The year was 2003.
A woman stood in the middle of the stage, shimmering in a floor-length black gown lined with strips of sparking silver. The flute cadenza of the piece faded, the full orchestra slowly crept in, building in speed and sound. Less than 30 seconds of the 17-minute piece remained. Her voice danced with the orchestra, scaling to the top notes of the scale.
The vocalist finally reached her destination. E flat pierced through the colossal gold-painted hall.
“Before I could continue, the audience erupted with applause,” Emily Douglass said. “I remember watching this gentleman, he was sitting in the audience and he just sort of fell out of his seat, while the audience was screaming with excitement. I went on and sang more and they were even more excited. It was magic.”
That moment in Graz, Austria, is one Douglass often remembers. It’s a memory that ingrained a passion for music in her soul and has helped carry her through a 27-year career.
Now an artist/teacher of music-voice for the college and the new vocal area head, Douglass follows former vocal area head, Melissa Osmond, who led the vocal department for nearly 35 years and retired in May 2020.
The application committee interviewed more than 40 candidates for the position from across the world, said James Holleman, chairman of the music department. Douglass was the frontrunner on every list.
“I’m thrilled,” Holleman said. “Emily really followed a legend and that’s hard to do. She did a beautiful job. The transition was seamless, the students were really happy. She’s an amazing person; she’s an amazing human being. She’s built her reputation nationally and internationally, and to have all of this experience to share is really amazing.”
Douglass started at Hillsdale as a part-time adjunct vocal professor in 2017, after Osmond heard her audition to sing with the Jackson Symphony Orchestra as a soloist. Osmond’s husband was the director. The first time she heard Douglass sing, Osmond said she flew out of her seat and screamed. That was the moment she knew Douglass needed to teach at Hillsdale, she said.
“It was just beautiful,” Osmond said. “It was just a glorious, full-throated sound that had such color and a sparkle to it. I thought to myself, ‘Oh my gosh. This girl can sing.’”
‘Department head’ is only one of the newest additions to Douglass’ list of accomplishments. She’s a world-class performer, a vocal instructor, a wife, a mom to two sons, in addition to a recreational writer, painter, horse rider, and runner.
“She is hugely talented, greatly joyful, and totally unselfish. She’s sung on stages. She’s become a mom, she’s become an artist, and she’s become a really excellent teacher, and I would say that’s a lot of major goals to accomplish for one person,” said David Jones, Douglass’ longtime vocal instructor and a professional vocalist in New York City.
He calls her the total package. There was no “fatal flaw” with Douglass, Jones said, and that successful opera singers demand a multitude of qualities. Douglass lacked nothing. The two studied together for nearly four years in New York City. Today, they meet on Zoom for lessons.
“When I first met her, I saw someone with real career potential,” Jones said. “She’s beautiful, she’s personable. She has a huge talent. She looks good on stage, and she’s a great musician. Now, she’s as high of a level of any of the MET singers that I’ve worked with. A world class voice.”
It was a voice that had its beginnings in the church, where Douglass’ mom was choral director. She was the perfect girl in the little white dress. She begged for all the solos, and she rode horses, too. Riding lessons taught her resilience, how to overcome fears. These would prepare her for the future career that demanded many, many auditions.
“One day, I told my mom, ‘I’m worried about showing because my horse was not cooperating. Can I just skip the class today?’ She replied, ‘No, you need to do this, and I already paid for the class so you’re going in.’ I went in. I came out successful, and I did it. And I learned to not bend to fear, but to be strong and push myself past where I think I can.”
Despite her music involvement — from playing the horn in the high school band to singing in the school musicals — Douglass enrolled as an art education major at the University of Michigan.
Things changed the day she went to register for classes with now husband, Mark Douglass, who was set to major in music. The art advisor didn’t show up that day, but the music major advisor did.
“We drove two hours to attend registration day,” Mark Douglass said. “Her advisor didn’t show up, but my advisor, knowing we had driven so far, suggested, ‘Emily, we’ll get you in the system. You’re going to be a music major today, that way you can come back when classes start and readjust your schedule.’”
The schedule was never readjusted. Soon after starting music classes, she decided they wouldn’t stop. She auditioned as a horn and voice double major weeks later. She’s earned her master’s in music from the University of Tennessee since then — and become a world-renowned artist. The Meistersinger International Vocal Competition and the Birmingham Opera Competition are among several competitions she’s won.
“At an audition, one of the professors exclaimed, ‘Wow, your voice is a world class instrument! Do you know that?’ I replied, ‘well, not until right now.’ That was the first step in declaring to myself, ‘wow I could make a career out of this and I would really love it.’”
Years later, Douglass is this kind of professor to her students — the kind that pushes them to believe in themselves, said one student, sophomore Brianna Lambrecht. She transferred from Spring Arbor University the same year Douglass assumed her role as head of the vocal area at Hillsdale.
“She’s the reason that I’m majoring in music again,” Lambrecht said. “She instilled a confidence in my voice that I wasn’t able to find right away, and was one of the first people who said, ‘you can do this professionally, this is what you’re meant to do.’ She’s inspired me to teach, because she gave me a sort of confidence, and I want to do that exact same thing for other students someday.”
Douglass and her husband met in elementary school at church. Whether he was jealous of her for getting all the solos for the church programs or was sitting behind her in high school band, he would always pick on her. He still does.
“We would pray before performances and I would make sure I was right next to her so I could hold her hand,” he said, smiling.
College was the start to their shared musical journey. With their music undergraduate degrees in hand, the two moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, to earn their master’s degrees in music performance. The next stop was Texas, where Mark Douglass would earn his doctorate degree from one of the best graduate schools of music. Fellow jazz students passed around Norah Jones’ first album in one of his classes. She was a student there, too.
While her husband studied, Douglass traveled. For nearly five years, New York City became her second home. It was the place where she met the best opera directors who taught and recruited musicians.
Along with New York trips, Douglass performed across the country — and the world. The Stefaniensaal Theater in Graz for the American Institute of Musical Studies was one of those places. One performance there landed her the leading role in “The Daughter of the Regiment” at the Lyric Opera in San Diego. American opera singer Beverly Sills was the last person to sing the same role in the house.
“She had signed her name on the drum and the directors asked me to sign my name underneath. I said, ‘Are you sure you want me to sign this?’”
Another summer, she worked with the late Eduardo Mueller, who was the opera director for years at La Scala Opera House in Milan, Italy — one of the world’s most famous opera houses. She sang for him in Italian.
“After I finished, he came over to me and held my hands, with both fists, looked me in the eye, and said, ‘My dear, if you had a performance tonight, for the role of Lucia, I believe you would be ready to sing at La Scala.’”
Douglass exchanged pursuing a doctorate for hundreds of hours of auditions and performance experiences. And though those years were excellent ones, they came with many sacrifices, too, Mark Douglass said. Sometimes there wasn’t enough money to pay the bills.
“We had a difficult time financially,” he said. “For instance, the power on our third-floor apartment in Dallas was disconnected multiple times — in over 100-degree weather. She still had to get to New York to coach, take lessons, and audition, because if she didn’t keep those connections, she would have no chance of getting hired. So how, when we had very little money, did she make all of those trips happen? God made it happen.”
A retired pilot from church added the couple to his air travel buddy list. Emily could travel with no costs. Another friend offered to sponsor Emily in whichever financial ways she needed.
“He believed in her,” Mark said, looking at his wife.
Mark and Emily support each other. They always have, Mark Douglass said, who is now the Chairman of the Spring Arbor University music department. He wouldn’t be the musician he is without his wife’s encouragement and guidance, he said.
“I’m a better composer because of her,” he said. “She sings my music and if I just splash notes on a page, she makes it sound miraculous. She makes it sound spiritual, she makes it come to life, and I’ve been able to take advantage of that.”
“In every professional position, I have tried to negotiate work for her as well,” he continued. “Within a very short amount of time, her expertise, experience, and grace become apparent. Students say, ‘She is like a miracle worker with my voice.’ Colleagues love working with her. In the beginning, I try to get her a job, but in the end, she gives me job security because no one wants to lose her.”
Now a mom to two sons ages 6 and 11, Emily says she’s learned to juggle the many roles in her life. In addition to teaching students and spearheading the vocal department at the college, she homeschools her kids. One of her sons has severe dietary restrictions, and Douglass always goes the extra mile for him. The love she has for her kids is “something special,” Holleman said.
“For all the homeschool groups, she will work in snacks for him that he can eat, where he doesn’t know that he’s doing anything different from the other kids,” Holleman said. “She takes the time to figure out how to make it work for him without him knowing that something’s different. He just feels part of the group.”
She’s a calm mom, too, Mark Douglass said. It’s not an extraordinary sight to come home and see Douglass sitting at the piano with a crying son in one arm, another son asking for dinner, and the dog howling in the backyard — all while she’s learning music in German for an upcoming performance.
Her calmness uplifts her students, Lambrecht added. She is consistent in character and demeanor but also knows how to adapt to her students’ different skill sets with various techniques. Jones, Douglass’ teacher, said he saw this quality in her from the beginning.
“No one makes a good teacher if their personality is rigid, or if there’s only one way to do things,” he said. “Her openness to work with a singer individually and not just use one formula for each person, but to customize the hour for that person’s specific needs — that’s what makes her a great teacher.”
Douglass said she loves the college and believes in the liberal arts. That’s what has kept her here and what motivates her to teach her students, she said. Hillsdale students study music to the equivalent of music majors at other universities, but most students will become things other than musicians — authors, teachers, lawyers, writers.
“I believe in Hillsdale College because we’re giving students the opportunity to grow as humans through the expression of art at a very high level,” Douglass said. “My hope is that they grow physically, but they also grow with technique. And by the time they’re done, this beautiful instrument is present, and now they’re ready to leave to go to wherever their path is.”
For now, Douglass’ path is at Hillsdale, and she gives God all the glory. They will continue to tell stories together.
“My faith is where everything comes from for me,” she said. “It’s the reason why I sing, it’s the power behind my singing. It’s the power behind my gift of singing. I pray before I go on and pray that God takes over. I’ve done the work, I’ve done the practice, and once I’m on stage, He takes over, and I’m just expressing, just telling a story.”