When I sang through a series of warmup exercises with Voice Professor Missy Osmond for the first time as a freshman, I had one goal in mind: I wanted to sing like the women on Broadway, the stars who dig deep into their chests for those lusty strains of melody familiar to anyone with an ear for a show tune.
Three years later, after easing my voice up and down hundreds, maybe thousands, of scales, and working my vocal chords through six semesters’ worth of music, I’m no closer to my goal than I was that late-August day when Missy sat down at a piano bench to plunk out a few notes and guide me through my first lesson. I’m about to finish my junior year, and I’m confident that I’ll never belt “Defying Gravity” from Wicked outside of my shower, and I’ll never scream those ungodly notes at the end of “Phantom of the Opera” in public, which is probably good for, you know, humankind’s sake.
But I do have something to show for the effort: I discovered that I love to sing opera. It’s a bizarre hobby for any young, hip-hop-happy musician to pick up as a Broadway sweetheart wannabe, but this stuffy, high-class art has my soul. And while this unexpected love affair still bewilders me, I’m even more surprised to report that opera has made me a better student.
When I took Western Heritage as a Hillsdale initiate, my main concern was scraping together enough information to trick Dr. Gamble into believing I had been able to process, let alone analyze, anything from the assigned reading. It was the same thing with Great Books — Dear Dr. Jackson, please know I at least tried to grasp the point of Dante’s trek through the underworld as I made my own journey through the trials of freshman year. I was a young, inexperienced student with good intentions back then, just trying to make decent grades with the few smarts God gave me and all the effort I could muster.
Opera was different, though. I started out with the basics, singing straightforward songs every soprano uses at the beginning of her training. When I realized I could make something beautiful if I practiced hard enough, I penciled rehearsals into my planner, preparing for lessons in the poorly-ventilated and hardly-soundproofed practice rooms lining the basement of Howard Music Hall. Embarrassed by the lack of control in my voice, I put my back to the glass windows embedded in the doors of the practice rooms and sang until I forgot my neighboring musicians could hear me. I was bad, but I didn’t care. I respected the literature Missy entrusted to me and sought to honor it and its genius composers with excellent performances. Mozart, Puccini, Strauss — I just wanted to do them right.
As the semesters passed, I began to take chances with my music. Missy gave me harder pieces, and I fell in love with the freedom of my arias, solo movements plucked from full-length operas. On stage, in the studio, or down in the dank basement of Howard, I became a desperate woman pleading with God to spare her lover, or a young Juliet crying out to her Romeo, or a distressed daughter begging her father for forgiveness. Because I believed in the truth behind the stories and the beauty of the music, I worked hard to keep my voice and my body in the best shape possible to give myself a chance when I took the stage. Soon enough, I was organizing my schedule around getting in bed before midnight so I could get up before 8 a.m. to stretch out and loosen up physically. Later in the day, I’d hit the practice rooms to ease my vocal chords into the day’s rehearsals. I was committed because I loved it — I would have done anything for the music.
When I started singing opera, I finally knew what it was like to be passionate, and then to take that passion, pair it with talent and hard work, and produce something worth sharing. Suddenly, my work up the hill didn’t seem so impossible anymore. Through opera, I had learned to love great works, to take them into my soul and really learn them before I stamped them with my own ideas and turned them into professors for evaluation. As a sophomore, I treated my Great Books term paper for Dr. Jackson like an aria. I internalized “Death of a Salesman” like I would a song — a sight reading, an in-depth look at smaller sections, a piecing together of a narrative with consideration to all the little details that made it shine. Soon I had a paper, just like I had a performance.
In two weeks, I’ll perform alongside another winner of Hillsdale’s concerto competition with my peers in the college orchestra for their final concert of the school year. This finals week will be a challenge with the added stress of protecting my voice, but I know I’ll be satisfied when I sing Puccini’s “Vissi D’arte” and Strauss’ “Klange der Heimat” the best I can.
I love opera because it’s beautiful: I’m blessed to participate in its beauty, and I’m honored to carry out the commitment it demands. Come term papers and final exams, it’s good to remember why I do what I do, up the hill or on the stage.