Melvin D. Bozeman, Jr. grew up wanting to be a professional basketball player, but by the time he got to McCluer North High School, he realized that wasn’t likely to happen.

In his sophomore year his mother “forced” him to join the school’s choir. She had a wonderful experience singing in the choir when she was in high school, and she wanted the same for Melvin.

“I said, ‘Mom, singing in the choir is lame. I’m not doing that,’” Bozeman, now 19, recalls. “But with my mom you don’t argue. You just do.”

The surprise was that Bozeman, unbeknownst to anyone at the time, has a remarkable voice. So when his choir teacher told him about another McCluer student who had received a full scholarship to University of Kentucky’s prestigious voice program, Bozeman decided maybe singing was something he should pursue more seriously.

“I began to search for summer vocal programs and ran across one at Opera Theatre [of Saint Louis],” Bozeman says. The Spring Training Vocal Camp, organized by Opera Theatre (an A&E Sustaining Grant recipient), offers high school singers private voice lessons and individual attention in master classes. Bozeman was able to secure a scholarship to attend.

“I was taken aback a little by the whole thing,” he explains. The summer program was his first experience with opera, and he had a hard time getting used to the different vocal style.

Nevertheless, at the beginning of his junior year, he was encouraged to audition for Opera Theatre’s Monsanto Artist-in-Training (AIT) Program, which offers nine months of college-level voice lessons, including individual weekly coaching classes from faculty at Southern Illinois University-

Edwardsville, Washington University of St. Louis, Webster University and University of Missouri–St. Louis. The highly selective program also offers master classes with visiting artists, awards more than $25,000 annually in scholarships and provides opportunities for students to attend local performing arts events free of charge.

Melvin was one of 23 high school students to be accepted to the program. He was also awarded a full scholarship, which covered tuition, transportation expenses and anything else connected to the program. Still, he wasn’t convinced that opera was his “thing.”

Bozeman admits that seeing opera performed live took some getting used to. “I even fell asleep the first couple of times,” he says laughing. “But then I started getting into them, especially the comedic operas.”

He returned to OTSL’s AIT program his senior year and received its top scholarship honor, the Monsanto Prize of $4,000. Bozeman also earned a full scholarship to the University of Kentucky in Lexington, where he currently is a freshman studying voice.

“Opera Theatre’s AIT program opened up an incredible world that I otherwise most likely would never have explored,” Bozeman says. “The teaching is incomparable. I've never heard of any other program like this. I go to school now with talented kids from all over the country, and when I tell them about AIT, they cannot believe the opportunity I had.”

That’s probably because there really is no other program like OTSL’s Monsanto Artist-in-Training. “It’s really the only one of its kind in the United States,” said Allison Felter, director of education and community engagement at OTSL. “There are some programs that are a variation on this theme but none as comprehensive as ours, where students are given exposure to the best of what opera has to offer.”

Felter explains that to date, more than 210 students have completed the program and more than $438,000 in scholarships have been awarded. The list of program graduates who have gone on to enjoy professional careers in opera is astounding.

Both Felter and Bozeman agree that another benefit of the AIT program is the students’ experience of what it means to pursue opera as a career. This doesn’t just include artist residencies by visiting opera stars, but also road trips to visit universities and colleges that offer stellar voice programs.

Bozeman credits AIT for changing his life in ways he never could have imagined.

“Believe me, I took a lot of razzing from friends about studying opera, especially in my community and in my culture because it’s different from what is known,” he said. “But that’s exactly why I enjoy it and have so much passion about it. It is something different.

“AIT has given me so much, and now I want to be a voice for another young person who might not have considered this. I can’t even begin to tell you what an impact this program has made on my life.”

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis is an A&E Sustaining Grant recipient. To learn more visit opera-stl.org.