

Thanks to all for your opinions.
posted by vilcxjo_BLANKA at 7:28 AM on December 9, 2013

Response by poster: As it turns out, I was an undergraduate music and math student at IU, and I know the music department (and the music building) very well. I must admit I never had any luck getting dates with opera singers either, but it may have had more to do with my geeky, hippy 18-year old phase than anything else.
posted by vilcxjo_BLANKA at 7:31 AM on December 9, 2013

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