by Len Lear
Paul Spencer Adkins, 66, is one of the millions of individuals who took piano lessons as a child but would rather have had his teeth extracted without anesthesia than practice on the piano every day. “I would have crying fits,” he said.
However, a high school teacher named Mrs. Gloria Johnson, who is now 95, discovered that this native of the Pittsburgh area did have vocal musical talent, after all, that was worth nurturing. So she invited Paul to be a member of a glee club she was starting, which turned out to be a marriage made in musical heaven.
Adkins went on to study music at West Virginia University, where he earned a music education degree. He then studied with Dorothy DiScala at the Academy of the Arts of Philadelphia, was there for two years and made the transition from baritone to tenor. After graduate school, he went to University of the Arts, where he earned his master’s degree in opera singing.
Adkins worked tirelessly on his voice to the point where he became a world-class vocal artist. This was confirmed when he became the only American tenor ever to be named a winner in the Luciano Pavarotti International Voice Competition, not to mention the Philadelphia and Princeton Metropolitan Opera auditions. “I felt honored to be chosen by Pavarotti to compete,” Adkins said last week, “and thrilled to be the only American tenor winner in his first competition in 1981.”
Despite these glorious successes, this major African American talent believes there were also occasions when he was denied jobs or opportunities because of his race. “But I never let those types of rejections deter me,” he insisted. “In one instance a stage director offered the role to me a month after an audition denial. Because I was privy to the reason for the first rejection, my response was ‘You did not hire me the first time; you won’t be able to afford me this time.’”
Adkins, now a resident of Wynnewood, made his operatic debut in 1976 with the Opera Company of Philadelphia, singing a small role in Menotti’s “The Hero.” Since then he has performed with numerous opera companies, including the Greater Miami Opera, the Opera Company of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh Opera, Chicago Opera Theater, Tulsa Opera, Des Moines Metro Opera, Opera Delaware, et al.
In addition to Adkins’ impressive performance career, he has taught and nurtured students privately and at the University of the Arts who have gone on to major careers of their own. For example, there was Benj Pasek, who has won Tony, Golden Globe and Oscar awards as one-half of the team that composed the music for “La La Land” and the monster Broadway hit, “Dear Evan Hansen.”
Other students of his were Amanda Jane Cooper, who is now playing Glinda in “Wicked” on Broadway; lyric tenor Gregory Schmidt, who has sung often with the Metropolitan Opera, and Nathaniel Stampley, who has starred in “The Lion King” and “The Color Purple” on Broadway. “I felt these students had the potential to do well,” Adkins said modestly. “I am fortunate to teach many students who have developed the discipline to become successful in and out of the arts.”
Adkins’ television credits include the co-producer and featured solo artist in the international PBS broadcast of “The Musical Legacy of Roland Hayes.” He is a frequent guest soloist on the worldwide telecast of “The Hour Of Power” from the Crystal Cathedral in California. His appearance on “A Star For Kitty,” a children’s opera, on “Mr. Rodgers’ Neighborhood” is rebroadcast annually. Adkins was also the first vocal director for Peter Nero and The Philly Pops® Voices of the Pops, a resident ensemble.
What was Adkins’ favorite role of all time? “Calaf in ‘Turandot’ because I love Puccini, and you get to sing one of the greatest arias ever written, ‘Nessun Dorma.’”
Of all the cities Adkins performed in, which city was his favorite? “New York City because it is a cultural mecca and the home of Carnegie Hall, where I debuted in February, 1981.”
What advice would Adkins give to a young person who aspires to a career in opera?
“Patience, persistence, total commitment and a ton of faith.”
What other opera singers, past and present, does he admire the most? “Franco Correlli, Leontyne Price, Nicholai Gedda, Jussi Bjorling and Audra McDonald.”
What is Adkins’ biggest pet peeve? “Closed-minded individuals.”
In his spare time Adkins enjoys BYO dinner dates with his wife of 34 years, Mary Bowen Adkins, playing golf, cooking and traveling.
Adkins still performs in public. His next performance in our area will be April 7 at Woodmere Art Museum in a tribute to Leonard Bernstein.
For more information, visit paulspenceradkins.com