Why I sing OPERA

Last year, I returned to the stage after a ten year break. I did three shows – Edward II, Sound of Music, and O’er the Ramparts. One was a cabaret style frame for a straight play, in which I improvised a character, Sally Fitzgerald Kelly, owner and proprietor of the Black & White Bar. The second was a classic musical, and the third a world premiere musical. And then in June of this year, I did another musical, Music Man, in which I played Mrs. Paroo. This show had a special significance to me – it was the first show I was ever in, as a chorister at Hamilton High School.

Doing musicals was what I intended to do when I went into music. I loved all the classic musicals. But when I went to college, that wasn’t the direction I was steered toward. There were no musical theater degree programs in those days. Everything was classical. So, I wound up being an opera singer, with my first professional gig right out of college with the Florentine Opera in Carmen. And I put aside musicals for the longest time – I sang for 7 seasons with Washington Opera (now Washington National Opera), I did Gilbert & Sullivan with the Young Vic in Baltimore and Victorian Lyric in DC, I sang with Wolf Trap Opera, Washington Concert Opera, Opera Theatre of Northern Virginia, and then when I came to Wisconsin, I did a couple of shows with Lyric Opera of Chicago, toured with Opera for the Young out of Madison, did a show with Dupage Opera Theater, with Chicago Opera Theater, three shows with Skylight, and then…. everything stopped.  We won’t discuss why. but it did.

But last weekend, I returned to the opera stage as Marcellina in Le Nozze di Figaro with Carroll Opera Theater. And I felt at home again. So – why do I sing opera when musical theater was my dream?

I sing opera because musical theater wasn’t an option back when I was in college. Not only because of the way education was structured in those days, but because the musicals on Broadway were dance-oriented. And in the case of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Starlight Express, you had to be able to skate. I was neither a dancer nor a skater. So it wasn’t an option.

I sing opera because that’s the way my voice seems to work. I don’t have a timbre that lends itself to pop-y musical theater. It works with the legit stuff, and I intend to continue to pursue those kinds of roles. But I remember buying sheet music for a Stevie Nicks song and taking it home to play on the piano. As I sang, “Now here you go again, you say you want your freedom,” I stopped and said to myself, “I sound… stupid!” And I’d never had a voice lesson at that point. It wasn’t a question of being overtrained and losing my natural sound. My natural sound IS classical.

But most of all, I sing opera because I love opera. And I’d forgotten how much I love opera. I’m waitlisted for Washington National Opera chorus and I am kicking myself up and down the block for not making myself available for Carmen. I don’t know if that would’ve made a difference in their casting decisions – but I’ve done the show twice before, and doing it again would be sheer heaven. It’s a lot of work, true. But I’d love it.

And although I identify as a voice teacher who is a musical theater specialist and I do love musical theater and want to continue having it as part of my life, I am an opera singer.

Has musical theater been a boon or a detriment to my return to the opera stage?

  • Musical theater has enhanced my performing. Having done dialogue has improved my ability to do recitative in a way that doing recitative never did for me doing dialogue.
  • Although for awhile it seemed that my operatic resonance had retreated because of all the work I’d been doing in contemporary commercial music as a teacher, I have found the balance and I don’t sound like a musical theater singer when I’m singing opera (and vice versa).
  • The staging I did for my studio showcases in Milwaukee has improved my own acting in a way that years of performing at places like the Kennedy Center never did.

I’m hoping that more of this is ahead – although my next gig is Madame Dilly in Bernstein Remembered in NYC in October. But I’m coming up with a list of roles that I can see myself doing in both genres, which may be my next blog.

Because I will be blogging more. Count on it.

Leave a Reply