High Hopes

Emily Herrera soars toward stardom

Emily Herrera listened carefully to the first few notes of the aria emanating from the audition hall. The "Caro Nome" aria, she thought. From Rigoletto.

The singer's voice pierced the quiet like a dagger. She's good, Emily thought. But she's a coloratura soprano. Emily, a lyric soprano, relaxed. She listened to coloratura sopranos for pleasure, not competition.

Caro nome che il mio cor. Festie primo palpitar. Dear name that is in my heart. Who first made my heart beat.

So far, Emily had not heard any other lyric sopranos, which boded well for her chances in the Central City Opera apprentice auditions. The hundreds of young artists from around the country--from baritones to sopranos--were, in a sense, competing for just a dozen or so places in the prestigious program. But if the judges made their decision with an ear toward next summer's Central City Opera schedule and needed a lyric soprano to understudy one of the featured roles, the less competition the better. As it was, Emily faced the stiffest odds, because lyric soprano is the most common female range.

So many beautiful voices, so few spots. At this level, nothing came easy; she'd have to be at her best to win. And the competition would get even rougher in a few weeks, at the Metropolitan Opera National Council regional auditions in mid-January.

Still, Emily knew that her real challenge came from within. She had been given la voce, the voice she sometimes thought of as an independent entity, but that didn't give her a free ride to stardom. She had to work hard. It had taken nearly a dozen years of dedication and sacrifice, including the end of her marriage, to get this far. Now 28 years old, she'd done well in regional opera contests over the past two years.

Suddenly the singing stopped. Cara Johnston walked out of the University of Denver audition hall and into the waiting room. She rolled her eyes and smiled as Emily and a half-dozen other singers turned to gauge her reaction to the judges.

Cara looked like a young woman from Kansas, which is exactly what she was. A pale, thin, pretty blond, lightly freckled and fresh-scrubbed, except for the ruby red lipstick. As a coloratura, her quick, light voice came at the high end of the soprano scale, seemingly capable of ascending into a realm where it could be heard only by dogs and angels.

At the other end of the scale is the dramatic soprano, with lyric in the middle. Compared to a coloratura, a lyric soprano voice is expected to be heavier, perhaps not as nimble, but richer, warmer. Sexier. Emily looked the part, with her cafe au lait skin and dark eyes. You had to look closely to see the faded, cross-shaped scar below her left eye that was a reminder of her days as a tomboy.

Emily walked over to where Cara was talking quietly with tenor Ken Gayle, who'd come to Denver from Seattle for the auditions. Their conversation soon turned to such operatic shop talk as the best way to get rid of phlegm. "I gargle for a half-hour every morning. It's like a cat coughing up a hairball," Emily said, as the other two laughed and nodded.

The three were strangers but old hands at auditions. And so their banter was relaxed rather than mean-spirited, as they critiqued the singers marching one at a time into the audition hall, where they would sing two selections--one of their own choosing, one from a list they had submitted as being prepared to sing. For them, this was a form of continuing education. No one expected to make it through an audition unscathed; there was always something to be learned, or a lesson reinforced, by dissecting another's performance.

A young woman rushed up to the threesome, half-wild with anxiety. She was scheduled next, but the woman currently before the judges, another coloratura, was singing the aria she had selected. "Should I change?" she asked, her eyes darting from Emily to Cara to Ken.

They all shook their heads. "No," said Emily. "Sing what you sing best." Secretly, she was pleased: not a lyric soprano.

At an audition, Emily liked talking to the other singers; they understood how difficult the path had been to get to where they were today. But others in this waiting room had different ways of dealing with the stress. One woman sat in a corner with her eyes closed, her hands clasped on her lap, holding down her music as though it might fly away. A thin young man with a ponytail paced around the room, avoiding all eyes. He didn't appear to have gotten much sleep the night before; his skin was sallow and his face unshaven. When his name was announced, he grabbed his music and stalked off as if heading for a firing squad.

Emily shrugged. "Some are so competitive or nervous, they can't even look at you," she said. "I can't imagine going through life that way. The way I see it, they're here to do the best they can, and I'm here to do the best I can."

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