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Bass-baritone Evan Hughes is pictured singing the role of Lord Sidney in this summer's Music Academy of the West opera production, Rossini's "Il Viaggio a Reims ." He makes his New York City recital debut this afternoon.
Note for Note: A music-filled childhood inspires the burgeoning singing career of Evan Hughes
October 29, 2006 8:42 AM

Trees to climb. Bushes to burrow between. Pools and fountains and big, beautiful buildings to explore. For Evan Hughes, the Music Academy of the West was the world's best backyard.

The son of the school's buildings and grounds manager, Mr. Hughes literally grew up on the historic Montecito campus. For 10 months of each year, "that magical property was my playground," he said.

But during the summer, he experienced a different kind of magic, watching and listening as gifted young musicians practiced and performed. From an early age, he decided he wanted to emulate them and spend his life making music.

This afternoon, Mr. Hughes will take a huge step toward achieving that goal. The 23-year-old bass-baritone will make his New York City recital debut in the chapel of St. Bartholomew's Church on Park Avenue .

"I can't tell you how excited I am," he said in a telephone interview while riding the train from New York to Philadelphia . "Nothing gives me greater joy than to perform."

A UCLA graduate, Mr. Hughes returned to the Music Academy this summer, where he had the distinction of being the student with the shortest commute. More importantly, he won the Marilyn Horne Foundation's annual Vocal Competition. This afternoon's recital is part of his prize.

In a statement, Ms. Horne called him "one of the bright lights of talented young singers." The legendary opera star added: "I expect big things from him."

Mr. Hughes is the product of two intensely musical cultures. His father, Alan Hughes, is from Wales . His mother, prominent Santa Barbara voice teacher Agatha Carubia, is a New York native of Sicilian ancestry.

The two met during the summer of 1981, while Miss Carubia, a recent Juilliard graduate, was studying at the Music Academy . They married soon after. She was pregnant with Evan during the summer of 1983, when she sang Mimi in the Academy's production of "La Boheme."

"I was always fascinated by my mom's singing," Mr. Hughes said. "Even when I was a little kid, I loved the sound of her voice and the music she sang. So it was a natural progression for me to start singing, and get involved with opera and art song.

"As my voice started developing, and I realized I had the ability to make a career out of singing, I definitely ran with that. Nothing makes me happier than music."

Mr. Hughes' parents divorced amicably when he was 11. While he lived with his father on the academy's grounds, he remained close to his mother. When he was 13, she became his first voice teacher.

During his teens, Mr. Hughes attended almost all of the Music Academy 's vocal concerts and master classes. While he desperately wanted to participate, "I made a promise to myself that I wouldn't audition until I was ready," he said.

Two summers ago, in the middle of his undergraduate studies at UCLA, he auditioned and was accepted into the summer program. "It was absolutely amazing," he said. "I got to do two master classes with Warren Jones, which were some of the most inspiring musical experiences I have had."

Two months ago, following his second summer as a Music Academy student, Mr. Hughes moved to Philadelphia to pursue graduate study at the renowned Curtis Institute. His primary teacher is the highly respected Marlena Malas; he commutes to her New York City studio every Monday via Amtrak.

"She's an incredible lady," he said. "She has already made a positive impact on my technique."

That said, technique is not an end in itself to Mr. Hughes. "I'm not interested in a technically beautiful sound," he said. "It needs to have something underneath it."

Back when he was a student at Santa Barbara High School , Mr. Hughes did a lot of acting, and he still has a number of thespian friends. He appreciates the emotional openness they bring to their work, and tries to convey that same quality in his singing.

"My intention whenever I sing is to be as honest and authentic as I can be," he said. "I've started to realize that you can do something really special when you are really open and truly give yourself to the audience."

Discovering the emotional underpinning of a piece of music "takes an incredible amount of research," he added. "You have to know not only what the song is about -- what its story is, what it means metaphorically -- but you also have to know what the composer was going through as they wrote it.

"It's really important to know as much as you possibly can about each thing you sing, I think. It will layer and richen your performance. It's a lot of work, but it's really gratifying when you feel like you actually understand what the composer was trying to say."

Mr. Hughes has no set-in-stone career plan at this point. He loves art songs (especially Schubert), opera (especially Mozart) and sophisticated musical theater (especially Sondheim). He hopes to work in all those arenas, and is particularly excited by the prospect of premiering new music.

Mostly, he just loves to sing.

"When I get to the place where I let go of nerves and let my voice and my body be a channel for the music, it's like nothing else I have ever experienced," he said. "The more I sing, the more I realize it's not really about me; it's about the music.

"I think it's incredible what art can do -- the power that art, expressed truthfully, can achieve," he added. "I think it's one of the saving graces of the world."

e-mail: tjacobs@newspress.com

Santa Barbara News PressTOM JACOBS, NEWS-PRESS STAFF WRITER