|Posted on April 10, 2011 at 2:25 PM|
In April 2011, I was asked by Ann Baltz (of OperaWorks) to write a brief article to "inspire" current struggling opera singers with "my story". I was hesitant at first, for several reasons: 1) It's sometimes still difficult to re-live the loss of my opera career, even through writing about it, 2) I wasn't certain that current, young opera singers would gain anything from my perspective or situation, 3) I'm now performing in a genre that has very little connection to my old (and their current) opera world, and was concerned that OperaWorks readers wouldn't see the relevance. But, I have a great deal of respect for - and gratitude towards - Ann and her dedication to training and molding performers. She did that for me. So, I did this for her. And if it helps someone else, ...all the better.
A New Voice:
From Mellifluous Mezzo to Sultry Songstress
By Jennifer Cooper, OperaWorks Alum ‘96
The summer of 1997 marked the beginning of a performance career I could only have dreamed of. I had just completed my MM in Solo Vocal Performance at ASU School of Music and just one year earlier, had been immersed in the brilliant exercises taught by Ann Baltz at OperaWorks. By the year 2000, this lyric coloratura mezzo soprano had joined the roster of Peter Randsman and performed more than 20 opera roles with a dozen different companies, including; Merola, Florida Grand, Glimmerglass, Chautauqua, Opera North, Opera Delaware, Michigan Opera, and others. I was flying high and blissfully living out my passion, working with world-renowned singers, conductors, and directors. By 2001, my file cabinet was swollen with countless signed contracts to sing principal roles in three countries for the next four years.
Then, in the blink of an eye… it was all gone.
A congenital cyst was discovered on my left vocal fold. According to my otolaryngologist, I was likely “born with it.” I had spent my entire life nurturing, training, and expressing myself with a voice that was destined to betray me. I faced two choices: Quit singing, or have surgery. I chose the latter, which was initially successful. However, the predicted six-month healing process inexplicably extended to a four-year struggle to regain my voice, during which all ties with my opera life essentially disappeared. After years of rage, depression, and everything in between, I finally learned that the goal wasn’t to regain the old voice, but to find a new one. Once I began to let go of the past (not an easy task, considering it represented everything I ever wanted), I started to recognize the other untapped skills, talents, styles, and layers of expression that existed within me. With the eventual true acceptance of those discoveries came new, intriguing, and transformative opportunities.
As bits and pieces of my voice began to slowly emerge, I defaulted to the one genre that didn’t care what key I chose, what volume I could access, or how perfectly clear my tone was. Jazz. The added bonus? …Expressive improvisation at the most visceral level imaginable. In hindsight, this was the perfect vehicle to release the years of emotional toxins that had permeated my soul and were stifled by a silenced instrument. Early on, I did consider this a default option. I was still holding on to some notion that one day, I would somehow return to opera. But each time an opportunity allowed me to dip my toe in the new musical waters and “sing a little jazz”, another layer of emotional baggage was peeled away. I started realizing that the prolonged yearning for my old life tended to reverse that process. So, I slowly let go.
Another particularly cathartic experience was the creating, producing, and touring of my one-woman, autobiographical, musical cabaret, “Go-DIVA! ~ of Song, Silence & the Abuse of Chocolate”, written and directed by LB Hamilton. Planting my feet on the hardwood stage again, singing the songs of my musical evolution (from childhood to present, from musical theater, to Top 40, to opera), feeling the hot lights on my skin, re-living the happiest and the darkest of times, and just telling my story… forced me to come to terms with it all. Process the journey. Honor the past. Live the present. What I didn’t expect was the outpouring of support and empathy from audiences who expressed a deep - and often intimate - personal connection to my story which they shared during post-show talk-back sessions. Group therapy, through the arts, at its best!
My “new voice” brings me great joy now …now that I’ve allowed space for joy to come in. What I can’t live without …what seems to have been innately prescribed, to the point of obsession …is the desire to communicate through song, to transform and inspire a collective group of people in a very intimate way. At one time, opera was the medium that satiated that need. But when all of my eggs fell out of that basket, the true learning began. The primal desire to sing my story forced me to notice the wedges of light shining through new doors of opportunity. Now, here I stand …at the threshold of options I never knew existed. And I have all the baggage I need …supportive colleagues, infinite musical options …an unsung song in a peaceful heart.
…And finally, a new voice to give it life.