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High Hopes

Emily Herrera soars toward stardom

Anne and Emily started with weekly lessons. Emily had been born with a superior voice; the goal now was to train that voice to sing evenly from the top to the bottom of its register without getting breathless or weak at either end.

The teacher told her how to stand, showed her how to open her mouth--Emily had a habit of opening hers too wide, which resulted in her "swallowing" her vowels. It was a minor technical flaw, but one the experts would pick up on.

As her voice grew stronger, Emily fell in love with opera--as Anne had known she would. Opera appealed to the perfectionist in Emily. There was much more involved than singing on key; those listening would know if you mispronounced your German vowels or if you were the slightest bit late.

But Emily also loved the pomp and pageantry of opera. The tradition and the costumes (especially the beautiful dresses). And the stories! Opera depicted human beings at their angelic best and devilish worst. They killed for reasons good and bad, sacrificed themselves for love. There were heroes and heroines, villains and fools.

Most of all, she loved the voices--Maria Callas, Beverly Sills, Placido Domingo. Emily dreamed of singing like that someday in a dark theater, where the audience would hunger for each note the way a starving man waits for a bite to eat.

The sounds of opera would even drown out the voice of her father, telling her she was never good enough.

Anne was the perfect match for the sometimes temperamental Emily. The teacher saw her role as being a combination of coach, mother, friend and psychologist. She boosted Emily's confidence when needed and applied the brakes when the girl started looking too far ahead.

When Emily graduated from high school, Anne helped her get into the Boston Conservatory. When Emily got homesick and fretted over her family's financial strain in sending her to the expensive school, Anne suggested she transfer to the College of Music at the University of Colorado. And when that experience proved frustrating because Emily didn't get much of a chance to perform, Anne promised her her time would come--if she just kept trying.

In the summer of 1990 Emily landed a role in A...My Name Is Alice, a musical review produced by the Theatre on Broadway. The show was an enormous success, and although Emily earned only $200 for the entire summer, it was her first "professional" engagement.

The real payoff, though, came when she met Josie Noble, a big, bubbly redhead who sang with the Opera Colorado chorus. Josie suggested Emily show up for open auditions.

Emily went and was surprised to find Josie helping Louise Sherman, Opera Colorado's music director, with the auditions. "You're going to love her," she overheard Josie tell the music director. "She has a great personality that comes across on stage."

Nervous, Emily sang as well as she could. She finished, and no one said anything at first. Her confidence was slipping away when Louise Sherman looked her in the eye and said, "You're not really chorus material, are you?"

"I can be," Emily pleaded.
Louise shook her head. "I want you to sing for Nat."
Suddenly, it dawned on Emily. She wasn't being rejected: Louise wanted her to sing for Nat Merrill, Opera Colorado's director--and Louise's husband--who'd been an internationally renowned stage director with the Met for years before he took on the new challenge of Opera Colorado over a decade ago.

"Come to my house this weekend," Louise told her.
Emily listened in a daze. She could hardly wait to get home to call Anne. "Goot," was all the voice teacher said. Emily smiled. Anne never got too excited; it was her job to make sure her student kept everything in perspective.

The invitation opened the door to much more than Louise's home. After singing for Nat, Emily was offered two roles. They were small, but they were opera.

For her Opera Colorado debut, Emily played an androgynous angel who rose out of the stage in a production of Burning Fiery Furnace. She sang a word: "Ahhhhh." In May 1991 she was the pageboy, Tebaldo, in Don Carlo, and got to sing a duet with a princess.

But as Emily's operatic career got under way, another part of her life ended. In December 1989, while still in school, she'd married Ken Werner. Although he looked like Woody, the daft bartender on Cheers, Ken also reminded her of her grandfather. He, too, was soft-spoken and gentle and would listen as long as she needed him to when she complained bitterly about the lack of roles in college or talked about her dreams for the future. He was funny in a low-key way, but he was also smart and worked hard at his studies. And just as she did, he held himself to a higher standard.

Two years into her marriage, though, Emily realized she faced a terrible choice. She knew Ken, by now an environmental analytical chemist, wanted to put down roots and have a home and children. But she also knew that, more than anything else, she wanted to see the world from a stage.

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