From world honors to local harmony, Mungo makes music at Texas State
By Catherine Harper
Many people may think of Bugs Bunny’s interpretation of Richard Wagner when they envision the opera; however, according to Dr. Samuel Mungo — director of Opera Studies and Coordinator of Voice Area at Texas State — opera is quite attainable.
“We all have this concept of opera that it is this inaccessible, high and mighty, hoity-toity thing,” Mungo says. “I’m kind of the Joe Sixpack of opera. It’s musicals, only they sing more.”
So attainable is opera, in fact, that Mungo has dedicated his 20-year career to it. From the music halls of universities to premier stages around the world, Mungo has transformed a love of the opera to a standing ovation.
Having traveled the world as a baritone to premier opera houses — such as Carnegie Hall in New York and El Auditorio di Santa Ursula in Lima, Peru — Mungo says that different cultures have always come naturally to him. Growing up in Bloomington, Ill., Mungo describes his childhood as a multicultural exploration. With three adopted siblings, Mungo learned diversity in the face of intolerance early on.
“Different cultures are not a big thing for me. My family had one of the first interracial families in the state of Illinois,” Mungo says. “Back then, for some reason, it was difficult for others to understand. It gave me a sense of collaboration and sharing that not many people get.”
According to Mungo, his attraction to university life sprang from his father, a professor of multicultural education at Illinois State University, and living in a college town which he notes was similar to San Marcos.
“It always kind of felt that at some point I would teach at a university,” Mungo says.
Mungo’s course to the opera was set during his undergraduate education at Illinois State University, during which time he auditioned for Bernstein’s Candide. Told that his voice was “too loud” and better suited for the opera, Mungo set off to discover that it was very different than what he had imagined.
“I thought, ‘Oh God no, I’m going to have to gain 600 pounds and wear horns on my head,'” Mungo says. “But there was acting and singing and stage sets and it was not big, 600-pound women with horns on their head. It was none of that, just people acting and singing.”
“Music, you never choose it,” Mungo adds. “Music chooses you. Opera chooses you. Once I knew it was just musical theatre with more singing I said, ‘Alright, let’s do it.’”
After graduating from Illinois State with a bachelor of science degree in communication, Mungo set his course for the East Coast, where he received his Artist’s Diploma from Boston Conservatory in 1990 and his master’s degree from New England Conservatory in 1992. According to Mungo, his overarching success solidified his confidence in the opera.
“That was when I knew I had the wherewithal and the raw ability to do it,” Mungo says. “Once I did that and got some success, I thought, ‘Oh this is what I should be doing.'”
Mungo’s motivation to achieve has kept his voice strong as he pursues his dream. In 2002, Mungo reached a milestone in his career with the opportunity to sing in the Cultural Olympiad at the World Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah.
In 2003, Mungo went back to school for his doctorate, which he received in 2006 from the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colo. According to Mungo, achieving his “union card,” as his father would say, was another step to his dream of teaching at a university.
In 2011, Mungo reached another peak in his career with the chance to direct the National Opera Association in the World Premier of Bruce Trinkley’s St. Thomas the Carpenter.
As a director, Mungo has taught some of the brightest visionaries in opera at universities such the Actor’s Studio Drama School, New York University, University of Colorado at Boulder, the New School and Texas State University.
According to Mungo, having had directors allow him to create as a performer has instilled in him the drive to allow students to transfer their vision into the performance.
“I’ve learned that by letting students go and letting them create on their own, they’ll often find things better than I can come up with,” Mungo says. “It just makes the show that much better.”
With experience teaching and performing under his belt, Mungo is unsure of the future except that it would involve the opera.
“I don’t know where I’ll be in the future. I’d like to be here,” Mungo says. “I think that I’ll always be a director and I’ll always be a performer even if I have to do it in community theater. Like people tell you, get paid to do something you love. I haven’t worked a day in my life. I play, and I get paid for it. It’s a lot of fun.”
According to Mungo, the only way to get into the opera is not as a casual fling but rather a lifelong commitment.
“Like I tell my students when they first come in, you have to really want to do this,” Mungo says. “It’s not for the faint of heart, and it’s not for the casual singer. Like I said, opera chooses you.”
Edited on 1/23/12 to correct Dr. Mungo’s undergraduate education at Illinois State University.