High Hopes

Emily Herrera soars toward stardom

They never fought or bickered. There were no recriminations or accusations. She loved him as much as ever. But she loved opera more.

If she was going to make it, she was going to have to focus almost entirely on her career in the next few years. After that, if she was successful, she would be gone. It was better to part now, while they were still friends.

"The life you want can't be with me," Emily told Ken one evening, as they talked calmly about the different directions their paths were taking.

Ken looked at her sadly. They both had tears in their eyes when he nodded and said, "I agree."

They split up in late 1992, although it would be another year of procrastinating, both reluctant to make the final cut, before they signed the divorce papers.

Emily threw herself into opera. When she wasn't singing, she was learning languages or memorizing the words to another opera. And in the odd moments when she wasn't working on her voice or earning a living, she had to have the television or radio on. Otherwise, the songs would keep running through her head.

In order to keep her studying hours flexible, she waited tables at night. But at restaurants she worried constantly about the effects of secondhand smoke.

When she found time to date, the relationships always ended badly. For reasons she didn't understand, the men kept turning out to be a lot like her father--emotionally abusive. One even abused her physically. She'd swear off one and then find herself with another...always sure that this time she'd be able to fix things. She missed Ken.

She could be as tough on those around her as she was on herself. Emily badgered her sister Chris about doing something with her life. When another singer didn't learn her part on time, Emily scolded her for lacking drive. Eventually, several of her friends confronted Emily. She was too hard on others, they said. She was rude and insensitive.

Emily accepted the criticism. She tried to hold her tongue, and she turned to Anne when she felt down. Sometimes she would go to her voice lesson and all they would do was talk. Or cry.

But they also worked on Emily's voice. And for the first time, in 1993, Emily entered both the Metropolitan Opera National Council competition and the Denver Lyric Opera Guild competition, the two most important events for young opera singers in the area.

To advance in the Met competition, singers must first get through a preliminary round, then district competition, then a regional contest. The sixteen regional winners are whisked off to the national auditions in New York. Of the sixteen, half receive two weeks of intensive coaching and $10,000 scholarships for further study.

If they're lucky and very, very good, some singers are awarded contracts to sing smaller roles at the Met or join its young-artist development program--either one a career jumpstart. But the Met's national competition opens other doors, too; the event is attended by opera-company officials from around the world, as well as agents looking for promising young talent.

The Denver Lyric Opera Guild competition is open only to Colorado singers, its main enticement a $10,000 study scholarship. But it also propels its winner to the forefront of area lyric sopranos.

That first year, Emily made it through the Met preliminaries but got no further than the district finals; she placed fifth in the Denver Lyric contest. She still opened her mouth too wide on some notes, and the judges noticed.

Emily decided to skip the 1994 Met auditions. If a Met competitor doesn't advance beyond the district level after three attempts, he or she is not allowed back. This didn't seem to be Emily's year. Stress and late hours were wearing her down; she'd lost a lot of weight, and the power behind her voice was gone. She decided to go ahead with the Denver Lyric competition, however.

A few days before the contest, Emily was driving to an interview for another restaurant job when a car ran a red light and struck her car broadside. Emily's body was thrown against the dashboard and her face smashed up against the windshield. By the time a paramedic arrived, her ribs and shoulders felt like someone had attacked her with a bat, and her jaw was throbbing.

"You may have dislocated it," the paramedic said.
Emily began to cry. "It can't be," she sobbed. "I'm a singer." She saw her dreams disappear in a wreck of broken glass and steel.

Although it turned out her jaw had not been dislocated, the pain was so excruciating she could hardly open her mouth. And her bruised body couldn't support her well enough for her to sing properly.

Still, she went to the Denver Lyric competition and did her best. She managed to place eighth.

1994 was not Emily's best year. The only good part was her job singing two nights a week at a small Italian restaurant, strolling between tables. Emily soon developed a loyal group of fans who came just to hear her.

However, her patrons, Nat Merrill and Louise Sherman, were not as supportive. For years they'd talked about establishing a young artists' center, which would provide a stipend for budding young performers and also offer intensive coaching in dance, acting and singing. But when the Joseph and Loretta Law Young Artist Center of Opera Colorado finally opened, Emily was not invited to participate.

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