Four Paths to a Career in Opera these days…

My four singers who are performing with Teatro Nuovo in July in Bellini’s La straniera (sopranos Christine Lyons and Alina Tamborini) and in Rossini’s La gazza ladra (soprano Alisa Jordheim and mezzo Hannah Ludwig) were given this request and asked these questions as part of the initial interviews (just posted 6/27). Because of the richness (and length) of their responses, it was decided to post them on a separate page as answers to to my queries. In the original, my request for this information was asked in the lower quarter of the initial interview, ultimately cut out and edited/prepared for this page.

This said, I’ll pass on describing the setting for our encounter, as if this were face-to-face at some location we’ve actually never been to together, blah blah blah, and then, at the bottom, confess that these were just email answers…I feel this cat’s been out of the bag for a while now anyway. Back to the interview material.

OM: You know this already, my new friends: I have admiration, an abject adulation, a deep love for opera and its performers, singers in particular. I am not a musician, certainly not a singer! So there’s also a not-so-subtle hint of envy.

My request is this: Singing opera is a real niche profession, and singing bel canto opera is an even more specialized niche. Tell me about your journey from a reasonably normal young lady on the block to a decidedly not normal (in the statistical sense of the word, of course) but wonderful young woman with a beautiful voice who’s a member of the innovative Teatro Nuovo company about to appear on stage in the greatest city in the world today. Admit that’s quite a journey!

Please start with when this enchanting sound, this thing called ‘opera,’ caught your ear or when a parent turned your attention to the radio or to the TV…I always have been intrigued by these entry moments…then from there to the point when following the path to become a professional opera singer seemed like a good idea to right this moment, when it actually is.

Some questions: what were the emotional, psychological, physical…etc. components of this journey? Also, what was the first opera that really turned you on? Whose was the first voice that really turned you on? Was there (is there) a coach or voice teacher who recognized your gifts and encouraged you to press on? In your opinion, what are the hard realities, the risks, the challenges, the costs involved?

They say “don’t ask Odysseus where he’s been because he’ll tell you,” so the heads up here is: I’m not looking for an autobiography, but looking for instructive highlights of the career path from that initial spark to the current moment so that aspiring singers maybe recognize that they are on the right track...

Christine Lyons as Norma in Act I of Bellini’s opera  Norma

Christine Lyons as Norma in Act I of Bellini’s opera Norma

Christine Lyons (CL): I spent most of my childhood singing every Mariah Carey song ever released and obsessively memorizing Broadway’s Phantom of Opera. The first opera singer I ever heard was Kathleen Battle singing “My Favorite Things” on an Al Jarreau CD my dad had, and that moment is so imprinted in my mind. It made me want to explore that style of singing, even though I didn’t really understand that it was ‘operatic,’ it was just awesome. Then in my teenage years I did professional TV and theater work, but my journey took a turn when Mimi Lerner, a Metropolitan Opera mezzo-soprano, sat me down in high school and flat out told me I would not be studying musical theater as I had intended. I remember this so clearly: she looked me right in the eye and told me that I had something special, a gift, something that couldn’t be taught, and that the rest, what I didn’t know, I could learn …She then proceeded to grant me a full ride to study with her at Carnegie Mellon. That was the serious start of my journey in this discipline.

OM: There’s a magical intersection in time and space!

CL: Absolutely! My teacher now is Denyce Graves, whose guidance and example as a professional has taken my understanding of this pursuit to the next level. She is really my Sensei; she continues to impress upon me just how holistic, universal, and honorable this quest for communicating is.

OM: These things said, are there any bits of advice you would give a young person who is at the ‘when the sound caught your ear or a parent turned your attention to the radio or the TV’ stage?

CL: If it makes you smile, explore it!

OM: Alina Tamborini

Alina Tamborini (AT): I'll give you a few key moments in my musical career! So many good questions and I promise not to answer in an autobiography! There are many, like a lot of videos of me singing as a child with my sister into pretend microphones or staring at the record player with my jaw dropped at the voices! We have a phenomenal video of the two of us singing "Jessie's Girl" and fighting to be closest to the camcorder.

Alina Tamborini holds on tight.

Alina Tamborini holds on tight.

OM: Priceless documents, for sure.

AT: I took early childhood music classes through the Michigan State University Early Childhood Music Program (which, fun side note here: I’ve since taught in this program and now teach similar classes in New York). I was in band choir and orchestra throughout high school and middle school. In middle school, my best friend's mom told me I absolutely HAD to audition for American Idol. Though she was not necessarily musical, she had a love of music and told me that I should pursue music because it was something that came naturally to me. Quick stop into my sophomore year of high school when one of my friends played for me the 3rd movement of Mahler's 10th symphony and Slava from Janáček's Glagolitic Mass. Right then and there I fell in love with classical music! Fast forward to my senior year in high school and I decided that I wanted to be an oboe performance major. Why? I had played throughout grade school and was actually kind of good. I went to Michigan State University for Oboe Performance and Vocal Music Education. It was a rigorous double major but I loved being in all of the ensembles. My sophomore year I was in the chorus for The Magic Flute and La bohème. Both of those operas turned me on to opera in a very big way. Not be punny, but it was so magical.

OM: (groaning). Cool, though, that you were drawn in by Mahler and Janáček's music. Great stuff!

AT:  Then, my junior year, I was cast as Despina in Così fan tutte. I was beyond grateful for the opportunity because it sparked my career as an opera singer! I was lucky enough to be surrounded my supportive mentors in undergrad, my voice professor Dr. Anne Nispel and my coach Dr. Elden Little. After Così I focused on vocal music and I was constantly exhausted, stretching myself so thin across oboe performance, operatic singing and performing, and music education. Spending so much time in rehearsals and practice rooms really took a toll on my mental health!

Luckily, I was able to continue playing oboe at least for a little while in a community orchestra. At the time though, I wanted to be a choral conductor at the collegiate level so I continued my music education degree. But since I was continuing to get leading and supporting roles in all of the operas, I decided to go on to get a Masters degree in vocal performance and went to SUNY Stony Brook to study with Brenda Harris! There, too, I was inspired by my coaches, Tim Long and Daniel Beckwith, as well as by my conductor, Dr. David Lawton. I have been so fortunate every step of the way to always have encouraging mentors!

OM: Fantastic path!

AT: Music is my greatest passion in life and I am so happy to be pursuing it as a career. But this is a profession that comes with great risk: classical music is not supported and valued like it used to be, which, in turn, means fewer opportunities for singers in a field that continues to have more people aspiring to become professional musicians. We are constantly traveling, paying for lessons, coaches, music, and so much more. It's an expensive profession. I cannot imagine doing anything that wasn't in the music field though. Thankfully I love being in the practice room and continuing to grow as a musician. I'll do whatever it takes to keep on singing, even if it means reusing tin foil, one, two, or even three times. 

Alina Tamborini as Adele in Act III of Strauss’s  Die Fledermaus

Alina Tamborini as Adele in Act III of Strauss’s Die Fledermaus

OM: Exactly! To repeat my second question: are there any bits of advice you would give a young person who is outside, intrigued by what you have to say here?

AT: My best advice would be to GO FOR IT!! What's the worst that could happen? Even if a career in music isn't ultimately the path that is taken, at least they will be exposed to this glorious world of art! I would also say to learn as much as you can. Go to the opera, go to concerts. Learn languages. LEARN TO PLAY PIANO!! IT IS SO IMPORTANT!!

OM: I had to put that in bold!

AT: Of course, I said it that way. Can I say it again? Learn to play piano!!!

OM: Sure. Now Hannah Ludwig (HL).

HL: I credit my journey to having three absolutely fantastic mentors who persuaded me and guided me into this profession.  The first was my church pastor growing up, Carol Pagelson, who was a former opera singer herself.  I would solo in church occasionally and she nudged me to sing more classical rep.  The second was my voice teacher in high school, Constance Weichert, an extraordinary woman who convinced me that classical voice is what I should study.  Last but certainly not least, my undergraduate teacher, Professor Burr Phillips, is the one who made me love opera and concert repertoire.  He demonstrated a love of text and performance that I carry with me onstage every time I perform.  He also showed me the world of art song which I have a deep passion for performing.  It is because of these wonderful people that I am doing what I love.

Hannah Ludwig in Wagner’s  Das Rheingold

Hannah Ludwig in Wagner’s Das Rheingold

OM: Any bits of advice you would give that young person?

HL: Go see an opera! That first time will change your life! Then go see another…!

OM: Last but not least, Alisa Jordheim.

AJ: Well, I am an only child of two music professors - my father is the saxophone professor at Lawrence University, and my mother teaches flute at Lawrence University, and both teach music education courses there. I played several instruments growing up, including piano, cello, and flute, and I was a ballet dancer for seven years; however, singing was what I loved to do most. When I was in third grade, I was a dancing bird in Mozart's The Magic Flute at Lawrence University. I had such a wonderful time in the rehearsal process and production, and I loved the idea of combining acting AND music! I started taking voice lessons when I was 10, and my voice teacher at the time, Patrice Michaels, gave me Barbarina's arietta L'ho perduta, me meschina from Le nozze di Figaro a little while after starting lessons. Though I also sang musical theater songs and art songs in my lessons, there was always something about opera that moved me to my core.

Alisa Jordheim as Gilda in Verdi’s  Rigoletto

Alisa Jordheim as Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto

OM: That’s my experience. Not the dancing bird part. But I loved classical music, jazz, the Stones, shows, My Fair Lady, Pirates of Penzance, but Götterdämmerung at the Met did it. I was literally shaken to the very core! I was 16.

AJ: The multi-faceted nature of opera was what appealed to me, and of course, still does - it combines orchestration, text and language, historical and social context, dramatic stories, complex characters, the unamplified voice, collaboration, and vocal/technical mastery. There's just nothing else quite like it!

OM: Totally!

AJ: I loved being in plays and musicals in high school and then chose to pursue classical singing at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM). Influential voices? Growing up, I was inspired by the voices of sopranos such as Leontyne Price, Anna Moffo, Beverly Sills, Joan Sutherland, Mirella Freni, and many others.

OM: One can’t imagine what Joan Sutherland or Leontyne Price sounded like in person and unamplified. The sheer size of their voices! Anna Moffo was beautiful as well as a wonderful singer. Sorry to interrupt…

AJ: No problem! As for realities, risks, challenges, and costs of being in any of the arts, I would say that persistence is of paramount importance, you need to be strong, but, as well, you must have a supportive network of people you can trust to give you critical feedback. It's absolutely imperative to know yourself, know your voice, and, important as well, you need to know how to take care of yourself mentally and physically.

OM: Well spoken. Thank you! Are there any bits of advice, Alisa, you would give a young person who is at the gate?

AJ: Pursue ALL things in which you are interested, even if someone tells you it's not worth pursuing. Study as much as you can and acquire a well-rounded education. Life informs art. If you want to pursue singing, find the best voice teacher for you: acquiring a solid technique as soon as possible is key.

OM: I couldn’t agree more. Thank you all so much, my new friends, for the tales of your journeys, the observations along the way and the sound advice to colleagues and newcomers. May our paths actually cross someday!

Portrait photos of our four singers with Teatro Nuovo may be found in the posts of the original interviews on OperaMetro on the page regional-nineteen-twenty, one post for La straniera and one post for La gazza ladra. All summer fare is regional these days.