Port Washington High School grad Justin Spenner took time out from his burgeoning career as an opera singer to perform Johann Sebastian Bach’s challenging arias at his hometown’s Bachfest
Some days Justin Spenner has five singing lessons to teach, a rehearsal in the afternoon and a flight to catch in the evening.
Other days he’ll wake up from a dream that he is singing opera on the biggest stages in the world.
Whether it’s fantasy or reality, the 2006 Port Washington High School graduate and professional baritone singer is doing exactly what he wants.
“This is my life,” Spenner said. “I think that’s true for anybody who has found a career versus a job.”
Spenner, 27, now lives in Minneapolis where he earned his master’s of music degree in vocal performance from the University of Minnesota in 2013.
He just finished performing in the Mill City Summer Opera production of “La Fille du Regiment” by Donizetti.
He played the role of corporal, which he described as “goofy, but a lot of fun.”
Spenner then quickly switched gears, headlining Bachfest at Rotary Park in Port Washington on Sunday.
He sang arias and bass solos from the
“Magnificat,” “Christmas Oratorio” and “B Minor Mass” in German, Latin and English.
Performing in the fourth annual festival, which was sponsored by St. John Lutheran Church in Port Washington, came together quickly for Spenner.
Christian Martin, the festival’s music director, asked Spenner’s father, Rick, if his son would be in town for the event.
“Fortunately it fell right in the middle of what little time off I had,” Spenner said.
Martin said he searched the Midwest for the right person to sing Bach arias.
“Finding a bass/baritone who is willing and able to sing these songs is not easy,” he said. “They are difficult and rarely performed.”
Spenner was thrilled to have the opportunity to sing Bach.
“Bach is the pinnacle of difficulty for music,” he said. “Nobody has been able to get to that level of complexity in contemporary opera.
“The challenge of being able to sing Bach well is kind of like climbing Everest.”
Spenner said he was asked to sing more than a dozen Bach pieces, but knew that would be impossible.
“It’s sort of like a greatest hits of Bach music,” he said before the concert.
On Monday, Spenner flew to France for a 12-day vacation with his girlfriend.
As soon as he gets back, he’ll start a month-long Picnic Operetta series that stops at community gardens and farms throughout Minnesota.
“The events are catered and we use food from area farms and basically just sing opera,” Spenner said. “It has caught on like wildfire.”
In the production of “Alcina,” Spenner will play the role of Melisso, a wizard who accompanies a woman to a magical island where her boyfriend is being held captive by a witch.
“The script told me I’m supposed to act like Gandalf or a Willie Nelson-type role, so we’ll see how that goes,” he said.
In Minneapolis, Spenner runs a full-time studio with about 30 or 40 students. He plans to increase his audition schedule this fall.
“Word of mouth has anchored itself well here,” he said. “It’s nice to be able to make music and teach throughout the day.”
Spenner considers himself a high baritone, leaning almost to a tenor voice.
But he doesn’t limit himself to one type of singing.
“A lot of people will say they’re a Verdi baritone and only sing Giuseppe Verdi opera,” he said. “The color and range of my voice stretches toward the tenor range while maintaining the low end of the baritone or bass voice.”
If Spenner had his way, he would like to make music and have consistent singing engagements every week.
“I think I’m inching a little more toward that as the months go on,” he said. “Sometimes you can work as hard as you want, but if your body isn’t there yet, you have to wait a few years.”
Spenner believes Ozaukee County residents are itching to increase their role in the classical music and opera world.
“Chicago is one of the biggest hubs for classical music in the country and that’s drawing up to Milwaukee,” he said. “The artists in Milwaukee are then drawn to the beautiful communities in Ozaukee County.
“I would encourage Ozaukee County residents to seek out opera even more and get out of their comfort zone a little bit.”
Image information: Professional opera singer Justin Spenner (middle), who posed with parents Rick and Maria, sang Johann Sebastian Bach arias at
Rotary Park in Port Washington on Sunday.
Photo by Sam Arendt