Vocal Reserves to Spare

Story by Brooks Clark | Photos Courtesy of Andrew Wentzel

When Andy Wentzel first explored the idea of joining the faculty at UT, he and his wife, mezzo-soprano Karen Nickell, were living in a cabin in the northern Catskill Mountains of New York. He was making the long commute to the Metropolitan Opera, where he had sung for the past 10 years.  

“Karen and I were on the road all the time, and we had a toddler, Forrest,” he says. “We needed to make a change. We could either go sing in Europe or find something different.” He saw the job description for a professor of voice at UT. “They were looking for someone with performing experience who could come and re-energize the program,” he remembers. “The description of the job was me.” Wentzel knew two people on the search committee, but that was no surprise. As one of the most active bass-baritones in the nation, Wentzel had performed with opera companies and symphonies all over the country and knew people everywhere.

He started at UT in January of 1996 and set about assembling a team to grow the opera program, attract young singers, redouble the program’s relationship with the Knoxville Opera, and revitalize the Knoxville Opera Studio.

In 2001, when George Bitzas retired, Wentzel took over singing the national anthem at football games. A tenor, Bitzas had wowed crowds for 29 years with such vocal flourishes as hitting a high B-flat. “As a bass-baritone,” says Wentzel, “I felt that my job was to be a song leader, to encourage 100,000 people to feel that they can sing along to the national anthem.” 

Wentzel sang at every game for 19 seasons—except one, when he was singing Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust with the Montreal Symphony in Carnegie Hall. He definitely noticed the recognition that came with the gig. “You can sing all over the world,” he says with a smile. “You can sing at the Metropolitan Opera. But sing the national anthem in Neyland Stadium, and now you’re somebody.”

From Indiana to the Metropolitan Opera

Wentzel was born in Mishawaka, Indiana, where his dad, Kenneth, was a Congregational minister. His mother, Connie, was a gifted writer and musician. When Wentzel was in elementary school, the family moved to Rockville, Maryland. “It became my childhood home,” he remembers. “National Symphony members would come to our school, and we’d go to children’s performances at Constitution Hall. My mother sang with the National Cathedral Choral Society.” In his high school years, the family moved to Kingston, Rhode Island. Wentzel went to Middlebury College in Vermont—“sang in just about everything they had available”—and graduated in 1973 with a degree in American literature. He earned his master’s degree in voice performance from the University of Southern California in 1978.

Wentzel and Nickell met in the summer of 1985, when they were both singing in Henze’s The English Cat in Santa Fe. New Mexico is the Land of Enchantment, but Wentzel had to work to get the enchantment going. She had sung La Tragédie de Carmen at Lincoln Center when only 22. He had been singing in St. Louis. “At first she wanted nothing to do with me,” says Wentzel. “In time, she agreed to give me a shot.” 

The make-or-break date began with cocktails and watching the sun set over the desert at the home where he was staying. They dined at a remarkable restaurant, watched a flamenco troupe at a club led by Wentzel’s friend Maria Benitez, then sat in a Ten Thousand Waves hot tub watching the stars. “I realized that I’d met a person who was very different from anyone I had ever known,” he says. “She changed my life.” 

That year Wentzel debuted at the Metropolitan Opera, appearing over the years in Roméo et Juliette, Billy Budd, I Puritani, Rigoletto, La Fanciulla del West, Turandot, Manon, and Les Contes d’Hoffmann, to name a few. In 1994, a Washington Times review of his Banquo in Macbeth at the Capitol Theatre lauded his “flexible but powerful voice” with “vocal reserves to spare and total abandon in his phrasing.”

A Committed Teacher

“When I came to UT,” says Wentzel, “faculty members rarely traveled or performed internationally. But the person hiring me said, ‘We want you to maintain an international profile.’ That meant I had to go away sometimes, but they trusted in me to still be a committed teacher. Now in the School of Music, that’s what is expected of performing faculty. When they perform, they are spreading the word. Everywhere you go, people say, ‘You are working at the University of Tennessee.’”

The relationship with the Knoxville Opera continued to grow over the years. Wentzel eventually chaired its Artistic Committee, was named an honorary director, and sang many roles, including Frère Laurent in Roméo et Juliette, Comte des Grieux in Manon, Raimondo in Lucia di Lammermoor, Padre Guardiano in La forza del destino, Colline in La Bohème, and Don Giovanni in Don Giovanni. He served on the artistic staff as the vocal instructor of the Janiec Opera Company at the Brevard Music Center for seven summers beginning in 2013 and continues to serve as an adjudicator for the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. 

Wentzel is proud to have retired from the School of Music at a time of growth and promise. “This faculty is a wonderful faculty—young, vibrant, engaged, creative, theoreticians, musicologists, composers.” 

In retirement, he has joined a hiking group and gets into the Smokies once or twice a week. “If students call me, I can occasionally work with them.” But he misses the daily interactions. 

“I am proud of all of my students,” he says, “and not just those making a living performing. It’s the striving for excellence, to have the discipline that’s required to pursue classical singing. It’s marketable and desirable to other industries. 

“When students talk about the impact that studies with me had, a common thread is that they learned how to be better all-around citizens and how to be the best and strive for excellence. It means a lot to me that they felt that way. I felt that I was always in their corner. We had an environment where we could support each other and be good colleagues. 

“When I consider my years at UT, I am proud to take ownership of all of the work that was put in. I leave feeling real satisfaction for all that we accomplished.”