In every great opera, there comes a pivotal plot twist that sets the stage for the next act.
In an ironic fate for Eric Ferring, it was not being cast in the final theatrical production of his senior year at Dubuque Senior High School.
“It was traumatic for me at the time,” Ferring said, laughing, in a phone interview. “But it just happened to fall during the same weekend as NATS. My teacher always wanted me to go and I had never been able to because I was involved in theater.”
Ferring had begun taking voice lessons the prior year, his primary passion being for musical theater, having participated in youth programs with Dubuque’s Grand Opera House and Rising Star Theatre Company.
However, it was his participation in the National Association of Teachers Singing voice competition that opened him up to the world of classical music.
“All of a sudden, I was learning my first German art song,” Ferring said. “It was like a lightbulb went off. My voice felt like it fit better. There was this interesting history and culture with classical music that I felt connected to in a way that I didn’t feel as connected to in musical theater.”
Although he didn’t advance beyond the semifinals, Ferring did meet a voice teacher who would go on to mentor him in his musical studies at Drake University in Des Moines.
From there, opera took hold.
After graduating from Senior in 2010, from Drake with a bachelor’s degree in vocal performance in 2014 and from the Boston Conservatory with a master of music in opera performance in 2016, the tenor went on to prestigious training programs with Seagle Music Colony, Wolf Trap Opera, Opera Theatre of St. Louis, Sante Fe Opera and Pittsburgh Opera.
Now 26, he is among some of the most promising emerging young voices in the industry as a first-year participant in the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center, long touted as one of the premier artist development programs for up-and-coming classical singers.
Ferring will return to Dubuque to perform for the first time since 2010, along with soprano Ann Toomey and baritone Ricardo Jose Rivera — two other Ryan Opera Center singers — for “Lyrics Alive,” on Friday, May 3. It will serve as the finale to this season’s Live at Heritage Center Performing Arts Series at the University of Dubuque.
The program, performed in a casual cabaret style with piano accompaniment, will include a vast array of music selections — from opera to art song, musical theater, standards, folk, jazz and more.
“I’m so excited to be back performing in my hometown community,” Ferring said. “It’s a community that really is appreciative and supportive of its arts. For a city Dubuque’s size, the arts have always seemed really important. I don’t think there’s better training that what you can get in Dubuque. I wouldn’t be where I am without experiences like speech at Senior.”
It’s also a meaningful homecoming for his former Dubuque voice teacher, Kristen Eby, assistant professor of music at UD. She recalled Ferring sitting in on another student’s lesson prior to pursuing vocal studies.
“I met Eric when he was a sophomore in high school,” Eby said. “When I first heard him sing, I was stunned. He was unique right off the bat in that he had this lovely, smooth tenor voice that sounded much more mature than his years. I could hear the budding classical singer there, even at that time. It took a little time exposing him to classical music, but his voice was so well-suited for it.”
But it’s not just Ferring’s singing that has crafted his success, according to Eby.
“There have been a few students over the years that I could sense were going to make a career out of performing,” she said. “Eric was one of those early on, partly because of his obvious talent, but he also demonstrated the work ethic, the ability to catch on to musical concepts quickly and he was a social person in all the best ways.”
Ferring has returned to Eby’s studio Christmas party in Dubuque on occasion to sing for her awestruck students, as well as his alma maters at Drake and Senior to work with other young singers.
“People are really important to him,” Eby said. “Whenever something new and exciting happens, he calls to tell me about it. He maintains those connections. That speaks to the kind of guy he is. It has been thrilling to watch his progress but not the least surprising. It will be great for him to share that with Dubuque and for those audiences to see one of their own doing so well.”
Having concluded his first year at the Ryan Opera Center with rave reviews for his roles as the Young Servant in “Elektra,” Giuseppe in “La traviata” and Lurcanio in “Ariodante,” Ferring will return next season for a second year before he begins his freelance career with what he dubs as “big boy contracts” at North Carolina Opera and Sante Fe Opera.
“As I’ve gotten older, it has become more important to me to sing what I believe ... to have a sense that what I’m doing is worth doing,” Ferring said. “There are so many great singers out there now, with such a high level of training. It’s not just about singing anymore but in having something to say. So, hopefully a lot of people come to hear that in Dubuque.”