HENRY PHIPPS – A Conversation with Featured Boy Soprano in SF Opera’s “Heart of a Soldier”

Sean Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

Composer Christopher Theofanidis employs a rare opportunity for a Boy Soprano in his new opera, HEART OF A SOLDIER, its world premiere now being presented by San Francisco Opera. The work explores the nature of a true warrior and how that spark of inner knowing gets ignited. For the main character, “Rick Rescorla”, it happens in 1944 when, as a young boy back in Cornwall, his hometown was host to the American soldiers of the U.S. 29th Infantry Division. Then known by his first name, Cyril, the boy is fascinated by the G.I.s during their stay and bereft when they depart. He eases his pain by changing his name. From now on, he will use his middle name, Richard, and Americanize it to “Rick”. His destiny is to rise to the rank of Colonel in the United States Army. His fate is to save the lives of 2700 people in the South Tower of the World Trade Center and to then perish in its collapse while attempting to rescue more. Henry Phipps is the boy assigned to the role of the young Rick Rescorla.

Twelve year old Henry Phipps is a long-term and committed member of RAGAZZI (the “guys”), an internationally acclaimed boys chorus based in Redwood City. Since its formation in 1987, Ragazzi has appeared with the San Francisco Opera, San Francisco Symphony, Opera San Jose, West Bay Opera and other musical organizations; tours to Italy, Canada, Russian, Japan and more; and participating with the SF Symphony in their 2000 Grammy Award for “Best Classical Album”. These guys are trained musicians and seasoned veterans, ready and able to perform with the best in the world of Classical music. Not long ago, Ragazzi got a call from San Francisco Opera. They needed a boy Soprano, maybe an Alto, to sing in the world premier production of Christopher Theofanidis’ Heart of a Soldier. Henry Phipps was among the five boys Ragazzi prepared for the prestigious audition.

As soon as the final curtain went down on the Opening Night performance, we in the audience leapt to a standing ovation – wildly enthusiastic, filled with cheering, and with a noticeable swell in our applause for young Henry Phipps. I connected with Henry the day after the second performance.


Sean: How did your second performance compare to opening night?

Henry: I think it went pretty well. Opening Night, the tension was pretty high and I made a few mistakes, but I also had a lot of energy. All in all, I think they went about the same.

Sean: I thought your performance was very smooth and you seemed very comfortable. As a member of Ragazzi, what is your vocal classification?

Henry: We have Soprano 1s and Soprano 2s – the 1s sing higher. I’m a 1.

Sean: How did you find out this job was available?

Henry: Ragazzi told me. They helped me work through it. They taught me all the music, then we went to the audition. I got called back, learned another piece, and went back. Ragazzi guided me all the way through.

Sean: Did the people from San Francisco Opera approach you specifically or were other boys in your section invited to audition as well?

Henry: It was open to five of us – two Altos and three Sopranos.

The boys of RAGAZZI.
Henry is 1st row center. Photo, Marshall Pierce

Sean: What did you sing for your audition?

Henry: I sang a little bit from Heart of a Soldier and an excerpt from Amahl and the Night Visitors – the section called “Don’t Cry, Mother Dear”.

Sean: I know that section. Had you performed it before?

Henry: I had not. I had ten days to learn it.

Sean: Where was your audition held?

Henry: It was held at the opera house in the chorus room.

Sean: Are you wearing a microphone during the performance?

Henry: I do have a microphone, but they only use it on the low notes. I carry on the high notes, but not so much on the low notes. So, they need to level it out.

Sean: From where I was sitting, the sound was very well balanced. Your upper register carries throughout the entire house.

Henry: Well, I have to give some of that to the acoustics.

Sean: That’s true. I believe a full house at the War Memorial – including the maximum in standing room – is 3,365 people. That means it’s among the larger opera houses in the world and your 12-year-old voice is sailing straight up to the last row. That must be a thrilling feeling.

Henry: Definitely.

Sean: You know the expression, “to be on top of your game”. What does that mean to you?

Henry: It means – to not be behind and struggling to catch up. To be where you’re supposed to be in terms of work.

Sean: Do you think you’re you on top of your game with this particular job?

Henry: I do.

Sean: Did you have to join a musicians union to be in this production?

Henry: The one associated with the San Francisco Opera.

Sean: Thus, you are being paid to perform in this World Premiere.

Henry: Yes.

Sean: I was 19 when I got my first paycheck as a singer. And even though I was a university student at the time, when anybody would ask “what do you do?” – I would answer, “I’m a singer.” If they wanted to know what else I did, I would volunteer that I was also a student. So, how does it feel to be a professional singer at 12 years old, performing at the War Memorial Opera House, in a World Premiere?

Henry: It’s definitely an honor to be in this opera and to get this part. It’s amazing. And it’s really nice to get to perform with all these really great singers. But when I’m out of the opera house, it doesn’t feel too different. I try my best to just live normally.

Sean: At this point, you’ve got five more performances. What will you do to keep your voice in shape between now and the final performance?

Henry: I sing everyday. A vocal coach comes in and we’ll talk about the emotions going through the music. I warm-up from Low E to High F and G where my second passagio is. I sing my part buzzing my lips and then sing it. By then my voice is completely warmed up. It takes about ten to fifteen minutes.

Sean: How long have you been with Ragazzi?

Henry: About six years.

Sean: Was this something you wanted to do?

Henry: I was really into music. I never went anywhere without this little orchestra book I had – learning about the instruments. Actually, my mom saw this “Would you like to join Ragazzi?” somewhere and asked me if I’d like to join and sing. “OK, whatever.” Then I went to the auditions and I was in. At that point we rehearsed about one day a week and it wasn’t very intense and I really didn’t think anything of it. But once we got into the 2-hour intensive twice-a-week, then I started to become serious. I’ve had moments when I wished I wasn’t doing Ragazzi, but normally I love it.

Sean: Along the way, have you had solos in the concerts?

Henry: Yes.

Sean: What kind of music have you been singing?

Henry: It’s all sorts. Sometimes classical pieces. Sometimes we’re singing Renaissance – it goes all over the place.

Sean: Not every kid at twelve years old has a knowledge of music from the Renaissance. Now you’ve got a professional opera on your credits.

Henry: And that kind-of goes with Baroque and Romantic and everything else.

Sean: Now that you’re familiar with various styles of music – if you were to hear a song you didn’t know, would you be able to identify the period it comes from?

Henry: About seventy-five percent of the time I get it right.

Sean: That’s extremely interesting to me. You’ve learned this from Ragazzi, of course, and you continue to be inspired by the music. Not every kid runs around singing songs from the Renaissance.

Henry: Another cool thing, if you’re into music, you start to notice weird little things. Like, someone writes a song in the Baroque period and then someone else thought the lyrics were really nice and then they wrote a Classical or Renaissance piece with the same words. There’s about fifty Ave Marias and they’re not all the same.

Sean: If you weren’t in Ragazzi, would you still want to be singing?

Henry: I think I’d still be into music, but I would try other things.

Sean: Does Ragazzi have a division for boys whose voices have changed?

Henry: Yes, it’s called the Young Men’s Ensemble. It’s the final level. You’re there from the first year in high school to the last.

Sean: Do you think you might do that?

Henry: Definitely. I want to stay in Ragazzi as long as I can.

Sean: That’s excellent. I remember when Thomas Hampson started coming on the scene. Where he made his huge splash was doing the role of “Figaro” in The Barber of Seville. He was simply the hottest ticket in town. I was singing baritone in those days and was encouraged to pursue a similar path. At the moment, you don’t really know where your voice is going to land in about two years or so. Do you have a particular attraction to either the tenor or baritone voice? Would it make any difference to you?

Henry: There are a few great basses in Ragazzi. I used to really want to be a bass. Then I heard Thomas Hampson – he has an amazing voice – and I wanted to be a baritone. But, no offense to Thomas Hampson, then I heard Bill Burden. A wonderful tenor! Now I kind-of want to be a tenor.

Trevor Scheunemann (as Joe), Ta’u Pupu’a (as Robert), Henry Phipps (as Cyril, the young Rick) and Michael Sumuel (as Tom). Thomas Hampson (as Rick) appears in the background.
Photo, Cory Weaver

Sean: One of the things you may find, if you want to continue with singing, is a preference for the specific repertoire. If you love the repertoire, then it doesn’t matter what type of voice you have because the repertoire will keep feeding you. If it turns out you’re a baritone, then Thomas Hampson is one of the greatest examples you could ever encounter, especially because of his versatility, such as in German lieder, French opera, etc. And then there are all those tenors, singing the same or other material by the same composers. At first, I was a committed baritone. I didn’t want to be a tenor.

Henry: I think you’ll agree that the tenor role in Heart of a Soldier is pretty great.

Sean: Absolutely. I love the production. The idea of introducing a boy soprano to portray the young “Rick” and how he was inspired by the American soldiers – including changing his name from Cyril to Rick – was a novel kind of a twist in constructing the opera. And there you are. You’re the one who will be forever identified as the boy who introduced this role.

Henry: I believe this opera will continue. I’ve already fantasized that, what if, as time goes by, I’m actually singing the role of “Rick Rescorla” or “Dan Hill”. What it will be like to look back and say, “I was there.”

Sean: It sounds like a movie in the making. What else would you like to sing? Do you think your interests might ever go over to Pop or to Broadway? Or do you want to stay in the Classical world?

Henry: I really love singing anything – as long as it’s kind-of not Pop. Like the new stuff – where they sing something and then step on the re-wind pedal and it repeats. That’s less fun. Broadway’s fine. I love singing good songs.

Sean: It doesn’t matter, does it? As long as it’s quality material. What might you say to kids out there in the audience that would encourage them to pursue something other than listening to Pop music all day long? How would you suggest that they might want to consider Classical music and perhaps even join a similar youth chorus in their area, such as the two we have here in San Francisco?

Henry: All I can really say is to be open-minded. A lot of the reasons why some people don’t appreciate styles that are not Pop is because all their friends like Pop and they want to stay cool with their friends and not change. If people would just listen, I’m sure they’d find the depth in really good music.

Sean: What do the kids at school think about you being in the opera?

Henry: I have a few friends who are really supportive. I switched schools in 5th grade. My new school is really supportive about it. But the kids from my old school don’t really care – “Oh. He’s in an opera.”

Sean: Where are you going to school these days?

Henry: I’m going to The Nueva School in Hillsborough. I’m in 7th grade.

Sean: Seventh grade can be a huge turning point. Is Nueva a middle school?

Henry: It’s a school that starts in kindergarten and goes to the 8th grade. I entered in 6th.

Sean: What other favorite subjects do you have besides music?

Henry: I like Science, for sure, and Nueva makes math really fun. I guess I like all subjects, come to think of it. If you wouldn’t mind, I’d like to touch back on the other subject of Pop. I wasn’t really into Classical music. But there was one song that kind-of changed that. I heard The Young Men’s Ensemble – the changed voices in Ragazzi – perform it. It just completely moved me and suddenly I loved all kinds of other music. My goal is to get to where I need to be to sing that song. It’s Biebl’s Ave Maria – such an amazing song. It’s long and in eight parts – tenor, bass, baritone, 3 solos, tenor 2s and bass 2s. It’s a really cool mix of styles, like a cross between Romantic and Renaissance. A group that does it really well is Chanticleer.

Sean: I’ve seen Chanticleer many times. Their high sopranos are absolutely astounding. Could you see yourself being in a group like that? Maybe your voice will be ideally suited for that high countertenor. Would that appeal to you?

Henry: It would definitely appeal to me. I really don’t know what I’m going to do when I grow up. I love singing and music is definitely my greatest passion. I wouldn’t be surprised if I wound up becoming a professional singer.

Sean: What do you do in your free time when you’re not practicing and running off to perform with Thomas Hampson?

Henry: I read – read-read-read.

Sean: The more you know about the world, the better singer you’ll be – I promise. One last question. Do you think your appearance had any influence on your being cast? During the performance and now, looking at the production photo of you standing next to Thomas Hampson, my first reaction was “Wow, this guy could be what Thomas Hampson looked like as a kid”.

Henry: I think that definitely helps.

Photo, Cory Weaver

Henry Phipps has the soul of a musician and the heart of a singer. He is making his debut at San Francisco Opera, sharing the stage with the most amazing Classical voices a composer could hope to assemble for the premiere of his newest work. If it turns out that Henry is right – that Heart of a Soldier the opera will stand the test of time – and if it gets produced during a season, perhaps an Anniversary Season, when he would be the best choice for either of the leading roles – I will be first in line for tickets. I wonder what it will be like – to look back on this world premiere and say, “I was there.”

There are five more performances of Heart of a Soldier. Click on the date to order tickets on-line:

Sunday, September 18, 2 pm
Wednesday, September 21, 7:30 pm

Saturday, September 24, 2 pm
Tuesday, September 27, 8 pm
Friday, September 30, 8 pm


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Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Seán Martinfield, who also serves as Fine Arts Critic, is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: sean.martinfield@comcast.net.

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