Support is fundamental in arias. Opera singers must learn how to breathe and use their diaphragms, so there’s a stable foundation for the voice. But the lungs aren’t the only place where support is vital. Paul Spencer Adkins, an operatic tenor, knows that well.
From an early age, Adkins had a fondness for music—one that those around him were eager to foster, whether it was his parents, his first church choir director or a band instructor who offered him the chance to play the French horn. Without them, the longtime Wynnewood resident may never have found his way onto some of the world’s greatest stages.
But even with all that support, Adkins’ start in opera was unlikely. Growing up near Pittsburgh in Monongahela—where football was king—a career in music seemed like a long shot. But Adkins’ parents felt it was important that he learn piano, so he began lessons at age 6.
Adkins didn’t take to it. “I would have crying fits,” he recalls.
But his teacher saw something in him. “She told my parents, ‘Whatever you do, don’t let him quit, because he’s really talented,’” Adkins says.
Despite his protests, he continued to study piano. By the time he got to high school, the same teacher who introduced him to the French horn was starting a men’s glee club and wanted Adkins to join. The club was a success, and Adkins’ instrument of choice soon became his own voice.
Eventually, Adkins’ teacher realized he could take his pupil no further. Worried he’d be holding him back, he sent Adkins to someone who could nudge him to the next level. It’s moments like these that had a huge impact on Adkins, both personally and professionally. “Between band instructors, choir instructors, my parents, the church and my community, I always had support,” Adkins says. “I never went into this field thinking that I didn’t have a shot.”
Following college, Adkins moved to Philadelphia, where he was accepted into the Academy of Vocal Arts on the condition that he experiment as a tenor. At a crossroads, he sought the guidance of a former teacher, who offered this advice: “You can remain a lyric baritone, but you’ll never be able to fill opera houses here, so you’ll have to make a career in Europe—or you can take the time and make the transition.”
Ultimately, Adkins heeded that advice, and it proved a successful move. He became the only American tenor to be named a winner in the Luciano Pavarotti International Voice Competition in 1981, and he gained a slew of operatic roles. Adkins has toured the world, performing principal roles in Madama Butterfly, La Traviata and Faust. When they performed the works of Rodgers & Hammerstein in Italy, he and his opera company had no less than eight curtain calls.
In person, Adkins is a jovial man who exudes enthusiasm and humbleness. He can weave stories about the many places his career has taken him, without pretension. It’s perhaps those qualities, along with the support of so many teachers, that have made Adkins the ideal coach. Though he still performs around the world in operas, he shares his gift with students, both privately and at the University of the Arts.
Over the years, his students have included Benj Pasek, one half of the Tony, Oscar and Golden Globe-winning songwriting team Pasek and Paul, whose credits include La La Land and Dear Evan Hansen. Adkins has also taught actor Nathaniel Stampley, operatic tenor Gregory Schmidt, and actress Amanda Jane Cooper, who currently plays Glinda in Broadway’s Wicked.
Cooper studied with Adkins for two years while she attended Great Valley High School. “It wasn’t until I stepped in his studio that my voice and life began to change, because he had a really holistic approach,” Cooper says.
At the time, Cooper was trying to decide whether she wanted to pursue a career in the arts. “He helped me through the process and finding material, gaining confidence,” she says. “He’s not only an incredible vocalist, but he’s also a storyteller. That was really important for my growth as an artist.”
Adkins is thrilled by the success of his former pupils. “I’m overjoyed and proud to say I had something to do with their guidance,” he says. “They had the drive and initiative. You can’t instill that in people—they either have it or not.”
At UArts, Adkins has been one of the advocates for increased cross-disciplinary teaching, where professors temporarily take on a student from a different department to help improve their techniques. “When any student leaves Paul’s studio, they’re pretty much in line with themselves, emotionally and physically, in accepting their own voice,” says Newtown Square’s Annie Sciolla, associate adjunct professor of voice at both UArts and the Community College of Philadelphia. “You can just tell he’s seen a lot of things, been around a long time, and has a great amount of gravitas.”