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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
I have always been happiest when singing. When I sing for children, they often ask, "How did you become an opera singer?" Here is how it happened.
As a little girl, I listened to world-class entertainers from our small kitchen radio. It was always tuned to the local soul music station called WVOL. I warbled "R-E-S-PE-C-T" along with the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. I pleaded, "Please, Please, Please, Please" along with James Brown, who was known as "The Hardest Working Man in Show Business."
My brothers Johnel, Preston, Victor, TD, and I sang along and grooved in step with the mighty Temptations' big hit, "Just My Imagination."
On Sunday mornings, the stirring gospel voice of Mahalia Jackson blended with the warm and spicy aroma of sizzling bacon as my mother cooked breakfast. I felt pure exhilaration as I crooned along trying to match Mahalia's powerful alto sound. I just knew I was singing then!
Some special Sunday mornings, Granny, my great-grandmother, took me to her church, which was called the Primitive Baptist Church. When the gospel choir sang the spiritual song, "Wade in the Water," I stood up on the seat and wanted to dance with joy! Some folks did just that! Oh, how I hoped my singing would bring such joy to others one day!
I grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, also known as Music City, USA. When I was a child, country and western music were the most popular genres. The local folks called this style of music "opry." That's how the town got its other name, Home of the Grand Ole Opry. A weekly country music concert was televised live from the Opry House each Saturday night. Sometimes my Granny and I would watch the show together. Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn were my two favorite singers who regularly sang on stage at that big theatre. But instead of singing country and western songs in the opry show, my destiny was to sing Italian, French, and German arias in grand opera houses throughout the world. How did that happen?
Well, it all began when I was a teenager. I auditioned for a musical version of Shakespeare's play Two Gentlemen from Verona. The performance was to be presented at a local theatre in my hometown. The show's jovial music director, John Roberts, had a lovely baritone and he was training to become a classical singer. When he heard me sing, he said, "You have a very beautiful and unique voice. You should consider learning to become an opera singer."
"Opera?" I secretly gagged and said, "No way." When I heard opera singers on the television, I thought, Who are these singers wearing ancient clothes from my history books? While they were singing in a language that I didn't understand, I wondered, What were they singing about? And how could they make those loud sounds with their voices? I could not imagine myself as an opera singer at all.
However, I got the part of Sylvia in the musical! The music director, John helped me to prepare for the role and became my first voice teacher. After all of the performances were over, he taught me easy arias, which are songs from operas to practice at home.
When I began voice lessons and started singing the arias throughout the house, my family was confused. They thought I was already a really good singer and didn't understand why I needed to learn how to sing. My dad was the minister of our church and had an exquisite baritone voice. He turned to me and said, "Your singing voice is a natural gift from the Lord. You don't need to study something that comes naturally."
My mother, a high school principal, joked half seriously in her cheerful soprano voice, "I prefer when you sing the "hey lordy, mama" type music."
My two younger brothers often spied on me during my vocal exercises. "You sound like you're straining through a string bean when you sing like that ... lar, lar, lar, lar, lar, lar pee-yoo!" they teased in a playful duet.
I'm sure no one meant to hurt my feelings, but these words made me confused and angry. Sometimes, the words even made me cry. I began to think that I had made a wrong decision. My mother, seeing how upset I was, said, "It shouldn't matter what any of us think. You have to do what you believe is best for yourself."
I continued developing my singing voice. I practiced, and practiced, and practiced. Soon, my singing skills became better, and better, and better. My voice improved as I sang in my church choir and performed leading roles in the musicals at my high school. One other highlight during that time was singing in the high school chorus with my very beautiful and gifted choral director, Joan Clark. "Joanie" had a pretty soprano voice and she played the piano wonderfully.
I also entered talent competitions and won the Miss Talented Teen Tennessee title. After the pageant, a very bright and kind nineteen-year-old journalist interviewed me. She was from WVOL. This was the same radio station I had listened to as a little girl. When she asked about my future plans, I confidently proclaimed, "I'm going to put Nashville on the map!"
Over time, my family became my best cheerleaders. Dad even remarked, "All things are possible!" Years later my father, who was also a gifted artist, created the portrait of me as "Carmen" that graces the cover of this book.
Along with singing, I also greatly admired the British actress Dame Judith Anderson and wanted to learn to be that kind of performer. I enrolled in the University of Memphis and majored in theatre, because I still was not sure that opera was the career for me. This didn't matter much to John, the music director from Nashville who had become my mentor and friend. He had a plan. The next time New York City's famous Metropolitan Opera Touring Company was scheduled to perform at my college town, John treated me to a tasty dinner and a fanciful night at the opera. I liked dressing up elegantly to go to the opera. But secretly, I mostly looked forward to the yummy meal and my visit with John.
By now, I had learned that an opera is a story performed through music and singing. We saw an opera called Tosca with music created by a famous Italian composer named Giacomo Puccini. In the story, a celebrated actress is in love with a handsome and brave artist. Grace Bumbry, a beautiful opera prima donna, starred in the leading role as Tosca. In opera, they call this the title role because the leading character and the opera have the same name.
Ms. Bumbry, as Tosca, glided gracefully out onto the stage wearing a sparkling bejeweled tiara and an elegant red velvet gown. Her melodious soprano voice merged with Puccini's mesmerizing music. I didn't move throughout the entire performance, nor do I remember breathing.
Suddenly, I was filled with the same excitement I had felt as a child when singing soulful tunes or listening to opry singers. My mind traveled back to wailing gospel songs along with Mahalia Jackson and the spirituals I had heard at Granny's church. As if by magic, I began to realize that whatever the style, all music has the power to make the human soul dance with joy! On that very evening, I began to imagine myself singing opera all around the world. When the curtain closed at the end of the first act, I looked at John and declared, "I want to do that!"
And I did! But not right away.
After that night, I began to pursue an opera career. In earnest, and at Memphis State, I started vocal training with my very nurturing voice teacher, Ethel Maxwell. Also, I began to enthusiastically look forward to more Metropolitan opera performances and tasty meals with John. However, an interesting twist of fate occurred!
My college acting teacher, the brilliant Edmond Wesley, was known in professional Broadway circles as a "triple threat:" he could sing, act and dance. Also, during my sophomore year at college he wrote, composed, directed and choreographed a musical that we performed in the spring. Edmond noticed that my singing voice had shown exceptional improvement. He arranged for me, and another student, Martron Gayles, who was an outstanding dancer, to audition for a National Broadway Touring Company in New York City! My dancing ability was no match for Martron's masterful moves, but I felt confident enough with my singing skills. With monetary help from friends, I boarded a Greyhound bus, along with Marton, and we headed for the Big Apple to audition for the show. We sang tunes from Edmond's musical all the way!
Twenty-four hours later, we had arrived. At the dance audition I was so nervous that it felt as though my feet wouldn't obey my brain. Noticing Marton's effortless and sinuous movements didn't help matters. For me the dance part of the audition went horribly wrong. But after the piano player heard my voice at the singing audition, he pretended to slide off his piano bench! "I wondered if I was going to hear any real singing today," he exclaimed in an excited countertenor voice. Both of us were hired!
The show was called Bubblin' Brown Sugar, and I was cast in the role as the brilliant young jazz songstress Ella Fitzgerald. A very popular singer named Cab Calloway starred in the show. In his sonorous tenor voice, he effortlessly belted out blues and jazz style music. Performing with Cab and the rest of the cast was thrilling. But when I wasn't on stage singing the role of Ella, I would find a place in the theatre where I thought no one could hear me to practice my opera arias. My ruse hadn't quite worked because Cab commented one night that he had been listening to me sing. He compared my voice to that of the world-renowned operatic soprano, Leontyne Price! Cab's very inspiring words helped to lead me back on track to becoming an opera singer.
Preparing for a career as an opera prima donna is much like a runner training for a race. I learned to eat well, sleep well, and exercise. I needed to continue voice lessons to make my voice strong enough to be heard when singing with a symphony orchestra. But there was more than singing. I took acting classes so my characters would be believable. During my movement lessons, I learned how to move gracefully across the stage-sometimes wearing voluminous ball gowns and high heels!
As many opera stories come from countries around the world, I had to learn to speak, sing, and understand various languages. These included Italian, French, and German. Oddly, I had heard these languages when listening to opera singers on TV as a child. I learned all of these things at famous music schools like Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music in the United States and the American Institute of Musical Studies in Graz, Austria.
Many magical moments happened while I was a diva in training. For example, Katherine Kobe, the United States Cultural Attaché in Austria, invited me to a delicious Viennese dinner at Austria's world famous Griechenbeisl Tavern. This restaurant was built in 1447 and was often visited by well-known composers like Mozart, Brahms, and Beethoven. Each had been asked to sign their names high up on the ceiling. I too was invited to sign my name on the ceiling! Should you visit Vienna with your family and happen to dine at that tavern, you can look up to the ceiling and search for my name.
I received a full scholarship and a living stipend to attend the Juilliard School Opera Center training program in Manhattan. While there I had the opportunities to work with famous performers such as the great operatic tenor Luciano Pavarotti. One enchanted evening, after I had finished singing an aria, Pavarotti showed his appreciation for my performance by kissing my hand.
I'll never forget the time I was accepted to study at the Manhattan School of Music, but I could not afford to attend. Miraculously, a well-known celebrity and her father arranged to pay my tuition through a scholarship program called Push Excel. It was the same brilliant young journalist from WVOL radio station who had interviewed me after I had won the Miss Talented Teen Tennessee contest. Since then, she had become a celebrated talk show host, publishing magnate, and owner of the OWN television network. Oprah Winfrey! What a blessing she and her father Vernon have been in my life.
The most momentous occasion occurred when I met a handsome and princely guy. Shortly after we met, José Ramon Mirabal and I were married. Several years later, our princess Iliana was born. But this is a fairytale for another book.
My journey from soul singing along with Aretha at home when I was a child to singing opera throughout the world was not always magical or completely smooth. I hit many bumps in the road and a multitude of maybes and nos along the way. Many times, after an audition, instead of singing "R-E-S-P-E-C-T" I felt more like singing "R-E-J-E-C-T-E-D." I often wondered if I was talented enough to have an opera career at all. But, nevertheless, I kept trying. Finally, I got a yes! Thankfully, many yeses came after that, including a few top prizes at singing competitions. Most notably, I was the 1991 winner of the Leontyne Price Vocal Arts Competition.
Throughout the years, I have had fun acting and singing many characters, including some leading and title roles from operas such as:
La Cenerentola (the Italian name for Cinderella);
Carmen (she's a spicy Spanish gypsy girl); and
Porgy and Bess (the character of Bess comes from this most famous American opera).
I also was honored to star in an opera about the life of an African American legendary woman named Clara Brown in Gabriel's Daughter. Clara, by starting a laundry business in the 1800s, became the wealthiest woman in Colorado.
My Favorite Roles
"La Cenerentola" (in Gioachino Rossini's title role with Charlotte Opera Company)
"Carmen" (practicing backstage with my castanets in Georges Bizet's title role with New York City Opera National Tour)
"Bess" (in George and Ira Gershwin's Porgy and Bess with Jim Pierce as "Porgy" on tour throughout Germany and France)
"Rosina" (in Gioachino Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia in Martinique)
"Lola" (in Pietro Mascagni's Cavelleria Rusticana with L'Opera De Monte Carlo)
"Queenie" (in Jerome Kern's Show Boat at the Gershwin Theatre on Broadway)
"Charlotte" (in Jules Massenet's Werther with Dicapo Opera Theatre in New York City)
"Clara" (in Henry Mollicone's Gabriel's Daughter with Central City Opera in Colorado)
"Lalulme" (in Alexander Borodin's Kismet with Utah Festival Opera)
One day, a wonderful pianist, David Maiullo, invited me to come along with him and sing at an elementary school to teach students about opera. I had recently returned from singing the role of "Carmen" on tour in France and Bulgaria. For the school show I dressed up as the spicy Spanish gypsy and told her story while performing arias from the opera. While I discovered that many of the children liked learning about opera, I enjoyed sharing my opera stories with the young audience and wanted to do this more often. I decided to go back to college again. This time, I enrolled as a doctoral student at Columbia University's Teachers College. I wanted to find out how to make my opera shows even more fun and valuable for children.
After graduating, I started an opera company called Opera Soup Productions and began performing at many schools. Why "Opera Soup?" For one thing, I really like to eat, especially soup. It occurred to me, if an opera were a soup, it would use four main ingredients: a story, some music, an orchestra and singers. I realized that putting together an opera or having an opera career is similar to cooking a delicious pot of soup. You need to find the right ingredients. I suppose it's that way for anything you choose to do.
Whenever I perform for young audiences now, I always hope that my opera shows will help nurture budding opera singers, fill future opera houses, and encourage all children to explore what kind of soup they may be brewing!
Excerpted from "From Soul Singing to Opera Soup"
Copyright © 2017 Dr. Lori Brown Mirabal.
Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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