Finding my voice again
How Did We Get Here?
It might seem quaint by today's standards, but my family has a family business. I'm in the same industry as my parents and grandparents before me. What is, perhaps, more unusual, is that my family business is entertainment. My mother is a singer, actress, and songwriter. My stepfather is a music producer and recording engineer, and the owner of one of the top music studios in Honolulu, Hawaii. I was, quite literally, raised in a recording studio. The first time I appeared on a commercial recording, I was three years old, and by the time I was thirteen, I was a professional in-house studio singer.
Music is, and has always been, the most important part of my life. When I was in high school, I was a soloist in the select choir at Punahou School (Obama's alma mater!) and the Hawaii All-State Honor Choir. I studied classical voice with two amazing women, Neva Rego and Betty Grierson. I performed in musicals at my high school and at local theatres. I sang in the opera chorus for Hawaii Opera Theatre. And I appeared on literally hundreds of albums, singing harmonies and occasionally lead vocals in a wide range of styles: jazz, Polynesian, new age, folk, musical theatre, and even Tokyo pop.
(Me now vs me in high school)
I was blessed to have parents who not only supported my career choice, they understood it, and helped me to prepare for a future in the sometimes precarious world of performance. They never told me to prepare for a backup career. Instead, they encouraged me to become as educated as possible within my chosen career path. Even though my family sometimes struggled financially, my parents always found a way to get me the best training available. They weren't stage parents either. When I was in a show, my mother dropped me off and picked me up. She never sat in the back of the theatre pantomiming at me to smile bigger, the way some other parents did. They let me pick the opportunities I wanted to pursue, and never, ever imposed their own agenda.
When I finished high school, I was SURE I was on the fast track to success as a performer. Life doesn't always turn out quite the way you expect. I attended the University of Southern California as a classical voice major, on a full scholarship, but I barely finished my first year. A personally devastating experience at a frat party early in my second semester left me traumatized and unable to focus. The only class I didn't fall behind in was my private voice lessons. I might have found a way to pull myself together were it not for a very upsetting exchange with my voice teacher, a very well-known singer and a former Metropolitan Opera Auditions winner.
One day, during Pride, I came into my lesson wearing a small rainbow pin. I had recently "come out" as bisexual, and it was my first Pride. My teacher took one look at my pin and launched into a deeply offensive speech about how, as an opera singer, "one must avoid controversy". Being queer, according to her, was just not socially acceptable in the world of opera. If she were to be believed, I had to choose between living my life in the closet and having the career I had dreamt of since I was thirteen. So I left. I left USC. I left opera. I decided that maybe I needed a different path - one that would accept me as I was. And at the time, that looked like musical theatre.
My early twenties were plagued by self-doubt. I was intimidated by all the young women with perfect bodies and cheerleader smiles. Most of the auditions I came across in LA were for shows that didn't need classically trained singers, and every other casting notice read "model types only". I was actually in fairly good shape, but body dysmorphia crippled me, and if I'm honest, I barely went out for any auditions. At my most anorexic, I was cast in the lead role in an independent vampire film that went no where, and I sang in a couple of different bands, but all in all, I put my career on hold because I was convinced that I was too fat to get cast. It was always "after I lose 20 pounds."
Then one day, at about 25 years old, everything changed. After an evening of dancing, I woke up the next morning and couldn't stand up. Something was wrong with my knees, and they just buckled under me when I put any weight on them. Little did I know this was only the beginning of what would be a seven-year struggle to get a diagnosis for a condition that caused joint instability, mind-numbing pain and a range of other life-changing symptoms. Eventually I would find out that I have a rare genetic illness called Vascular Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, which causes my collagen to form incorrectly, resulting in hyper-mobility, and extreme fragility of joints, connective tissue, skin, veins and organ walls. As my condition worsened over the following years I went from walking independently, to using a cane, then forearm crutches, and finally, to using a wheelchair at least 80% of the time. Suddenly it was crystal clear that I had wasted my healthy years on self doubt. As much pressure as there was to be skinny in the industry, it was nothing compared to the ableism that pervaded the theatre world.
I gave up.
I believed that I had squandered my chance to be a performer. If I was intimidated before, it was 1000 times worse now that I couldn't even get through the backstage doors of most theatres. (The theatre world is NOT wheelchair friendly, in general.) I mourned the life I had dreamed of having.
And then I made a new choice. I might not be able to be a big Broadway star, but I could still CREATE theatre. After all, I wasn't just a performer. I was also a writer. I wrote my first musical at nine years old, a full-length children's theatre production called Running Away to Broadway, which was produced by a professional theatre company in Honolulu. I decided I wanted to create shows for Cirque du Soleil.
So I went back to school. I did my undergraduate studies at the Academy of Art University, again on a full scholarship. I created my own major, which I designed to give me the visual vocabulary to create experiential circus shows like Cirque's. I took classes in costuming, sculpture, illustration and fine art. In my senior year, I led a team of top students in a large-scale project to create a Cirque-type show. Although it was never produced, it did earn us a fair bit of attention from the administration of Cirque du Soleil, with whom I developed a long-term relationship. After I graduated from AAU, I got a graduate assistantship in the theatre program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. There, my partner, Lorien Patton, and I started writing a musical called Dublin Rising (currently in commercial development with Michael Cramer and Hannah Edwards at Epic Fog Productions). After I graduated with my Master's in Theatre, I moved to New York with my partners in order to continue developing the show.
By this time, I had discovered something startling. While I was in art school, my schedule was so intense that I basically didn't sing for four years. After I graduated from AAU, I immediately started singing again to prep for being in a graduate theatre program. First of all, it took me a couple of months to get my voice back in shape. Because I had sung nearly every day of my life since I was three, I had never experienced what it was like to be vocally "out of shape". It was very, very strange for me. But I soon realized that it was more than a question of practice.
My voice had changed. A LOT. Even in high school, I had a strong low end and a rich, mezzo-like tone, but back then I had been a coloratura soprano. I topped out at an E6, and I absolutely adored fioratura bel canto music. My competition piece back then was "Una Voce Poco Fa", but in the soprano key with excessive ornamentation. After AAU, at 33 years old, my voice was much, much bigger than it had been before, and my old technique was not really working for me anymore. My high notes felt tight and shrill, and my tessitura had lowered considerably. I had to figure out a new way of singing that gave my voice the room to resonate properly.
Over the next few years I worked hard to get my voice back into shape. I sang the role of Frasquinella in Sin City Opera's production of La Périchole, but I focused mostly on concert repertoire and Ladino music (Judeo-Spanish music) since I didn't see a lot of prospects for myself on stage. After I moved to New York, I had some Church jobs and I sang in the workshop readings of my show. I was beginning to suspect that I had become a mezzo, but since I wasn't really singing a lot of opera, it didn't come up often.
In November 2019 I had an opportunity to sing in a concert with a small independent opera company. Although the audience was quite small, the feedback I got from other performers and from the audience members who stuck around after the show made me start to wonder if there might be a place for me in the classical world even now.
Then came the pandemic.
Now, I realize that for most performers COVID-19 has been devastating. But for me, as a disabled singer, COVID opened up opportunities that had never been available to me before. Competitions went online. Performances went online. It didn't matter that I was in a wheelchair, because no one could even see my legs. The opera company I sang with in 2019 even presented me with an opportunity to sing a major role in an opera: Pamina in Die Zauberflöte. Now, you may be wondering what a dramatic mezzo would be doing singing Pamina, and you'd be right. It's not exactly a ... traditional ... casting choice. And it immediately presented me with some challenges, since I still hadn't fully resolved the tightness in my high end. That's when I decided I needed to start taking voice lessons again.
In August of last year I started studying with Abby Powell, a wonderful, Juilliard-trained dramatic mezzo who helped me to open up my high notes again, and with whom I finally figured out my fach. I never did get to sing Pamina. The small company producing it sort of petered out during the pandemic. But working with Abby shifted something inside of me. She started to make me believe that I could still have an opera career - that there's something special about me, my voice, and what I bring to the stage. She encouraged me to enter competitions (those few that are open to singers over 35), and to apply to programs like this one. She helped me build an entirely new repertoire geared toward the voice I have now, rather than the voice I had when I was 20. And she was one of many voices in my life telling me that times had changed, and that now, companies were not only willing to overlook my disability, but even to see it as an advantage, adding to the diversity and representation on-stage.
Which brings us up to this moment. New York Dramatic Voices will be my first Young Artist Program. I feel blessed to have been cast in one of the great mezzo roles: Azucena in Verdi's Il Trovatore. I love the music. I feel deeply connected to the character. I feel like I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be. I haven't felt this hopeful about my future as a performer since I was in high school.
In the coming weeks, I hope you will join me in this journey. I'll tell you about how I'm preparing for the program, the challenges that come up as I study this new repertoire, and how I'm growing through this process. The future is wide open, and for the first time in a long time, I see myself playing a starring role.