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."
She looked off in the direction where the young man had disappeared, her mouth slightly twisted. Remembering, perhaps, when her best was never good enough.
A small girl with wild black hair scrambled up the old pecan tree to the peaked roof of the garage. She was following her older cousins, who had already crossed to the other side. As usual, they were where they weren't supposed to be, but the adults in the backyard below didn't notice.
Ten-year-old Emily paused, hidden from adult view by the tree's branches. Watermelon juice stained her chin...it just wasn't a picnic unless there was watermelon to cut through the summer dust of San Antonio, Texas. A cross-shaped wound on her round left cheek struggled to heal, slapped there by a branch of the pecan a few days before.
"Emilia, you're going to put out your eye someday, climbing around like a boy," her grandmother, Celia Delgado, had scolded after the accident, using the Spanish pronunciation of her name.
From the garage roof, Emily could see a good part of the neighborhood, only a few miles from the famous old chapel known as the Alamo. It was no barrio, but neither were the residents well-off. The people who lived in this area were what white San Antonians called "the Mexicans," although some families--like Emily's maternal grandmother's--had settled in the area before Mexico was even a country. Neighborhood activities centered on the Catholic church on the corner; every family attended the baptisms, weddings and funerals of every other family.
Even then, Emily knew she didn't want to stay forever in this neighborhood where her own mother had grown up. The girls here, including some of her older cousins, all seemed to have babies before they were out of high school. Then they spent the rest of their lives in one of the small houses in the neighborhood, or a neighborhood just like it, lucky if their husbands or boyfriends stuck around. She had other dreams.
As Emily began to inch out of cover, sounds floated up from the backyard. Looking down, she saw her grandmother, Celia, sitting in a chair, surrounded by Emily's uncles and neighbors. Many of them were playing instruments: a guitar, a violin, a trumpet, an accordian. But it wasn't the impromptu band that held Emily's attention. It was her grandmother, who gripped a long-necked bottle of Lone Star beer in one hand, the other reaching out as she sang.
A donde era veloz y fatigaza
La Golondrina que ve aqui se va
The song was "La Golondrina," The Swallow, a traditional Spanish ballad about the heartbreak of leaving one's country for another, and missing small things.
Celia Delgado was small, less than five feet tall. She was round as a pumpkin and had a large mole on the side of her nose that never ceased to fascinate the two granddaughters--Emily and her younger sister, Christine--who had come to live with her almost three years earlier. She dressed in black, still in mourning for her husband, Antonio Delgado, who had died a few months earlier.
The dark-skinned Celia had taken great care to explain to her granddaughters that they were of Spanish, not Mexican, descent, and that their people had settled north of the Rio Grande when Tejas was still an outpost for Spain. Family legend had it that another ancestor had been Apache--a princess, no less.
Antonio Delgado's people were also from Spain, but they'd settled first in the Caribbean before immigrating to Louisiana. There, Spanish blood mixed with German, which accounted for the light eyes and fairer complexions of some family members who'd since moved to Texas.
Antonio and Celia had purchased their two-bedroom house just before World War II. Then, while her husband was away with the Navy, Celia had saved every cent and paid off the mortgage.
After the war Antonio landed a job with the civil service at nearby Lackland Air Force Base, where he remained until his retirement. But he was truly happiest working around the house. Whatever carpentry or plumbing or electrical work needed to be done, he did it, taking great pride in his craftsmanship.
Antonio would add on to the house as their family grew. He and Celia eventually had four children. Emily's mother, Velma, was the fourth and something of a surprise, coming along twelve years after their third child.
Celia was a true character in the neighborhood. No wedding was complete until she seized the microphone and launched into "La Golondrina." But Celia didn't limit her singing to weddings. She was quite a pool shark at the local cantina, where she'd won numerous trophies and had been known to belt out a ballad or two while hustling games. Velma spent a good part of her childhood sleeping on a cantina bench or playing beneath the tables while her mother shot pool or sang, always with a Lone Star in hand.
Velma's father, Antonio, was his wife's opposite. More than a foot taller, he was a quiet, reserved man with a receding hairline who liked to work quietly with his hands or sit in an old chair on the porch and watch the world go by. Antonio and Celia were very different, but their love had lasted through the years.
Those who had known him longest said Antonio had been changed by the war. But when his children or grandchildren asked him about those experiences, he would only say that half the men on his ship had been killed. Then he would begin to weep, and they would get no more out of him as he beat his chest with a fist in a futile attempt to stop crying.
By the time she was a teenager, Velma's siblings were grown and out of the house. She knew early on that her education would end at high school. "I'm not going to pay good money when you'll just go get married," Celia told her, remembering an older daughter who had done that many years before. So it should have surprised no one when Velma, only sixteen, announced that she was pregnant. She was soon married to her boyfriend, Fred Herrera Jr.
With his smoldering eyes and a dazzling white smile set off by dark skin, Fred was considered the best-looking guy in their high school. Other girls wanted him, but Fred said Velma was the only one for him.
Fred and Velma dropped out of school when they married, only to discover that her pregnancy had been a false alarm. But three months later she was pregnant for real. With a baby on the way and few job possibilities, Fred joined the Army. He was in basic training at Fort Bliss when Emily was born on August 7, 1968. A short time later he was on his way to Vietnam. Velma and her infant moved back in with her folks.
One afternoon when Emily was about three years old, she heard her mother calling her. Toddling to the screen door of her grandparents' home, she looked down the porch steps at a man in a uniform standing next to her mother.
"Emily," her mother said, "come meet your father." Fred had just returned home after two tours of duty in Vietnam. He smiled. The little girl turned and ran away.
The relationship between father and daughter would never get much better.
While Fred was stationed in San Antonio, Emily's sister, Christine, was born. Soon after, Fred was transferred to Virginia Beach, Virginia. He took his family with him.
Emily didn't understand why they had to move. She wanted to stay near her grandparents, especially her grandfather, who doted on her. This other man who had come into their lives seemed to like Chris better than he liked her. She didn't know why, but she knew it hurt.
As she grew older, Emily realized that her father wasn't very nice to her mother, either. The screaming and yelling would begin almost as soon as he came home from work. Most of it went on behind closed doors, but Emily could hear him hit her mother and hear her mother crying. Fred Herrera drank a lot, and when he drank, he liked to hit.
Although he didn't beat Emily, her father could still be cruel. A bright child who was reading second-grade books in preschool, Emily studied hard and tried to be good, hoping her father would appreciate her efforts. But nothing she did was ever good enough. And if she failed at something, his derision was unbearable. So Emily taught herself not to fail.
Gradually she grew to hate her father, even as she desperately wanted his approval. Sometimes he called what he did to her teasing. He would call her "little nigger" because her skin was darker than her sister's. Emily began to think she knew why her father preferred Chris.
Once, her parents returned from a trip to Mexico with a pinata for Emily's upcoming birthday. Her mother hung the pinata in Emily's closet, where she could look at it each morning when she hopped out of bed and counted the days until her party.
One morning, though, she looked in the closet and the pinata was not there. She climbed back into bed and went to sleep, hoping that when she awoke the pinata would reappear. But when she got up again, the closet was still empty.
Emily knew better than to ask her father what had happened to the pinata. He might fly into one of his rages, and her mother would pay the price. Fred had recently broken Velma's nose, and there was no telling what else he might do.
Emily's mother later told her that her father had torn up the pinata after they'd fought over his treatment of Emily. Velma recognized her elder daughter's pain. She saw how Emily's eyes brightened on the rare occasion when Fred said something nice to her. It hurt to watch her sweet, generous daughter try so hard, as though she could fix whatever was wrong with her father.
"Do your best," Velma would console her daughter. "Don't worry what he or anybody else thinks if you're doing your best."
Secretly, Velma was planning to leave her husband and take her daughters with her. When Fred left for work, she studied so that she could pass the tests necessary to join the Air Force.
Once when Emily was looking through her mother's drawers, she spotted official-looking paperwork with Air Force seals. When she asked what it meant, her mother revealed her plan. "Don't tell your father," Velma warned her seven-year-old daughter.
"Why would I tell him anything?" Emily asked. She only hoped her mother's plan wouldn't take much longer.
It didn't. One Saturday afternoon Fred turned on Emily, accusing her of misplacing his TV Guide. Drunk, and enraged by her denials, he undid the heavy metal buckle of his belt and began hitting her. When Velma rushed into the room to rescue her daughter, he struck her, too. Somehow Velma managed to get the girls past him, though, and they fled to a neighbor's house. Emily's back was covered with welts, some made by the belt and others clearly showing the imprint of a hand.
Velma took the girls home to San Antonio, to Celia and Antonio. They kept the girls while she started basic training.
For Emily, it was like going to sleep in hell and waking up in heaven. If anything, she was her grandfather's favorite because she had dark skin. He called her "my Emilia" and would hold his arms open so that she could jump into them. He was soft-spoken, but he loved to laugh, and she could tell him anything.
Emily and her sister were now surrounded by family. Most of the aunts and uncles on their mother's side lived within walking distance of Antonio and Celia, and the numerous cousins seemed to spend as much time at the house as the two sisters. They rarely heard from their father, and they didn't care if they ever did again.
The modest home--the ceilings were so low that the girls could touch them by bouncing on their beds--was filled with loving sounds and the smells of Tex-Mex cooking. On Sundays Antonio would go to the butcher for barbacoa--meat placed in a calf's head and cooked slowly underground--which dripped with fat destined to be sopped up with homemade tortillas. And at Christmas, there were always Celia's famous tamales.
Celia was the taskmaster and disciplinarian. Antonio's job was to play with the girls. He scolded them only when they broke one rule: The various dogs and cats that roamed the yard were not allowed in the house. But one day Emily slipped and let in a cat, which promptly relieved itself.
When he found out, Antonio threw a rare fit. Emily was frightened, but the old man quickly forgave his granddaughter.
Two weeks later Antonio was suddenly taken to the hospital, where he died.
Hundreds of people attended Antonio's funeral--family and neighbors and people he had met through his work. But Emily could take little consolation from those who assured her that her grandfather had lived a rich, full life and had gone on to a better place. She was sure she had caused her grandfather's death by letting in the cat. It was her guilty secret that she felt she would probably carry to her own grave.
But a week or so after the funeral, Emily was sitting on the bed in her grandfather's room with one of her cousins when both girls felt a weight on the mattress behind them and a warm pressure on their backs, as though someone had placed a hand there. Knowing they were alone, the frightened girls ran from the room without looking back.
After she caught her breath, Emily decided that the presence must have been her grandfather, coming back to assure her everything was all right. "Grandfather, grandfather!" she called, running back into the room. There was no reply, but from that day forward she believed that Antonio Delgado watched over his Emilia.
She was still missing her grandfather a few months later when she climbed on the garage roof and stopped to listen to her grandmother sing. It was as if she was hearing music for the first time.
Celia had never been Emily's favorite grandparent; she was strict and far stingier with her hugs than Antonio had been. And Celia would scold her when she didn't understand something said in Spanish. "Emilia," she would ask, "why don't you know the language of your people?" About the only thing Emily knew was a little song she'd learned in kindergarten called "Cielito Lindo."
But now, crouching on the roof and hearing Celia sing, Emily felt herself drawn to the old woman as surely as if a string ran between their two hearts.
Although untrained, Celia's soprano had a natural vibrato that imparted so much warmth and emotion that Emily felt she could almost understand the words of the old Spanish song. Taking in the scene below, she thought about her grandfather looking down on her while her grandmother's voice soared past her, up to the heavens like la golondrina, the swallow.
Mi corazon al tuyo estrechare. My heart will be bound to yours.
Oira tu canto tierna la golondrina. The swallow will hear your sweet song.
Recordare mi patria y llorare. I will remember my country and cry.
When Emily was ten, her mother was transferred to an air base in England. This time she took her children, as well as a new husband, with her. Velma had gotten married because she thought her children needed a father figure, especially now that her own father had passed away. But the man turned out to be an overbearing dictator, and the trip overseas almost lasted longer than the marriage.
Velma soon married again, this time to Richard Koehndorf, a service man eight years her junior. Although Velma initially resisted his advances and the girls gave him a hard time, he persisted in his pursuit. He took Velma to Paris and proposed beneath the Eiffel Tower--which the girls agreed was so romantic--and Velma said yes.
While the family was living in England, Emily began to study music in earnest. An earlier attempt at piano lessons had been short-lived, but now she picked up the recorder and, when that became too easy, the flute. She had a good ear and learned to read music as easily as she had learned to read English.
Emily began to daydream about a future as a musician, perhaps with the woodwind section of a major symphony. She had the right idea but the wrong instrument.
In 1981 Velma and Richard were transferred to Blytheville Air Force Base in Gosnell, Arkansas, where a third sister, Sylvia, was born two years later. Richard was a good and decent man, and he treated Velma's girls as his own. He could be strict about such things as curfews, which Emily discovered when she reached high school, but she realized that was because he cared about her.
Emily was a perfectionist who pushed herself to get straight A's. Although outgoing and friendly, she had little patience with peers who failed to meet the same standards she set for herself. A lot of the popular girls in the school spent their time experimenting with drugs and sex; Emily dedicated herself to her studies and music.
After a falling-out with the band director, Emily joined the high school's tiny, twelve-member choir. She had never thought much about singing; when she sang hymns in church, she'd been told she had a nice voice, but she'd never really let it out.
She soon got her chance, at a concert for which the choir had been preparing when she joined. With her mother and Chris in the audience, Emily sang in public for the first time, quickly overwhelming the other singers with the power and beauty of her voice at full throttle. Chris was so impressed, she sat in the back of the auditorium weeping; next to her, Velma found herself flushing with pride and then with embarrassment when other parents came up to her after the concert to remark on Emily's talent.
When a friend complimented her, Emily joked that someday she was going to be a rock-and-roll star.
Emily rolled her eyes. Opera? Who sang opera anymore? It wasn't even in English.
But soon Emily wasn't even singing with the choir. Velma's luck with men--all of it bad--held true when Richard was electrocuted in a freak accident at the base.
In 1985 Velma and her girls moved to Colorado. Velma wanted to be near Richard's parents, Jon and Mona, who lived in Aurora and couldn't have loved Emily and Chris any more than if they had been Richard's natural children.
Emily transferred to Rangeview High School. She felt lost at a school five times the size of the one she'd left back in Arkansas. She missed her friends. She missed her place as the star of the show.
On her first day, she was sitting in Spanish class, when the teacher asked if anyone knew a song in Spanish.
No one raised a hand. Suddenly, the words to "Cielito Lindo" came to Emily. Her voice had been a way of winning acceptance in Arkansas; perhaps it would do the same here.
She began to sing the little song whose tune most Americans recognize from the old "Frito Bandito" commercials.
When she stopped, everyone was looking at her like she was some ventriloquist's dummy. Where had that voice come from? At last the teacher cleared her throat and said, "I know that song, too. But I sure can't sing it like that."
The response gave Emily confidence enough to try out for the Rangeview choir, where the competition would be much more intimidating than it had been in Arkansas.
On the afternoon of the auditions, the choir director divided the students into quartets--bass, alto, tenor, soprano--and instructed them to prepare to sing "Come Follow Me."
Emily liked the song immediately. It reminded her of how lonely she felt transferring to a new school.
Everywhere I go, there's a voice I think I know.
It's calling, "Come follow me."
As she sang, Emily found herself fighting tears. She suddenly felt small and unwelcome, the way her father had made her feel. She sang louder, as though she could chase away loneliness with the power of her voice.
No one in the room, not even Emily, was prepared for what they heard. Her voice filled the auditorium and flew around the walls as if looking for a way out. When she finished, the other students and even the choir director applauded.
A few days later, a friend in the choir suggested that Emily see a voice teacher she'd been training with. The woman's name was Anne Van Etten.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"Nerves," said Ken after he left.
"And a lack of preparation," Emily added quietly, reminding herself how the little things could make a difference. It would be her turn soon.
Yet Emily had reason to feel confident. She had finally been invited to join Opera Colorado's Young Artist Center and had landed a number of upcoming roles: the female lead in Opera Colorado's Young Artists production of Hansel and Gretel set for February; the ingenue Zerlina in Opera Colorado's May production of Don Giovanni at Boettcher Concert Hall; Annina, the faithful lady-in-waiting and friend of the doomed heroine in La Traviata, coming this March to the Buell Theatre.
Even Anne agreed she was ready. There were many well-trained lyric sopranos with nice voices out there, but Emily, she said, had it all. Beauty. Presence. And a magnificent voice.
It was time to seize her chance at making dreams come true. In her dream, Emily is older, having sung her way around the world. Her voice has grown deeper and darker, like a well-aged burgundy. She is alone on the stage, wearing big diva hair and a beautiful nineteenth-century dress studded with gold and jewels.
She is Tosca, the actress-heroine from the opera of the same name. Her painter-lover Mario is imprisoned by the evil Baron Scarpia, who has just raped her. Lying on the stage, she tries to rise and sings a prayer to God for help. Vissi d'arte. Vissi d'amore.
I lived for art. I lived for love.
"Emily Herrera?" The woman coordinating the Central City auditions at last called her name. Emily gathered her music and headed for the audition hall.
"Good luck," Ken called after her.
"Thanks," Emily said, and smiled. She planned to make her own luck.
Head held high, Emily walked into the hall. But her heart fell when she saw who stepped forward to take her music. It was John Moriarty, the artistic director of Central City Opera, Anne's former teacher and a musical perfectionist if ever there was one.
Emily had known he would be one of the judges. But playing the piano, right alongside her? He'd know if she made the slightest mistake.
She smiled. He smiled back. Then Moriarty began to play. It was a little faster than Emily was used to singing the aria, but if that was Moriarty's pace, she thought, that would be the pace she'd sing.
Emily had chosen the aria "Ain't It a Pretty Night," from the Carlisle Floyd opera Susannah. That past summer, while studying in Italy, she'd driven far into the country one night, away from the lights of the city. Stepping from the car, she'd looked up at the sky. A shooting star arced across the heavens and she thought of the aria, which she had just begun to study.
When she sings this aria, Susannah is sitting on the porch of her Appalachian home, gazing at the sky and wondering what lies beyond the mountains.
Ain't it a pretty night
Just think, those stars can all peep down
an' see way beyond where we can.
They can see way beyond them mountains
to Nashville, and Asheville and Knoxville.
I wonder what it's like out there,
out there beyond them mountains.
As she sang, Emily became Susannah. Her hand floated above her to the starry skies. She was young and innocent and beautiful, her voice full of longing for the world beyond.
I aim to leave this valley someday
and find out for myself.
On Sunday, Emily tied for first place with two other singers at the Met competition district finals. That qualifies her for this weekend's regional competition, from which she hopes to move on to the Met nationals in New York next month.
Although the winners of the Central City Opera auditions have yet to be announced officially, Emily Herrera's name will not be included on that list. According to a Central City Opera spokeswoman, Emily was not selected for this year's apprentice program.
In a few years, Emily may be thought of as too old for a program designed for young artists. In the meantime, she plans to keep trying. "Winning would be fabulous," Emily says. "But if I don't, I'll just have to find another way to New York.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.