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Jennings Unsolved: Liam Shannon, seventh-term student of vocal performace

This spotlight on Liam Shannon is a part of the “Jennings Unsolved” series, a bimonthly column from Gianna Rodriguez.

Liam Shannon, a student you’ve probably heard cackling in the Dining Hall or humming to Mozart in a practice room, is very much more than meets the eye. That’s funny to say, considering he stands at an alarming six foot eight and speaks with a voice that booms and echoes, though as he begins to tell me about himself, “something I don’t get to do very much”, it’s entirely clear that there’s far more to him behind a warm laugh. 

I’d imagine, if we could’ve been anywhere, we’d be sitting at an iron table outside Giacomo Puccini’s home in Lucca, Italy, a place with great significance to Shannon. “I spent around five, or six, maybe seven weeks after my freshman year taking daily Italian lessons and practicing my music. The goal was focusing on working together in scenes with the other vocalists. Was it Jessye Norman that said she’d only sing in languages she’d studied and knew? I love her. What a diva. And she’s right! Part of the devotion to the craft is embracing a language and learning the nuances. I’m fortunate that Bennington has such an amazing language faculty.”

It’s easy to forget just how knowledgeable he is, since every word is said with care, forethought, a very unattainable level of non-condescending intelligence. He slouches. Neutral. But as if he’s a man possessed, the second music, in any fashion, is mentioned, he straightens up like a honey bear offered a hive and opens into a mile-long smile. It’s sort of childish, but wise, like a guiding spirit out of Dickens’. 

I nod and ask him why he’s pursued baroque music, a genre nearly obsolete in this day and age. However, like many of us submerged under the spell of classical music, it was a taste Shannon acquired after years of childhood immersion. “Oh, that’s a great question,” he says, voice chipper and melodic, as if I’ve asked if he’d been enjoying the weather, lately. “Well I grew up listening to it, since I play the piano and violin,” two skills he doesn’t boast, “and I absolutely loved everything about classical music. Y’know, it’s different connecting with classical than contemporary. But, I mean, I also like heavy metal,” he chuckles, leaning back. “But with baroque, I’m just in it more.” 

If we had been in Lucca, right now’s about the time our coffee would’ve arrived, a dirty chai with two shots of espresso for him and a cup of black for me. Although Shannon’s years of training have certainly offered a solid foundation, his focus at Bennington isn’t instrumental, but vocal. Being one of the only opera students at the college certainly puts him in a spotlight, specifically because opera isn’t exactly a common path, even at a place like Bennington. 

“So why opera,” I ask, and he takes a moment to consider the question. “What really draws me in are the deep layers of harmonies in baroque music. Like Mahler! When you’re part of a choir, you have this ability to be part of a bigger harmony, the bigger picture. Besides, you need a special ear to be able to work in harmonies, and as a, now, solo artist, I have a ton of respect for those who can do choir.”

Shannon, in many ways, is a ghost from long ago. Despite his olive, cargo shirts and angular, sharp glasses, he speaks with a wanderlust in his eyes, a faint knowing of the music he speaks of, as if he were remembering watching “The Marriage of Figaro” the first of May, back in Vienna. And Shannon’s no stranger to history. In fact, he recites to me, fondly, the love story of his parents, who happen to be alumnus of the college. Having met in the early 80s, his parents, both Literature and Music majors, instilled the sense of reverence for the past that Shannon holds dear to this day. In fact, it’s their legacy at Bennington that brought him, and his older sister, class of ‘13, to the campus. “I knew I wanted a degree in vocal performance, so I sort of came to Bennington treating it like a conservatory.” I raised my brows, which he picked up on. “I know, and believe me, it’s had its challenges. I mean, I came expecting to do purely 17th-19th century composition, but before I came here, I had absolutely no idea that modern “classical” music was even a concept!” The modern-classical phenomenon he mentions is often unknown to many young musicians. “And at first, I was completely against it. I came here to do baroque; I knew what I wanted. But it’s people like my advisor, Allen Shawn, who’s a contemporary composer that writes beautiful work, that helped me broaden my mind. Or Tom Bogdan, my vocal coach. I mean, he’s an accomplished classical singer and has had a successful career performing contemporary composer’s work who told me, y’know, ‘there’s so much beautiful music out there and there’s no need to limit yourself to one specific type of repertoire,” he paused, “so, to answer your original question on what kind of work I do, it’s contemporary.” 

He’s currently arranging his junior recital, which was set to be performed last Spring, and preparing for his graduate school auditions. Though, like most who pass through these woods, there’s a vague feeling as though he doesn’t want to leave. He mentions his old courses, from Brazelton’s “Whose Opera” to Alpar’s “Songlines”; he recounts his best memories of learning musical history, a subject many musicians overlook. “I even spent my freshman year learning about Gregorian chants! And I took some literature classes; I love Dickinson. All her work. And Leonard Bernstein, God I love Bernstein.”

Listening to him recount his stories of singing at the Arsht Center, a world-renowned theatre in Miami, Florida, and play prominent roles in operas like “Armide” and “The Flying Dutchman”, I suppose, it must be incredibly easy to see that Liam Shannon is one of the college’s most successful students of his term. “Bennington has a lot to offer and there’s a lot you have to go looking for”, he says, nodding, nonchalant, nostalgic. “It’s, ultimately, a test for the self-driven learner.” In my humble opinion, it’s a test Shannon’s passed with flying colors. 

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