Prestigious opera award a big step in mezzo-soprano’s career

Hannah Ludwig performing the aria “Cruda sorte! Amor tiranno!”

Mezzo soprano and University of the Pacific alumna Hannah Ludwig ’14 has received rave reviews during the early part of her professional opera career, which has led to a prestigious honor: the inaugural Stephen De Maio Memorial Award.

De Maio, who, died on May 28, 2020, was a ubiquitous force in the opera world and a champion of helping young singers  advance. The Lissner Foundation, which he headed created an award in De Maio’s honor.

“He was such an advocate for young singers. It’s like each time you see opera singers in their 30s or 40s, he was there at the forefront of their careers,” said Ludwig, who was raised in Sacramento. “He loved opera and he loved young singers and going to performances. Knowing his legacy, it means a lot to get the award in his honor.”

The award is being celebrated enthusiastically at Pacific’s Conservatory of Music.

“Nothing Hannah accomplishes is a surprise. She is one of those rare birds. From the moment she set foot on campus, she was ready, willing and able to produce great work and worked so well with others,” said Burr Phillips, professor of voice and the faculty member who mentored Ludwig. “She has a tenacity and a resourcefulness that you can’t really teach. She is the sort of person who others will follow.”

One of Ludwig's performances prompted a New York Times opera critic to gush about her tone as “chocolaty and large, yet with focus and agility.”

“Hannah’s most recent recognition will not be her last. Mr. De Maio is a luminary in the world of opera, one who created ways to lift the next generation of singers upward,” said Peter Witte, dean of Pacific’s Conservatory. “It would be easy to celebrate Hannah for her vocal prowess alone, but that’s only part of her magic. Hannah’s commitment to music springs from a commitment to people.”

Ludwig and a friend, Dr. Alexandra Stratyner, started a group called Freelance Performers and Mental Health. They have put together resources to help those in the performing arts who are dealing with personal issues during the pandemic. They share a video each Friday featuring a medical or mental health professional.

“When I heard that Hannah was doing this, it came as no surprise at all,” said James Haffner, professor of opera at Pacific. “She is the type of person who always is there for others. This is just the start for Hannah. She is going to become a real force in the opera world.”

“I was set up to succeed because I went to Pacific.”  

Hannah Ludwig

Ludwig’s education at Pacific pre-dated Witte’s arrival as conservatory dean, but they have connected through Twitter and virtual classes she has held with current Pacific students.

“Almost overnight the performing arts simply stopped,” Witte said. “Hannah did something about it, elevating conversations about mental health and financial impacts of the pandemic. She sought to help others find voice, to ask for and get connected to resources. Hannah helps remind us that vulnerability is a kind of strength, musically and personally.”

Ludwig credits her training at Pacific, as well as the immense opera talent on campus at the time, with putting her career on a rapidly rising trajectory.

“It was a special time at the conservatory, because we knew we could push ourselves and try different things," Ludwig said. “We all were close friends and it was so rewarding to work on some of those productions. I truly enjoyed working with Burr Phillips, and we remain close to this day. My foundational skills were built and I was set up to succeed because I went to Pacific.”

“Opera Boot Camp” in Philadelphia

After graduating from Pacific, Ludwig attended the prestigious Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia, which is highly selective in choosing students. Ludwig felt prepared to embark on a professional career after completing the intense, four-year program at the academy.

“It was very diverse at AVA. I was very young, but there were others in their late 20s or 30s,” she said. “Their motto is they are the greatest opera training grounds and they live up to that. For four years, they basically take your voice and put it under a microscope.”

Her first full-fledged professional performance after graduating was as Alisa in “Lucia di Lammermoor” with Opera Philadelphia. The production was staged at the ornate Academy of Music.

“There was a moment in the first performance when I realized I’m performing with Brenda Rae and Christian Van Horn and Michael Spyres – huge names in the opera world and here I am just out of training. I said to myself ‘I cannot believe I am doing this.’ But it changed to ‘I did it.’ ”

Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic

Ludwig’s last production before the COVID-19 pandemic was Giovanna Seymour in Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena” with Baltimore Concert Opera (February/March 2020). Since then, like many artists, she has had to cope with the pandemic. The pandemic caused cancellation or postponement of work Ludwig had scheduled in Argentina, Germany and Scotland.

“Once you get to international markets, that’s a big step in opera,” Ludwig said. “That was kind of crushing, but I won’t have to wait much longer. I am starting to get offers and opera seems to be changing as far as scheduling goes. Previously you were booked out two or three years in advance. Now, we are starting to hear of upcoming productions with much shorter turnaround times. I have a great manager and we are putting together a plan moving forward. Many opera singers start to peak in their 30s, and I’m anxious for what is ahead.”

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