High Hopes

Emily Herrera soars toward stardom

She was hurt--and angry.
It was Anne who told her to get over the anger. Nat and Louise had been good to her, Anne pointed out, giving Emily experience with Opera Colorado that other young singers would have killed for. Maybe they felt she wasn't quite ready...that she needed a little prodding and maturity.

Emily cooled off. Anne was right: She wasn't as focused vocally as she needed to be. She wasn't ready now--but she would be soon.

Emily still sometimes thinks of her accident as the car crash from God. Although she needed extensive physical therapy as well as corrective dentistry, once she healed it turned out that one of her injuries had been a blessing in disguise. Emily could no longer open her mouth quite as wide as she had before. In fact, it had become almost impossible for her to open it wide enough to swallow her vowels.

She wondered if her grandfather had been watching over her. Surely someone had. In February 1995 she placed second in the Met regionals and third with Denver Lyric.

In 1996 Emily moved easily through the early rounds of the Met competition. She was sure it was going to be her year.

It very nearly was. After singing two arias, Emily found herself locked in a dead heat with three other singers, including 28-year-old mezzo Leah Creek, one of those chosen to participate in Opera Colorado's Young Artist Center. The judges called for an unprecedented third round.

Leah sang Rossini's "Una Voce Poco Fa" from The Barber of Seville. Emily countered with "Unbeldi" from Puccini's Madame Butterfly. The judges said each was impressive. But in the end, they gave Leah first place and Emily second.

Emily stewed privately over the loss. She had to believe she was the better singer; if she didn't, there was no reason to continue in competition. Publicly, she resolved to do better. The Denver Lyric competition was coming up in a month. She wanted to win the $10,000 scholarship and study in Italy that summer.

For the Denver Lyric competition, singers are required to list five arias, in different languages, that they are prepared to sing; the judges then choose from the list.

For her first song, the judges picked Emily's English-language choice: "Steal Me, Sweet Thief," from the American opera The Old Maid and the Thief.

"Steal me, sweet thief," one of the judges called out, playing off the aria title, as Emily took the stage.

She looked out into the theater. It was dark, and she could barely see the judge who had spoken. She smiled. "Well, if you insist."

It broke the ice, and the judges laughed, then quieted down when she began to sing:

Steal my lips before they crumble to dust.
Steal my heart before death must.
Steal my cheeks before they're sunk and decayed.
Steal my breath before it will fade.

Emily stole their hearts and won the contest.

A Central City Opera apprenticeship is one of the most sought-after in the country. In 1996 alone, there were more than 2,000 applications to the program. Several hundred hopefuls were invited to audition in December in one of five cities: New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and Denver.

Opera requires much more than singing. Since it is essentially a play set to song, opera singers must also be actors. So Central City's apprentice artists study diction and audition techniques as well as choreography, acting and stage combat.

But the apprentices also get invaluable experience in front of an audience, appearing in supporting roles and choruses for the three operas Central City produces every summer. They perform in salon recitals, too, and in the cabaret opera The Face on the Barroom Floor, a Central City tradition.

They watch, listen and learn from the featured performers, whom some of them understudy. There is always the possibility that a star will not be able to take the stage some night and that the understudy will be called upon to save the show.

In the waiting room at the University of Denver, Emily and the others listened as the anxious young man with the ponytail began to sing. Like everyone invited to these auditions, he had an excellent, well-trained voice. But that was no guarantee of success.

Partway through an aria from The Marriage of Figaro, the young man stopped. A mistake. Emily, Cara and Ken looked at each other. The young man resumed, but a moment later stopped again.

When the young man finally returned to the waiting room, stopping a moment to compose himself, the others avoided looking at him. As the next audition began--the young woman who'd been sitting alone--he crossed the room swiftly. Throwing on his coat, he knocked a music book to the ground.

Cara's mouth dropped open at the loud bang. The singers were very careful not to hurt each other's chances; this transgression was like screaming in a library. But the singer in the next room, perhaps made of sterner stuff, proceeded without missing a note. As the young man made his way out the door, his eyes filled with tears.

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