Sue Harper: The Art of the Lyric Soprano
If you've bought shoes from a petite blond humming a few bars from Strauss' Allerseelen, or muttering a lyric or two in Italian, chances are you've met Elaina Moreau. Elaina is living her dream of becoming a classical opera singer, something she's wanted to do from the age of five.
In May, this 19 year old was accepted to both the
Manhattan School of Music and Toronto's Glenn Gould School. She
could choose only one. Toronto offered an 80% tuition scholarship and
a Performance Diploma, but couldn't provide room and
board. Manhattan School of Music's offer included residence and a
full degree-granting program. Elaina opted for Manhattan. Until
she leaves she'll be working two jobs to contribute what she can
towards her tuition and board.
Elaina's lyric soprano is well known in Okanagan music circles. In 2007 alone, she was the youngest person chosen for a Master Class with Ben Heppner and was invited to attend a voice camp in Utah with Dolora Zajick (a world renowned opera singer). She won "Intermediate Classical Voice" at the Performing Arts BC Provincial Competition. That summer she played Minnie Fay in the Kelowna Actors Studio's Hello Dolly and was the Youth winner at the PNE's "Talent Showdown." She topped off her stellar year performing with the Okanagan Symphony at "Festival of Christmastide".
Despite this critical acclaim, one local professional musician, wearing his cynic's hat, suggested that the ingénue might be better off finding a rich husband rather than trying to break into the operatic scene not because she lacked talent, but because it is so difficult.
While Elaina is well aware of the challenges of her chosen career, she is fiercely determined. This determination helped her wait patiently through nine years of piano before she was allowed to start voice lessons. She says, "I wanted to sing when I was very young and my mother was taking piano lessons from Roslyn Frantz. She knew that Roslyn did some vocal coaching and she brought me to her. [Roslyn] told me that five year olds don't sing they play piano. She told me I could sing at 10, then at 10 it was twelve then at 12 it was 13 and finally I got to sing." Frantz introduced Elaina to Helga Tucker who has been her vocal teacher ever since.
Elaina is well aware that in music, just as in most other businesses, who you know is almost as important to success as what you know. Contacts she made through opportunities like the Ben Heppner Master Class have given her an advantage. She may never have applied to The Curtis Institute in Philadelphia or the famous Julliard School in New York if it hadn't been for Craig Rutenberg (San Francisco Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra) and Steven Philcox (vocal coach and assistant conductor with the Canadian Opera Company, 2007) "When Craig Rutenberg came up to me at the Ben Heppner Master Class and gave me his card he said 'You should be going to these camps and here's my e-mail address and I'll stay in contact with you and let you know about teachers.'" Steven Philcox suggested she try for Curtis and Julliard. "It's really important for us as young singers who have no idea where to go ... to experience that."
Unfortunately who you know is not enough to get you into a famous music school. Elaina had to submit pre-screening CD's to each school showing her ability to perform classical pieces in a variety of languages.
Submitting the pre-screen CD is often the point at which young musicians' hopes are dashed. At The Curtis Institute of Music, one of the world's leading music schools, of the many submissions, only 45 applicants were given live auditions. Elaina was one of them.
Elaina's pre-screen CD's resulted in 4 live auditions: Glenn Gould, Manhattan, Julliard and Curtis. She had to prepare a minimum of 3 pieces for each of them. Of course, classical singers don't perform without musical accompaniment. For 3 of her 4 auditions she chose accompanists who practiced her music and rehearsed with her briefly before the audition. For the fourth, she met her accompanist the moment she stepped onto the stage. Canadian Idol has nothing on an audition for a music school. The panel of judges number between 8 and 10 at each school.
Singing is not all an applicant has to do to achieve entry into a music program. During a call-back at Julliard, Elaina took additional tests in sight singing, ear training, harmony and theory and was expected to know the complete history of one of her songs. Finally, she was sent to a diction coach to determine how well she took instruction. That call-back was an hour and a half! Out of hundreds of auditions, approximately 50 people across 5 voice types got to the call-back stage. Out of those, only 18 were accepted. "Before I went, it was really more about seeing how far I could get. I had been in this sheltered little pod for such a long time, I had no idea how I was going to compare to people from all over Canada and the United the States and people coming from Europe and Asia." Clearly, she compared very well.
Elaina thinks about the average 5-year career span of most opera singers. "How on earth am I supposed to compete with the other thousands of lyric sopranos who are out there trying to do this right now?" She says, "The things that keep me going are getting the acknowledgement from Craig Rutenberg and getting the acknowledgement from Stuart Hamilton [Order of Canada, 2000 Rubies Award for great achievement in the world of opera], Steven Philcox getting those people who come in and say, you've got something that's really special. You may not know because you haven't been out there, but we have, and we really think you can do this."
Elaina chooses to ignore the cynics. She's thrilled, excited and a little bit scared about her new life in Manhattan. But the Okanagan hasn't seen the last of her. She'd like to give back to the community that has supported her. This year she chose not to compete at Kiwanis. Instead, she blocked and coached musical theatre numbers for 6 young singers in Kelowna. The Junior and Intermediate/Senior Musical Theatre Awards were given to two students with whom Elaina had worked. A third singer Elaina helped prepare for the Penticton competition was invited to go on to provincials in Intermediate Musical Theatre. Maybe some day these young women will look back and say, "We knew Elaina Moreau when ..."