Wednesday, December 28, 2011
AMBITION TRUMPS BLINDNESS
No self-pity. Not even a whiff of frustration. Just ambition and perseverance, gilded with humor: "If you Google 'blind actor Bay Area,' you'll find me," Brandon Keith Biggs says. You'll find news of the Mountain View resident's latest musical theater roles. What you won't find is this: the fact that he has kayaked, ice-skated -- and surfed. The 19-year-old, has been blind since birth.
Biggs is a Foothill College student, and aims to become a professional opera singer -- at New York's Metropolitan Opera, a goal that's about as easy to achieve as, oh, becoming a Major League Baseball player. “Be hungry for what you love,” he says. And Biggs is hungry. With unwavering support from his parents, he takes private voice lessons in Hayward and acting lessons in San Francisco. He studies Italian via Skype with a teacher in Italy, and he is about to do the same for German -- because any top-notch opera singer must sing fluently in numerous languages.
Over the past year, opera has become "my addiction," he says. He loves its stories, its passion, the discipline it demands. His dream is to sing the role of the villain Scarpia in Puccini's "Tosca." His idol is Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, a sighted superstar on stages worldwide: "Basically, I want to grow up and be Bryn Terfel," Biggs says.
Admittedly late to hard-core musical training, Biggs -- who lives independently in a Mountain View apartment -- studies piano and music theory and is learning to read music using Braille. All this is outside his studies at Foothill, where he hopes to graduate in the spring with a general music degree. Someday, he hopes to attend a top music conservatory.
"Brandon has a wonderful bass-baritone voice," says David Rohrbaugh, Opera San Jose's music director and principal conductor, who has coached Biggs in the past year. "There's a heightened awareness to his listening. He hears fine nuances, sounds, phrasing, vowels and consonants. He hears and quickly imitates, has a sharp memory -- and a beautiful smile."
One day in early November -- not long after Biggs had finished a run in Gilbert and Sullivan's "H.M.S. Pinafore," singing the role of a sailor with Lyric Theatre of San Jose -- his teachers dropped by his studio apartment, which is crowded with computers, school books and his new digital piano. There was Carla Frazier, his daily living skills teacher, who taught him to make cannolis and pizza from scratch. There was Alec Karp, his orientation and mobility teacher, who trained him in picking up audio cues for crossing dangerous streets.
Music was important to Biggs as a child, too. When he was 3, his father took him to see Newsboys, a contemporary Christian group. His mother sang him folk songs. He experimented with drums, violin, recorder, clarinet. At age 14, Biggs heard "Phantom of the Opera," which made him fall in love with singing.
That year, a visiting children's theater cast him in the role of a knight in "The Frog Prince."
Remembering this, Biggs breaks into song, mellow-voiced: Be a knight! Do what's right, helping when life isn't fair! His current voice teacher -- Pamela Hicks, in Hayward -- has told him to get to work if he hopes to reach his goals. "We're going to make you into a musician," he remembers her telling him. "You've been dabbling."
There's much to master: the endless mechanics of singing, as well as the vast operatic repertoire. Biggs says he's confident that he can work hard enough. "I've got loads to learn, I know, and I'm hungry," he says. "And like my music teacher says: With opera, once you're hooked, you're hooked. I want the rest of my life to be opera."