Cliff Jackson: UK Opera’s Iron Man

Cliff Jackson at the piano during a coaching session in his office. Photos by Rich Copley |

Cliff Jackson at the piano during a coaching session in his office. Photos by Rich Copley |

There isn’t any Black Sabbath music in Cliff Jackson’s repertoire, but over the years, the University of Kentucky associate professor of music has built a reputation as the Iron Man of the school’s voice program.

One of the cornerstones of that reputation takes place again Saturday, with the Metropolitan Opera National Council Kentucky District Auditions. Jackson will accompany all the UK competitors and probably most or all of the other hopefuls in their quests to win the first round of opera’s biggest talent search.

The past few years, he has shared the piano bench less and less, and last year, he accompanied all 27 competitors, playing 54 arias.

Jackson has a poster on the wall of his office from a 1996 performance with Kathleen Battle.

Jackson has a poster on the wall of his office from a 1996 performance with Kathleen Battle.

“Well, if you’ve got the best, why go with anyone else?” UK voice professor Cynthia Lawrence says of the trend toward all competitors engaging Jackson to play for them.

“Sometimes I just look at it as a challenge,” Jackson says in his small office in the UK Fine Arts Building after a coaching session. “You just sit down and say, ‘I am going to play this whole competition,’ and you don’t really think about how long it takes.”

This Saturday might be a Met Auditions swan song, though. At the end of this school year, Jackson will retire from UK, leaving as one of the most respected and beloved members of the voice faculty, of which he has been a part since 1992.

Doctoral candidate ­Dannica Burson says that at the beginning of every school year, there is a meeting of all the students and faculty in the voice program, and when Jackson is introduced, “he always gets a standing ovation.”

“While all the students have different voice teachers, we all have Professor Jackson,” Burson says.

At UK and beyond, Jackson is revered for his incisive ear as a vocal coach and his skills as a virtuoso accompanist. The latter skill has carried Jackson around the world, accompanying marquee stars including soprano Kathleen Battle.

Reaching those heights sometimes required some steely resolve, and circumstances occasionally nudging him in the right direction.

Jackson, 56, was born in Gary, Ind. His mother played piano, and soon he started playing, too. Eventually he was drawn into the music programs at the Baptist church that his family attended, and he got free piano and organ lessons there.

“I was with them every day,” Jackson says of his church music family.

Like most college-bound kids from Gary, Jackson assumed he would go to Indiana University. But his mentor at church thought he ought to check out Oberlin College Conservatory in Ohio.

“She was worried I would get lost in IU,” Jackson says. “Years later, when I’ve gone to IU to judge competitions, I’ve looked around and thought, ‘She was right; I would have been lost here.’”

He went to Oberlin, pursing studies in organ and music education. But he found that his circle of friends was made up of singers.

Jackson takes a moment to assess Burson a capella.

Jackson takes a moment to assess Burson a capella.

“I’m not very good at meeting people, and piano and organ can be solitary instruments, so I immersed myself in different things that would make me meet people,” Jackson says. “I started accompanying rehearsals, and I fell in love with opera.”

He continued pursuing organ and music education, but he was turned out of both programs. As he tells it, failing to keep up with those majors told him something he already knew: He really loved the piano, and he really loved vocal music.

He got into Oberlin’s piano program and after graduation went to New York to study in the Manhattan School of Music’s accompanist program.

“There are great pianists who are not good accompanists, and great accompanists who are not good pianists,” Jackson says.

“Accompanying singers requires a special kind of skill,” he says. “You can’t be a successful accompanist unless you love singing.”

At its best, Jackson says, accompanying is a rapturous collaboration. But there have been times when he has accompanied unprepared singers who were in over their heads.

“Their nervousness rubs off on you,” Jackson says. “You start to wonder, ‘Are they going to hit that note?’”

Fortunately, Jackson has accompanied many of the best singers.

At Juilliard, he worked with a young Renée Fleming, the now-famous ­soprano, and he had a gig accompanying the Dance Theatre of Harlem before moving to Miami to work with Miami Grand Opera.

Five years later, UK Opera Theatre director Everett ­McCorvey called, convinced that to truly excel, his program needed a vocal coach.

“I knew I was ready to leave Miami, but I didn’t know where I was going,” Jackson says. “When I got here and I saw the town and the Singletary Center and Commonwealth Stadium, I said, ‘I have to move here.’ I always wanted to live in a college town.”

Typical work days have Jackson hopping from engagement to engagement, such as on a Tuesday morning, when he plays a lesson for student Ellen Graham with Lawrence, and then dashes upstairs to coach Burson (both singers are preparing for the Met Auditions). A midday cancellation gives Jackson a rare moment to take a breath in the midst of lessons and meetings. The work, he says, has grown annually, along with the voice program.

At UK, Jackson has witnessed phenomenal growth in the opera program, with improved quality of singers and productions, increasing numbers of collaborations with professional companies from coast to coast, students advancing in competitions like the Met auditions and going on to significant careers, and the addition of prestigious colleagues on the faculty.

In UK’s system, he has reached retirement eligibility, and there are other things he wants to do, particularly in the field of ministry.

“It’s time for me to share my testimony,” says Jackson, who is the minister of music at Wesley United Methodist Church in Lexington. He says he might take some courses at Asbury University, he plans to pursue a solo-recording project, and he wants more time to visit relatives, including his mother.

If plans are not yet precise, that might be because there is a lot of work to do between now and May, including preparations for UK Opera Theatre’s January production of Porgy and Bess and a featured performance with the Chamber Music Society of Central Kentucky on May 1.

He knows that after he has left UK, there probably will be calls from people wanting him to fill his open calendar playing for them.

“I want to take at least a year away,” Jackson says. “Then we’ll see what I might do.”

Regardless, he doesn’t plan to maintain those iron-man schedules that often had him at school from early in the morning until deep in the evening.

He says, “I’ll feel freer.”

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