Derek Chester: Fit for the Stage

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A quick Google image search of Derek Chester might confuse you. Which Derek Chester is the the one playing Mack the Knife in West Edge’s production of Threepenny Opera? The cherubic choirboy singing earnestly from a Bach score, or the shirtless gym rat squeezing one more rep out of that fifty pounder? Could it be the same person? We recently spoke to Derek about the roles his twin passions of fitness and opera have played in his life.

As he began pursuing his degree in Vocal Performance at the University of Georgia, Derek found himself utterly immersed in the world of music, surrounded by young students as dedicated and passionate about the art as he was, all taking the same core classes the major required. As exhilarating as it was, he quickly realized he would need to add some other pursuits to his undergraduate studies, lest he end up knowing no one in the school who wasn’t equally immersed in music.

Derek chose a running class. While he had never considered himself remotely athletic, he recognized that the physical discipline of sports was not dissimilar to the discipline required of a voice major. Physiology, form, technique: they’re all crucial components of sprinting, endurance running, and power lifting, as well singing opera. Derek soon found himself embedded in a rich social circle of aspiring physical therapist, physiologists, and athletes in gymnasiums, locker rooms, and athletic fields, far from the practice rooms and concert halls of the music building.

While Derek’s pursuit of fitness enriched his time as an undergrad, it took a back seat as he attended Yale for a Masters Degree and then moved to Germany on a Fulbright scholarship to study as a freelance musician. Once back in the United States and raising a family, he also began shifting away from full opera productions and towards the less demanding schedule of concert music and academia. Fitness was remembered as the college pursuit of a younger man.

In recent years, his interest in fitness and training has been renewed. With the rise of CrossFit and other member based, peer supported, social workout regimens, Derek was reminded of how much his social life was enriched by the fitness community at University of Georgia. The camaraderie and support from a community of people each pushing each other to perform to their best is a powerful thing, not entirely unlike a well managed opera production. It’s probably not a coincidence that his interest in fitness communities corresponds to his return to the more social and collaborative world of fully staged opera productions.

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Derek has even begun the process of becoming a certified trainer with the intention of helping other opera singers maintain a fitness regimen while enduring long times away from home with limited options for healthy food choices or quality workout spaces.  While conventional wisdom has long held that strength training creates tension in the body that will inhibit the voice, Derek doesn’t believe it’s that simple. In his opinion, “There is a good and a bad way to do anything, and training smartly can avoid negative effects in the voice.” Often the physical awareness and confidence that comes with fitness training works in tandem with vocal training to make a stronger overall singer.

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And then there’s the C word… Castability.

In days past, one’s voice was effectively the only yardstick by which an opera singer was measured. But in recent decades, starting with the marquis photograph and leading up to today’s backstage selfie, other aspects of a singer are often considered. How will they look on the marketing brochure? Who’s going to have chemistry on stage? In the case of Threepenny Opera, will an audience believe that this Mack the Knife fellow is charismatic enough to woo anyone at all, despite being a known thief and murderer? (It’s worth noting that prior Mackheaths include Raul Julia, Alan Cumming, and Sting). Attractive people sell tickets.

Derek acknowledges that these issues exist, and are very worth an open conversation in the opera community, but are ultimately not all that relevant to his practice. As a teacher, his job is to make his students the best performers they can be, and he believes that a fitness program will be a good thing for anyone, for reasons completely independent from how they look. Fitness improves their health, singing, and even their well being… it’s therapeutic. And if they just happen to end up doing more of their scenes shirtless, that’s just one less piece of clothing for wardrobe to keep track of.

-photos by Matt Madison-Clark


Brian Rosen