Rasendrahasina received the Betty Van Andel Scholarship. The $2,500 scholarship was the largest awarded by Opera Grand Rapids this year.
In the role of Edmundo, then-Calvin junior Fitah Rasendrahasina offered the opening vocal in Opera Grand Rapids’ production of Giacomo Puccini’s Manon Lescaut on Feb. 11, 2011. Singing from the stage of the three-tiered, 2,400-seat Devos Performance Hall without the aid of a microphone is an impressive prospect: “It’s amazing how the human voice works, filling that huge auditorium,” he said.
As the one undergraduate in the opera company, Rasendrahasina was aware of the pressure on his shoulders. “It’s unusual. Most of the people that are in opera are people that have experience and deep training in music,” he said. “It was painful at the beginning because I thought I was too small for that. It was a great experience.”
Rasendrahasina’s season with the opera gained the attention of the company’s benefactors. On May 18, he received the Betty Van Andel Scholarship, an annual award given to an exceptional student of music from the greater Grand Rapids area. The 2011 scholarship totaled $2,500, the largest amount awarded by Opera Grand Rapids this year.
Lost lamb finds music
The story of how Rasendrahasina arrived at this point, he said, “is one of blessing and surprise. I’m astonished at how God works.”
Rasendrahasina grew up in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, in a family of theologians. His grandfather served as the first president of the Church of Jesus Christ in Madagascar, a Reformed denomination; his father is the current president of the church, and his mother is a theologian and part-time teacher. “I guess I’m the lost lamb because I’m not a theologian,” Rasendrahasina joked.
Music is Rasendrahasina’s craft and passion, and it has been a part of his life since childhood. “I started singing at the age of five back home in a children’s choir,” he said. “Later on people told me to develop that gift, so I joined the music institute.” While at the Anglican Music Institute in Antananarivo, Rasendrahasina sang with several operettas and oratorios, touring France in 2009 with the Indian Ocean Vocal Ensemble.
The year of Rasendrahasina’s “big hit” with the Ensemble also brought sudden change for his family: “Back in 2009 when the legal government was forced to move – there was a coup, a mutiny. It’s a whole geopolitical problem. The president (of Madagascar) at the time was the vice president of our denomination. So the military thought my dad was involved with the government. They started to persecute … church leaders. We had to move out.”
The community of Woodlawn Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids took an interest in Rasendrahasina, raising funds so he could enroll at Calvin and bringing him to the attention of the music department. Calvin music professor Charsie Sawyer recalled hearing a CD of Rasendrahasina singing for the first time: “When we first heard him, we said, ‘Oh, my goodness. He wants to come to Calvin!’” Sawyer recognized the uniqueness of Rasendrahasina’s voice. “His timber, the color of his voice – he has the ability to sing with a wonderful legato line,” she said. “He, of course, can project very, very well. He knows how to support his tones. Good tenors are hard to find, so he just has a wonderful God-given talent.”
Through the parents of a fellow member of Capella, Calvin’s concert choir, Rasendrahasina was introduced to Opera Grand Rapids’ board of directors. His audition brought him a secondary role for Manon Lescaut. By the maestro’s request, Rasendrahasina also served as understudy to the second major tenor. “And at the last minute the second major tenor backed out for health reasons,” Rasendrahasina said, “so I got the role.”
Opera from the soul
After a successful first season with the opera and with one more year left at Calvin, Rasendrahasina’s path is branching. “There are connections that are happening right now, and we’ll see from there …,” he said. “I see a big vision. I could work with Opera Grand Rapids, the opera in Chicago, maybe in Europe. Being a performer is challenging and tough because you have to audition all the time. … It’s going to be (uncertain) all the time. I’m aware I’m heading into that.”
With the many choices Rasendrahasina faces, Sawyer said, he has to walk with caution. “He has to be very level-headed about what decisions he makes and who he’s connected to,” she said. “He has the potential to have a wonderful career ahead of him.”
Despite the challenges ahead, Sawyer has confidence in Rasendrahasina’s talent and his character. “Music is in his fiber, his bloodstream, in his veins,” she said. “… He is one singer around who sings from his soul.”
For more information about Fitah Rasendrahasina, visit www.fitah.org.
Read the Grand Rapids Press article about Rasendrahasina's debut.
Rasendrahasina's musical inspiration: “I grew up listening to rock – alternative rock and classical music. These are my two favorite genres.”
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