Sutton prepares to take a final curtain call as his prolific 36-year teaching career comes to a close

by Lee Billings

Vern Sutton, the celebrated singer, actor, director and teacher, is ending his lengthy career in the University’s School of Music this May, but he is not dropping the curtain on his calling just yet.

Sutton said he is retiring from the University, not from the stage.

“I’m going to continue to teach, sing, act, and direct operas and plays for as long as I can or want to,” he said.

This summer, Sutton is slated to direct “Dracula” for University Centennial Showboat Productions, as well as travel to Arkansas as Opera in the Ozarks’ new artistic director.

His final University production, “The Dangerous Liaisons,” a Conrad Susa opera, ran last weekend at the Ted Mann Concert Hall.

Sutton’s passion for theater began early, when he was a boy in Oklahoma City, listening to opera on the radio. Soon he was organizing his own amateur productions.

After a brief stint as a chorus boy at the Casa Manana in Fort Worth, Texas, Sutton entered the University’s graduate program in 1960. He soon found himself knee-deep in the burgeoning Twin Cities arts scene as a star performer with the Walker Art Center’s Center Opera.

By the time the University offered him an instructing job in 1967, Sutton was sold on the Twin Cities.

“What I’ve done in my life or career could have only been done in Minnesota,” Sutton said. “Although the rest of the country has good, attractive points, it could not offer me what I needed as far as the nurturing environment and the support.”

Minnesota’s nurturing environment led to “Opera on the Farm,” a program Sutton started in 1993.

“We would take over whole towns; we’d go to a small town and the orchestra would play at the nursing home, the bank, the shopping mall, the schools, master classes with the band and concerts at night, and the whole town would come,” Sutton said. “It was extremely popular and very effective – it wasn’t just a tour, but an outreach project.”

Besides being a University professor, Sutton also directed the School of Music for eight years and the University Opera Theatre for 36 years.

Despite his academic accomplishments, Sutton is better known in theatrical circles for his work as a performer. Besides his operatic performances, Sutton also performs olios on riverboats and has appeared frequently on Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion.”

Dominick Argento, a former University professor and composer who has written pieces specifically for Sutton, said he did so because Sutton is “the best at what he does.”

“The intelligence shines through his voice,” Argento said. “What you get when Vern sings is a sense of intelligence, that what is being sung about is being fully understood and being felt.”

Sutton’s unique voice, spanning two octaves and falling between tenor and baritone, also led Argento to write “A Water Bird Talk,” a one-man monodrama.

Sutton premiered it in 1977 at the Brooklyn Academy in New York.

Sutton’s spirit emerges when he talks about his taste in music – he’s always looking for something new.

“I prefer the challenge that a new piece throws at me,” he said.

Lee Billings covers faculty and staff affairs and welcomes comments at [email protected]