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Operatic Education Adventures

Malinda Wagstaff

The Backstory

The story of life

How Did I Get Here?

I recently graduated from one of the top music schools in the country, The Eastman School of Music. However, music was not always my career plan. I grew up in a city in Eastern Washington. I started taking voice lessons in high school, and I was fortunate enough to find a friendly, talented, and supportive teacher. I was active in musical theatre in high school, but if I am being honest I was active in everything in high school. I played volleyball, served as student body president, participated in knowledge bowl, went to math competitions, and took as many classes as I could. This desire to participate in everything led me to the University of Rochester, which is renowned for its dual-degree program. I was excited to study biology and vocal performance. I knew a little about opera before I started singing, and my high school teacher opened my eyes to more about the world of classical voice. I had no idea, however, what it would really be like to be a student of opera. 

I soon found myself roughly 2,500 miles from my hometown and everything I knew. I was surrounded by people who had been studying their instruments since they were old enough to hold them. There were definitely times I felt that I was far out of my league. Gradually, I adjusted to life in Western New York and life at a music school. By the end of my first year, I was absorbed by the world of classical music. Hearing that music every day had changed my outlook on life. I boldly decided to focus all of my time on opera, rather than splitting my time between two degrees. I learned more than I knew possible. I learned to speak new languages. I learned about the history of music. I studied music marketing and acting. I learned about the cognitive connection between the mind and music. Along the way, I made some of the best friends I've ever had, and I had some truly amazing experiences. 

I had the opportunity to further my operatic studies through summer programs in Atlanta, Georgia, and Prague, Czech Republic. The program in Atlanta was primarily focused on American opera. We performed "The Ballad of Baby Doe" by Douglas Moore and "Little Women" by Mark Adamo. I was "upgraded" to be given a new role in "The Ballad of Baby Doe" a few weeks before the program began. I spent most of my time in rehearsals for that show, chorus numbers for "Little Women," acting classes, movement classes, and professional development courses. 

In the Czech Republic, I performed in "Le Nozze di Figaro" and "Don Giovanni." I studied acting, Czech Diction, and music. We also performed scenes from Czech Operas. I found a great passion for Czech music and left singing more and more pieces from this beautiful language. It was one of the greatest memories of my life. Prague is the most beautiful city on Earth, and I am counting down the days until I can sing there again. 

While at school, I had the opportunity to sing for the operatic legend Dawn Upshaw. I performed in the shows "L'enfant et les Sortilèges," "Into the Woods" and "Sweeney Todd" with my classmates. I also sang with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra in a production of "The Mother of Us All," which tells the story of Susan B. Anthony's fight for women's suffrage. That opera was my favorite.

I learned more than I could imagine about music theory, music history, opera, and stagecraft. I made friendships that I hope will last a lifetime. I performed in beautiful theatres with amazing musicians. I found my voice teacher and lifelong mentor. Through all of the days I felt homesick and overwhelmed, I got to hear beautiful music to inspire me and get me through. Now, I'm a stronger singer, a better friend, and a more confident person.

Slideshow

Images of the memorable moments

Moments Along the Way

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Angel More- "The Mother of Us All"

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2nd Spirit- The Magic Flute

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Countess Charlotte in "A Little Night Music"

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Post-Handel's Messiah concert

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After the Civic Morning Musicals competition

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After the International Czech and Slovak Voice competition

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After our last day of choir

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Performing on the radio after my symphony debut was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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The cast of "The Mother of Us All" with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra

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During the Coeur d'Alene Symphony Orchestra Competition

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Le Nozze di Figaro, Prague

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My costume for the operas in Prague

Stories

The memorable moments

Moving to New York

Moving to New York

The Saga Begins

Moving 2,500 miles away from my hometown made me feel like Samwise leaving the Shire. I knew I was about to experience a great adventure, but I also knew I would miss my family and friends and the city that had become so familiar to me. 

During orientation week, I was inspired by the diversity of backgrounds represented by my new colleagues. I met students from all over the world who played all kinds of instruments. I only got lost in the tunnels underneath the theatre one time, and the beauty of the campus (which opened in 1921) was well worth the circuitous route I had to take in order to get to a practice room. 

Although I could not initially connect with all of my classmates, I did find people with whom I could relate. During my first Shakespearean literature class, I met the person who would later become one of my best friends and roommates. During my acting class, I met a future business partner and friend. I soon learned that although moving from home was scary, and although I did not know my classmates, we all had at least one thing in common: we turned to music to get us through difficult times. 

 

National Women's Conference

National Women's Conference

An Inspirational Adventure

As a first-year student, I sang in the women's chorus with several of my friends. That year we woke up at 4:00 am to travel to Seneca Falls where we attended the National Women's Conference. We attended workshops about both women's history and the place women have in the world today. After the conference, we performed selections by female composers and suffragette anthems. It was inspiring to stand in such a historical place and sing these important songs. We were all exhausted by the time we finished singing, but the fun wasn't over! We visited the National Women's Hall of Fame. I loved reading about women in history that I did not know. I also was thrilled to see some of my heroes and role models immortalized in the museum. As a child I looked up to Amelia Earhart so much and I ended up doing reports on her in 1st grade, middle school, and as a junior in high school. The hall of fame has shoes she wore on one of her record breaking flights, letters she wrote, and a life-size cardboard cutout of the famed pilot. This trip set the ground for many of the adventures I would have at school. Studying classical music means being deeply informed about the past and what shaped the music of the time. It simultaneously requires an awareness of the world in which we currently live and how we play a part in it. Learning about women's suffrage and singing for the national women's conference was the perfect blend of learning from the past and stepping into the future. 

Tosca

Tosca

My Professional Debut

During the summer after my first year at college, I auditioned to sing in the chorus of "Tosca" for an opera company in my hometown. I was so excited to be cast and to work on the show. The chorus does not sing much in Tosca, but I was excited just to be on stage and to learn from all of the professional singers. Listening to the music every day opened the door to a passion for Puccini that I did not know I had, but that proved to shape the next years of my life. 

At the beginning of Act III of Tosca, there is a small solo generally sung by a boy soprano. For our production, they decided to audition for the solo from members of the chorus. I practiced those couple of pages of music until I could sing them in my sleep. Many of the members of the chorus were several years older than I was, so their voices had more chance to mature. On top of that, I was very unbelieving in my own abilities at the time. One day during rehearsal, without much warning, we lined up and auditioned. I was pleased with how I did, but I knew that several other factors would likely contribute to the ultimate decision. 

After a week, we had still not heard about who was offered the solo. One singer asked about being able to audition, and she was told "That decision was already made." I assumed that since I had not heard, this surely meant that I did not get it. However, the next day I received an e-mail offering me the solo. My hard work had paid off, and I was so excited to sing the solo in front of the professional singers. The woman singing the role of Tosca started to take me under her wing and mentor me throughout the rest of the production. I spent so much time backstage watching rehearsals for the scenes I was not in that one of the singers joked that I "came out of the womb with a Tosca score in my hand." 

The production lasted several days, and I can honestly say that it was a turning point in my career. I realized that I was more capable than I thought. The production was very unique. Normally Tosca is set in the Napoleonic era, but this particular production was set in modern times. It was the first production like that I had ever seen or been a part of, and it spoke to how relevant the stories of opera are, even if they were written years ago. I also found that I loved Puccini and I would work with everything I had to sing more of his music.  

Into the Woods

Into the Woods

My College Performance Debut

First-year students at my school were not allowed to audition for the operas, so when I began my second year, I was thrilled to see that a University student group would be performing Stephen Sondheim's "Into the Woods." I auditioned with a musical theatre piece I had sung since High School, and I was excited to meet students from the other campus of my school who also loved performing. 

I was cast as Jack's Mother, and I quickly jumped into rehearsals with the other students. Two of my friends from German class were in the production as well, and we would drive over to rehearsals together. Because it was a student-led production, we were in charge of all of the aspects of the show ourselves as well as our regular school work. This meant that rehearsals often began at 11 o'clock at night, and after they finished I had to prepare for an 8:30 music theory class the next day. Those rehearsals were not my favorite, but having the opportunity to sing and act with my peers was a worthwhile learning experience. 

Our performance came shortly after Thanksgiving break, and it was amazing to see all of our hard work come together in a work that we could share with our friends and family members. The biggest lessons I learned from this experience were: if everyone is all-in for a project, no matter how many setbacks you face you can get through and no matter what happens, as a performer your job is to tell the story. These stories were written for a reason and it is your job to reach your audience and give them an escape from the world around them. 

Harrower Summer Opera

Harrower Summer Opera

Singing in Georgia

During the summer after my sophomore year, I traveled to Atlanta Georgia where I participated in the Harrower Summer Opera Program. 

I applied for the program mostly because I had family in the area, so I knew I would have a connection if I needed it. However, I was excited about the prospect of performing more and taking intensive classes in acting and movement. I knew that meeting new people and hearing different explanations for singing and performing would catapult me to the next level of my development. 

I originally applied to be in the chorus, because I was going through some changes in the way I thought about vocal technique, and I knew I had more work to do. Luckily for me, though, I was given the opportunity to try more than I thought I was originally capable of. The director of the program contacted me shortly after my admission and informed me that although I was not a mezzo-soprano, he could hear that I had very comfortable access to low notes (this was something I was very proud of), and they would need this skill. They had a mezzo-soprano role that needed filled, and they believed I was the best person to sing it. I asked my mentor what she thought, and she encouraged me to go for it. Next thing I knew I was staying up until midnight studying the role of Effie in "The Ballad of Baby Doe," because I was too excited to sleep. 

Moving to Georgia for the month was an exciting experience. My roommates were wonderful people who were a joy to meet. We enjoyed hanging out outside of rehearsal. One of my roommates was in both of the operas with me, which meant we had a very tricky schedule to maintain, and I was glad to have someone understand the balance between running from the chorus of "Little Women" to running to a blocking rehearsal for "The Ballad of Baby Doe." We woke up every morning and began acting classes, movement classes, bodywork exercises, masterclasses with guest artists, and music business lectures. After lunch, we would rehearse late into the evening for our operas. 

After the first couple of weeks, we presented a scenes program with scenes from operas and musical theatre. One of my scenes was from "The Magic Flute" by Mozart. My other scene, though, was my favorite. I was in a scene with my roommate and one of my other friends. This scene was from "A Little Night Music" by Stephen Sondheim. Our scene had a lot of dialogue and characters who came and left, but our director had us all on stage the entire time and doing interpretive choreography. Choreography has never been my strongest point, but my scene partners and the director were all so helpful and I found a power in my performance and confidence in my movement abilities that I had never unlocked before. It was such a joy to perform. 

After the scenes program ended, we focused all of our energy on preparing the operas. Performing in two operas at the same time meant a lot of long nights and a lot of meetings to catch up on what was missed in one rehearsal while in rehearsal for another. About a week before the performance of "The Ballad of Baby Doe," our music director had to leave due to a personal emergency. I felt crushed. I had poured so much work into this show, and I had really grown to love it. I did not want to see it canceled. We had grown to trust that music director so much, so to suddenly lose that connection left us all feeling scattered. Luckily for us, one of the assistant music directors, a doctoral student, volunteered to step up and help us complete the show. Though it was not the way we had prepared 

Singing for Dawn Upshaw

Singing for Dawn Upshaw

Learning from the Masters

During my junior year in New York, I sang in a masterclass for Dawn Upshaw. Masterclasses in the classical music world generally work like this: a singer comes in and performs a piece. After singing, a "master" in the field (usually a well-established composer, performer, or director) works with the singer on elevating that performance. Dawn Upshaw is a singer who has performed opera and concert work all over the world. Her voice is beautiful and incredibly expressive, so singing in front of her made me feel NERVOUS! This performance was in front of all of the voice faculty, so I worried about looking like a fool in front of many of my peers, especially the older and more talented singers. 

On the day of the masterclass, I woke up early and had to miss my class to do my hair and makeup and warm up before singing. I took the time to meditate to calm my nerves before beginning. I selected a dress that made me feel confident. 

I had prepared two pieces to sing, but due to time constraints, they asked that we focus only on one. I sang "Si mes vers avaient des ailes" with a text by Victor Hugo. I am comfortable singing in French, because I have studied the French language for many years. Managing my nerves was a different story, though. Luckily Ms. Upshaw was incredibly kind. She asked about my vocal background. We then did some fun exercises where she even had everyone in the audience sing with me. 

After the performance, Ms. Upshaw gave me some personal advice for the next steps in my journey and it was very encouraging. It was such a joy to sing for someone with so much life experience and to learn from the skills she has worked to fine tune. 

Prague Summer Nights

Prague Summer Nights

Singing in Europe

In the summer after my junior year, I performed with the Prague Summer Nights Festival in the Czech Republic. I originally thought that I would be going to Prague and singing my assigned music, and that would be that. However, it proved to be one of the most influential learning experiences of my career thus far. 

We spent the first few weeks in a smaller city called Tábor. Not everyone in the city spoke English, so I tried to learn as much Czech as possible in order to be polite with the citizens there. It is one of the cutest cities in the world! There is a gelato shop right down the street from their theatre. One of my greatest joys while there was ordering gelato completely in Czech! During these two weeks, we met our castmates and directors. We also started acting classes and staging rehearsals for our mainstage operas, to be performed after we moved to Prague. The culmination of our work in Tàbor, however, was the highlight of my trip! We put together an opera scenes program, where we performed scenes from Czech operas. My scene was from an opera unknown to me before the program, called Jakobín by Antonin Dvorak (whose statue is featured in this photo). I fell in love with the music quickly. In fact, through singing this I fell in love with all of Dvorak's music. After years of working very hard, I felt like this was the first performance where I truly felt like I made it. My scene partner was a joy to work with and a very good colleague. We had so much fun performing our scene. On the night of the performance, though my nerves were high, I was excited to share the music with the local citizens. When we finished my triumphant high note, the audience kept clapping! They clapped the whole time we bowed! They clapped after I left the stage for several minutes! I've never had an audience be so excited for one of my performances. It is forever burned into my memory. 

After we left Tábor, we moved to Prague where we prepared for our performances of "Le Nozze di Figaro" and "Don Giovanni" (both operas by Mozart). I performed in the choruses of both operas. While I did not have as much solo music to prepare for these operas, my schedule was incredibly busy. I would leave rehearsal for one opera and run to a rehearsal for another. This often meant that my day started around 8 am and I did not get back to my room until 11 pm. It was worth all of the exhaustion and late-night food runs. We performed in the theatre where "Don Giovanni" premiered. The entire city was beautiful, with stunning architecture. The Estates Theatre, though, is a landmark not to be missed! The performances were of a caliber unknown to me before that point. The costumes were elegant and exciting, and the music sounded so wonderful. 

I fell in love with the palačinky (pancakes), the trdelník (chimney cakes), and the goulash. I could sit in a boat on the Charles River for hours and not be bored. The opera was amazing. I learned so much, and I anxiously await my next opportunity to perform in the Czech Republic. 

Coeur d'Alene Symphony Competition

Coeur d'Alene Symphony Competition

First Big Win

I have been participating in voice competitions since I started singing. I won several local competitions and enjoyed the experience to both compete and learn. During my senior year, I began entering the next level of competitions. These competitions are geared to singers of a higher level. The monetary prizes offered were worth more, and often there were other rewards, such as additional performance opportunities at stake. 

My first "big" win (though how can I discount my performances from the past?) was in the Coeur d'Alene Symphony's Young Artist Competition. I sent preliminary recordings in November during what turned out to be an incredibly stressful month, because I was applying for graduate schools at the same time and I had several other performances lined up. When I returned home for Thanksgiving, I was thrilled to receive an e-mail that I had qualified for the finals. 

In January of my senior year, I met with my pianist on the morning of the competition and was excited that she had listened to my recordings so she was already familiar with the way I sang my arias. I sang my signature aria from "The Bartered Bride," which I learned while studying in Prague the summer before. I also performed "Porgi amor" from Mozart's "Le Nozze di Figaro." The other singers performed well, so I was unsure what would happen. After deliberation, though, I was over-the-moon when they announced my name as the winner. My family was there to see me and support me for my first "professional" win. 

The win included a performance with the Symphony in March that was unfortunately canceled due to the Coronavirus pandemic. That news was one of the hardest moments amongst all of the cancellations I faced within those first weeks. However, the local radio station was very generous and gave us all a chance to perform our pieces on the radio. Even though it was not the performance I dreamed of, it reminded me that no matter how dark times may seem, we can celebrate and we can unite through music. 

Theatre Festival in Stratford, Canada

Theatre Festival in Stratford, Canada

University trip with my roommate!

Every year the town of Stratford in Canada hosts a theatre festival. The town is so cute. There are swans all over the river that runs through the town. There are literary-themed coffee shops and restaurants. All of the locals walk their dogs in the morning. It was like stepping into a storybook village. My roommate had attended the festival for years before, and she talked me into going during my senior year. My roommate and I rode on a bus from our city in Western New York to Stratford. We saw "The Merry Wives of Windsor," "The Neverending Story," "Little Shop of Horrors," and "Billy Elliot." If I'm being honest, my roommate was able to convince me to go purely to see "Little Shop of Horrors." I used to listen to the soundtrack on the bus ride to middle school every day, and I played Chiffon in a High School production. The "Little Shop" show was so good! The cast sounded fantastic! The costumes were sparkling and era-appropriate. The lighting and sets transformed the entire area. It was absolutely worth it. The show that struck me the most, though, was "The Merry Wives of Windsor." I was familiar with the story because I am a fan of Shakespeare and Verdi has an opera "Falstaff" based on the Shakespeare story. I had never read the play, though, so I was excited to see a live production. This particular production was set in the 1950s. As a fan of that fashion, I can say that I wanted to wear every single dress the leading ladies wore. The thrust stage (in this photo) set the players right into our audience. It was amazing. The comedy came through and proved one of my long-held opinions that Shakespeare is timeless. You know it's good theatre when it works in Elizabethan England and the 1950s. 

The trip only lasted a few days, but it felt like a trip out of the stress of life and into a fairytale. Stratford is a beautiful place, and its theatre festival is to die for. 

My New Studio Family

My New Studio Family

Finding My "People"

One of the most important assets a singer can have is the right teacher. The right teacher can meld a voice and shape a performer. They can help a singer navigate the tricky business of singing. And above all that: singing is a very emotional experience so it is crucial that a singer finds a teacher with whom they are truly comfortable. 

During my first couple of years at college, I studied with my first teacher. While he was very kind and encouraged me to seek new opportunities, the connection was not as strong as what I needed vocally. By fate, or a miracle, or both, I was able to find my mentor. During my sophomore year, my professor went on sabbatical. This meant that he was there for the first few weeks of each semester, and then he left and one of his college friends taught us. This "college friend" turned out to be an angel in my life. Ruth Hennessy showed me that there was size and strength to my voice. She taught me how to breathe. She helped me rebuild emotionally after experiences that had nearly shattered my confidence. Again, by some miracle, she was able to substitute for another teacher at the school after that year, so I was able to continue my studies with her. During my senior year, I made more vocal progress than I made in most of the rest of my life combined. I developed warmth and strength to my vocal tone. 

Although I was nervous to switch teachers, I was welcomed by my new studio-mates. They were kind and accepting and the warm environment helped me vocally and emotionally in more ways than I can count. 

The Mother of Us All

The Mother of Us All

The Big Leagues

During my senior year I had the amazing opportunity to sing in "The Mother of Us All" with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. This opera was written by Virgil Thomson with a libretto by Gertrude Stein. The opera tells the story of Susan B. Anthony and her fight for women's suffrage. The text is...not typical. There is a lot of wordplay, and the timing is not always chronological. That being said, the show is whimsical and incredibly fun. 

I performed the role of Angel More, who is described as the "part angel, part ghost, part ingénue, former sweetheart of Daniel Webster." Daniel Webster is the closest thing to an antagonist that the show has (since "women not being able to vote" is not personified). Daniel Webster was famous for having, in my words, the biggest baddest voice in the nation. He was a lawyer with so much tenacity that there is a short story about Daniel Webster outsmarting the Devil. I was thrilled to sing the role of Angel because I have played a lot of birds, fairies, and angels, but I've never been able to actually wear wings for a show. I was nervous that the director would decide to let the wings go unused, so I was over the moon when during the first rehearsal she told me when to put on my wings. The act of wearing those wings was more than superficial, though, because they ended up creating a lot of inspiration for my characterization. In a way, I felt like Clarence in "It's a Wonderful Life" thinking about if I would earn my wings or not. In fact, it inspired two memes that you can see in my gallery. Although Angel More has seemingly returned to Earth in this show, her temperament has changed. In the first scene in which she appears, she seems to be the "ideal" woman of the past, singing about darning, washing, and patching. However, we soon learn that she intends to not be a martyr anymore. I took this to mean that she has decided to claim her place alongside the suffragettes. Angel More frequently sings with Daniel Webster, and I believe that this is because she knows that if anyone could change his mind, it would be the woman he never got over. So, at the end of the show, when he beautifully begs her to leave with him and she replies "Dear sir, not leave. Stay." we see that she has taken her stand. I worked on that line a lot with my teacher so that it would spin just right and convey the weight and strength of that moment. 

Performing with a professional orchestra was a truly gratifying experience. Many of the singers hired to sing the roles of Susan B. Anthony, Daniel Webster, John Adams, and others were professional singers who have graced stages like the Metropolitan Opera. I was terrified of messing up in front of them, but I was also entranced in trying to learn as much as I possibly could from these singers. Angel More sang several scenes with the professional singers, so I had to know their music as well as my own for the rehearsals before the professionals arrived. On top of all of that, the performance was in the largest hall at the school with a full orchestra. That can be intimidating for singers because the orchestra could bury a singer's voice. I was thrilled, though, because I have a larger voice and it was amazing to hear my voice echo through the theatre. I learned about shaking off mistakes and showing up to rehearsal prepared from the professional singers. 

The performance was a dream come true. The lights were beautiful, and I truly felt transported. I felt crushed to remove my wings, but I knew that I would always hold the memories of the experience in my heart. I even bought a necklace with angel wings on a pendant to remind me of the experience and the wonderful feelings I had performing the show. Whenever I am feeling negatively about my voice, I remember my angel wings and I feel better. 

Playlist

Every life composes a song or two

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