Nearly 10 years ago I was at the end of an unbeatable year of singing. I was 23 years old and had just finished my Master’s Degree in Opera (Yes, you can get a degree in Opera…just ask me! I have 3. They make fantastic laminated placemats). I had been auditioning for every school/program/competition I could think of, and I got into every single one of them. Juilliard Opera Center? Yup. Canadian Opera Company Ensemble? Yup. Curtis Institute of Music? Yes. Metropolitan Opera Competition? Won a TON of money with laryngitis. Montreal Opera Young Artists, Women’s Guild Competitions, CBC Radio Competition? All yes, and thank you very much.
There was a LONG list. I’m only sharing this now because it will never, EVER happen again to me in my lifetime and I think it’s wise to hold on to those times in my memory when my future felt completely unlimited. It also helps to remind myself of that year when I’m wearing a cheek-to-toe-bed-sheet-mumu eating a few feelings and wondering why on God’s green earth I ever decided to be an Opera Singer in the first place. The memory of it and the hope it provides tends to keep me from throwing in the towel and attempting nuclear physics. Some days it seems like it would be an easier and healthier life choice. At least it would include a career based somewhat in logic and reason.
One of my most important auditions that magical year was for the San Francisco Opera Merola Program. Merola is a truly unparalleled program for young singers, vocal coaches and stage directors. Out of a zillion people who audition they pick about 24 singers, 4-5 pianists, a stage director and pay all expenses for you to live and study in San Francisco for the Summer. It is, and has been for a LONG time, one of the top training programs in the world for young opera singers and I had dreamed of going there since I was bitten by the opera-bug at 19.
Merola is a mecca for us opera nerds, and a safe space for us to be ourselves. Imagine a place where a young, bright-eyed Soprano can study, practice, research and soak up information like a giant nerdy sponge, all while roaming the halls of the incredible and legendary San Francisco Opera House. This is where icons like Leontyne Price, Luciano Pavarotti, Pilar Lorengar, and countless others have made their mark on the musical world. I was in a constant state of joyful opera dork overload. Not only did I get in to the program, I had somehow fooled them into giving me the female leading role in Donizetti’s opera Don Pasquale. I was obviously invincible and wonderful as I bounced merrily along Van Ness Avenue toward the San Francisco Opera house in my best “first day of school” outfit. The sun was shining, the breeze was blowing, and the pride flags were waving gleefully; welcoming me to one of the world’s main epicenters of art, culture, and fantabulous drag shows. This Opera Singer was in heaven.
On my first day, I sat in the back and started to sweat as everyone began introducing themselves and listing their own personal pedigree:
“Hi, I’m Jeffrey! I live in New York and I go to Juilliard and I’m really excited to be a part of this program and looking forward to getting to know you all.”
“Hi, I’m Wendy! It’s nice to see so many familiar faces. Looking forward to another Summer in San Francisco before I start the Lindemann Program at the Met.”
Cue Roz in the back row starting to panic as I quickly recognized that volatile I-have-to-get-to-a-toilet-immediately feeling. Every one is so professional and confident and fancy and put together and their outfits are cooler than mine and they know people! I don’t know one person here! How does everyone know each other already? What do I say? I grew up on a farm? I like cheese? Just be cool. Whatever you do, just act cool and nobody will think otherwise. Oh crap, it’s my turn. How do my legs work? Do I know how to speak English? Yes. Stand up, you moron.
“Hi everyone, I’m Rhoslyn Jones and I’m from Canada. Thank you so much for having me here.”
At least that part was over and I could sit down.
All the big-wigs introduced themselves calmly and eloquently (Would I ever be so cool? Could I ever wear that much Eileen Fisher linen so successfully?), and then one of the biggest wigs gave us our pep talk. “If you can think of anything else you would rather do than sing Opera, then you should go do that. Now. Everyone in this room is very talented but only 1 or 2 of you will have some kind of career in this field. It is most likely going to be a miserable existence and you are going to have to work as hard as you possibly can, try harder, suffer and sacrifice everything you hold dear. You should give up on a personal life, if you’re a woman you should think carefully about not having children, you’ll spend all of your money, your parent’s money, live in a suitcase while all of your friends are buying homes, and if needed, you’ll have to change your appearance entirely to suit the needs of the business.”
At least I wasn’t the only one in the room who had the nervous poop feeling anymore. My invincible, all-powerful oomph-ness was wilting ever so slightly.
Later that first morning, like a shining beacon of hope and light, Andy Wilkowske walked up to me and introduced himself. “Hi, I’m Andy and I’m from Minnesota which is basically Canada and we’re going to be friends.” Yes. Yes we are. I felt like I had found a kindred spirit and all was going to be wonderful. Fast forward to the middle of the Summer and Jeffrey, Wendy, Andy, and all the other cool kids and I had become dear friends. They were, and still are amazing, kind and generous people and artists.
There was a point during that Summer where we were being interviewed in front of patrons, donors and all sorts of important people during a fancy shmancy luncheon. I was one of the lucky few hauled up to the front to answer some spur of the moment questions. I gracefully sucked the lettuce out of my teeth and tried my best to be charming and charismatic. I was asked, “Who do you enjoy working with the most here, who do you think is the best teacher, and what makes Merola the best program for young singers?” (One thing I’ve noticed about being interviewed is that people are always looking for the dirt. They want the nitty gritty gossip. I’ve never been able to deliver those goods convincingly. People who can? I applaud you, and please teach me your ways.)
I had one of those slow motion movie moments. I glanced around the room and saw all of my new friends. I saw Andy in the corner looking worried because his Mom just had a health scare and he was far from home, I saw Wendy smiling beautifully and chatting with donors like a pro, and I saw a lot of happy but exhausted faces. We had been working our butts off six days a week, trying to soak up any and all information that we could, turn around and spit it out on stage as perfectly as we could. Our minds, bodies and entire souls were happy, inspired, and absolutely bone-weary. Bless them all. I just wanted to hug each and every one of them, and then take a big group nap. Somewhere out of nowhere I formed an answer:
“The thing about Merola is this: You have amazing teachers and coaches and mentors who have profoundly shaped our musical lives and most likely our careers. The thing that makes this program so wonderful isn’t who the best teacher is, it’s that you meet 30 other like-minded, passionate and talented people. The friends I have made here will most likely last my lifetime. These people here in this luncheon make the difference. Merola has given me something you can’t pay for, and for that I will be forever grateful.”
Not too shabby Roz! Beats my first day speech, and I only barely felt like projectile vomiting. This was progress.
I’m not the best when it comes to details. I can’t remember the finite moments of a conversation or event, which frustrates the crap out of my dear friend Heidi. (“I don’t know what he said exactly! He asked me to marry him and I said yes. What more do you need?”) However, every year on June 7th, I ALWAYS remember every single detail of my first day at Merola. Then, I take a stroll down memory lane and remember that luncheon, (and I usually text my dear friend Andy) and I recall what it felt like to stand on that stage for the first time. I stood on the San Francisco Opera stage and there was not an ounce of vomit in my throat (Again! Progress!) No sweating, and no need to locate the closest ladies room. I knew I belonged there and that I had the invisible support of operatic legends who came before. They were there gently shoving me into the spotlight and reassuring me that I was not alone and that I was in the right place at the right time. I felt calm, which was a welcome feeling considering how much public speaking I had been doing.
While I wholly respect and admire the big-wig who scared the crap out of us on day one, I stood on that stage and I thought, “You’re wrong.” Well, not COMPLETELY wrong. Some of those things are partially true, but I think that counsel left out an important piece of the puzzle, which is something my long time teacher, Nancy Hermiston calls, “The Power of Roz.” What does that even mean? I didn’t really know until recently, but to me it means that I can and will do whatever I want at any time and nobody is going to tell me otherwise or get in my way. I’m not really afraid of all the negative fear inducing crap that everyone tells me over and over, because I’m more interested in the stuff that I’m good at. I’m good at singing. I’m good at performing. I’m good at working my ass off. I’m good at traveling on short notice in a small suitcase, and I’m good at making connections with people that last a lifetime. The rest of it, I don’t really care about because it doesn’t serve me, or my intentions. Besides, all that worry, stress and self-doubt will probably give me wrinkles and I’m not interested in those either. So, I hereby make Roz Power Exclamation Point my own personal mantra. It makes me feel like Xena the Warrior Princess, or She-ra (Princess of Power!) I could use a dose of that kick in the pants confidence booster every once in a while. Who couldn’t? I think every person on this planet needs something like that. Beyonce has her kick-ass alter ego Sasha Fierce, so why can’t we?
Yesterday, I picked up my husband from the San Francisco Opera House where he works as a (strong, hunky) stagehand, and I could see a few new Merola students lingering outside the stage door in my side view mirror. I wondered if anyone had given them their pep talk. I wondered what they were feeling after their first day(s) of the program and if they were feeling any of the same things I felt. One of them started to walk towards my car talking on their cell phone. As they passed my car window I heard them talking. “Oh my goodness it’s so amazing! I got to see the stage and it’s so big and beautiful! Everyone is really nice and the teachers are incredible and I’m just so happy I get to be here. I just can’t believe I got in!”
Believe it, honey. You belong here. Exclamation Point.