High Hopes

Emily Herrera soars toward stardom

Emily went home and asked her mother if they could afford voice lessons. Velma said they'd find the money; after what she had been through, she would do whatever it took to see that her girls could pursue their dreams.

Emily was fifteen minutes late and had forgotten the check for her first voice lesson, neither of which sat well with Anne Van Etten, a tall, lithe, blond woman who towered over the shorter Latina girl. But Anne's pique wilted in the face of seventeen-year-old's Emily's dazzling smile. And it disappeared entirely when Anne heard her sing.

She sings slightly flat, Anne thought, but that's a technical fault, easily corrected if she has any kind of ear. The exciting thing was that Emily had a real voice--a professional-caliber voice. It was more than pretty. It had power, too. Untrained though it was, Emily's voice had a unique depth and color that was particularly rare in one so young.

Anne was fond of telling students that since opera was larger than life, an opera singer's voice must be larger than life. "To succeed, the opera singer, without microphones, must be able to reach out across a large stage, past the orchestra, and pull the audience in," she said.

Anne looked the girl over: It helped that she was beautiful. There was an exotic sensuality to Emily's dark features and an innocent friendliness to her smile. She could play the ingenue, the villainess or the heroine with equal success.

The more Anne talked to the girl, the more she came to appreciate Emily's natural charisma. That should carry over to the stage, she thought. A successful opera singer's personality had to fill a theater. And a truly great one extended her persona beyond the halls, adding to the mystery and drama. It was no accident that the term prima donna originated with opera. But while the words had been corrupted to describe a person with an exaggerated sense of self-importance, in opera they were not a slight. To be the "first lady" was a title of distinction.

This was not a career for the weak-spirited.
Still, while Emily's voice was a gift most people would never have, there was much work to do. In the opera world, there are thousands of voices for every opening--and sometimes more when the opening is for a lyric soprano. Many hurdles lay between a seventeen-year-old warbling at the baby grand piano in Anne's basement and the Central City stage, much less the Met in New York. Emily would have to learn to act. She would need a good ear for languages; in America, opera singers were expected to be at least phonetically familiar with Italian, French and German, and to understand the languages well enough so that they could know what their character was saying.

Anne could coach her through much of this. But the girl would have to find the will to succeed from within. No one could give that to her.

Anne knew that lesson well. Born in Norway in 1944, she, too, had a real voice. After receiving her master's degree in vocal performance at the prestigious Boston Conservatory of Music, where she'd studied with John Moriarty, she'd gone on to study in Germany and had been offered singing jobs in Europe.

But Anne had lacked the drive to push herself to the next level. Rather than enjoying it, she found performing stressful.

The turning point was the birth of her son, Lars. In order for her to succeed on the stage, opera would have to come before anything else. Anne wasn't willing to make that sacrifice. Weighing opera against motherhood, she chose to raise her son.

In the process, though, she found a career she truly loved: teaching others to sing. The year before Emily started taking lessons, Anne and her husband, Karl, had moved to Colorado, where Karl became the dean of the Community College of Aurora. Anne worked there as a vocal instructor and occasionally took private students.

Like Emily. As she talked with the girl about what she expected from her students and warned of the long, hard road ahead, she wondered if Emily could stick with it. Developing even a real voice took years of constant practice and fine-tuning. Indeed, it would be ten years--at least--before Emily would be ready for her break.

In the meantime, such a voice was extremely vulnerable to social pressures--like smoking, drinking and staying up late to party. Even talking too much could ruin a voice for the opera stage. Would this pretty, gregarious girl be willing to give up those youthful pleasures? And if she did, she would be following a long, lonely road with no guarantee that she'd reach her destination.

But wait: Emily had just announced her musical aspirations. She wanted to be a Broadway star!

Anne shook her head. She arched an eyebrow and announced, "A Broadway musical is all well and good." With her Norwegian-accented English, well and good came out vell ahnd goot. "But you have a voice for opera."

It would be years before Emily's voice was strong enough to even attempt an aria without risking irrevocable damage. In the meantime, Anne concentrated on strengthening her student's voice and correcting her technique.

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