Singer Spotlight: Emily Pulley

Singer Spotlight: Emily Pulley

Whether singing Blanche in Dialogues of the Carmelites, Marguerite in Faust, and Musetta in La bohème at the Metropolitan Opera; Ruth in Pirates of Penzance with Nashville Opera, Zita in Tulsa Opera’s Gianni Schicchi, or portraying Sister 1 in the recent world premiere of Stephen Eddin’s Why I live at the P.O. with DC’s Urban Arias, Emily Pulley continues to prove that she is one of opera’s most versatile artists working today. Beginning her career as a lyric soprano, she has morphed into a performer who sings a variety of roles that suit her crystalline timbre, clear diction, and strong stage savvy. 

Now billed as a mezzo soprano, Emily is entering her fourth decade in opera. She has seen the industry transform into a space that continues to embrace the traditional while making room for the new, sees it developing a greater eye towards diversification of repertoire, and is now a place where artists are embracing unique and individualistic career paths.

What are some of the changes you’ve seen in the opera industry? What are some of the changes you’ve experienced as an artist?

One the biggest changes I have seen in the opera industry is its attitude toward musical theatre. It used to be that you absolutely had to choose between classical music and Broadway, but now you are almost expected to be able to sing both styles well, which is great news for us opera folk who were raised on musicals. Another positive change is that there seems to be less snobbery when it comes to teaching or having a “side hustle” in addition to performing. While I realize that it’s the result of fewer singers being able to have full-time careers due to financial constraints, it does allow young singers to make better decisions and not-so-young singers to continue to perform as long as they want to. Like opera and musical theatre, it has become a both/and rather than an either/or proposition. 


And I think we’re finally recognizing that every career path is different: you don’t have to follow a pre-determined route or have a designated number of gigs per year to be considered a successful artist, nor do you have to put performing aside simply because you’ve reached a certain age. Over ten years ago, a well-meaning friend said to me, “Aren’t you about ready to make your transition into academia?” It felt like she was saying, “Time to hang it up, sister!” I love teaching, but I don’t know that full-time academia is in my future, and I’m glad it’s becoming less of an expectation. Still, I’m so pleased to see so many of my colleagues somehow balancing full-time teaching with active performing careers.

You spent a good deal of your career covering other artists at the Met. What was that like? How did you prepare as an artist knowing that you might not get to go on? What are some the best stories from that period of your career?

During the Volpe administration at the Met, it was rare not to get at least one scheduled performance of the role you were covering, and that really changed how you felt about the assignment. One season, I performed four new lead roles: Blanche (Dialogues), Anne Trulove, Thérèse (Les mamelles de Tirésias), and Marguerite, all without any stage time. I created my own additional rehearsal process and would often walk the role in the room after everyone left and then mark through it in my apartment at night, much to the confused annoyance of my cats. It was admittedly rather stressful at times, but I had absolute faith in stage management, the backstage crew, and the prompters. 

While it can feel a bit like walking around in someone else’s shoes because you’re having to recreate the blocking rather than discovering your own, I did enjoy that combination of preparation and problem solving, and it made me quite fearless. I had three hours’ notice before my Covent Garden debut as Mimì, and I think the reason I was able to remain relatively calm was because of all the experience I had performing under similar circumstances. When starting a new cover assignment, I often introduced myself to the person I was understudying by telling her I was her “designated stalker” (sitting in the dark, watching her every move), and I got to stalk some really terrific singers.

Two of my favorites were Renée Fleming and Dawn Upshaw, both of whom were unfailingly kind and treated me as a colleague and friend. Of course, I did have one assignment where my boss told me that I had been put on the show because they “needed me in the room,” as the woman I was covering wasn’t on speaking terms with the tenor she was playing opposite and might choose to walk out or simply not show up at all. When she did show up, my job was to break the tension with humor whenever necessary, which was a challenge I happily accepted. I think both she and the tenor looked on me as a sort of odd, harmless puppy, and we got through the run without bloodshed.

You now straddle the lines of soprano and mezzo. What prompted going in that direction and what have you discovered about your voice/technique now that you fach hop?

There’s a scene in Pretty Woman where Edward asks Vivian, “What’s your name?” and she replies, “What do you want it to be?” That’s basically my approach to fach nowadays. I’ve always been a live low/visit high kind of soprano, so the addition of mezzo rep was purely practical, in that I wanted to explore roles that I wouldn’t age out of. I’m really enjoying playing character roles, which are few and far between as a soprano, and it’s nice not to have to worry about keeping my larynx from flying out and hitting the ceiling. I actually have a made-up word for that feeling I get when I hear someone else singing something particularly difficult, especially something that I used to sing: Schaden-ein-anderer-muß-es-singen-freude. (Loosely translated: Malicious joy about those other singers that have to perform that challenging music.)

Heraclitus probably wasn’t thinking about vocal technique when he posited that the only constant in life is change, but it definitely applies. I have always told young singers, especially females, that, even if they have their absolute perfect sound figured out, they are going to spend the rest of their lives adjusting to how their voice changes, on a daily basis and over the years. And that’s what a good, solid technique eventually becomes: the ability to adapt to your circumstances in a healthy way, using all the tools you have acquired. I have found that I usually gain something new when I allow myself to let go of something that no longer works for me, whether it’s just discovering a new color in my tone or sometimes a whole new approach to certain notes or phrases. That being said, I’m also grateful for the “transpose” option when purchasing PDFs online so I don’t have to let go of songs that I love because they don’t fit in the high key anymore. As I like to say, “Old sopranos never die; they just get taken down a third.”

How have you stayed motivated, particularly when things shifted in your career?

The biggest shift in my career happened when the current Met administration took over. As was the case with many of my colleagues there, I was unceremoniously kicked to the curb and found myself with a somewhat empty calendar, as I had been spending the majority of my time singing whatever they needed, whenever they needed me. A younger singer asked me how I dealt with that rejection, and I told him that I had tried being angry and bitter, but I just couldn’t sustain it. I think I was able to stay motivated largely because of the encouragement from people in the business whom I trusted, and I still rely heavily on that during my darker times. 


Thankfully, there were other companies that were glad to hire me, and I was able to carve out a niche for myself regionally. To be honest, most of my best artistic experiences have been with smaller companies, especially those organizations that are willing to take a chance on new and non-standard repertoire. And now I’m beginning to establish myself as a director as well, which has given me a whole new perspective on this art form. But I think my main motivation now is the sincere desire to keep working, in whatever capacity, so that I can (hopefully) be a worthy role model and source of support for the next generation of singers. Flicka (Frederica von Stade) is one of my greatest inspirations, as much for who she is offstage as for her beautiful singing. I remember coming to the realization that, while I would never be as famous as Flicka, I could certainly strive to be as gracious as Flicka, and that’s something that I actually do have some control over, even when, uh, shift happens. 

What roles do you have coming up in the future?

When I finish singing Ježibaba with Opera Orlando, my next project is directing and singing the Old Lady in a semi-staged Candide with Wichita Grand Opera, followed by singing the Mother and the Witch in Hänsel und Gretel with Eugene Opera.

Finally, what is the best advice you’ve ever received?

I’m going to start with the worst advice I’ve ever received, which was, “If it doesn’t look and sound difficult, it isn’t exciting.” Yeah, that led to some truly impressive jaw tension and enough subglottal pressure to power a small turbine-generator. As for the best advice, that probably came from the late, great Charlie Riecker, an artistic liaison at the Met, who told me, “Em, you don’t want to be a star. A star is a big, hot ball of gas that burns out. You want to be a comet; it just keeps coming back again and again.”

Eric McKeever

Eric McKeever is a New York-based opera singer whose 2022–23 season includes performances with Opera Columbus, On Site Opera, Opera Delaware, the Penn Square Music Festival, and the Casals Festival of Puerto Rico. He is also a passionate arts educator having worked as a teaching artist for the Met Opera Guild and served as the manager of education programs for Kentucky Opera. He holds a Master of Music degree in Vocal Performance from The Ohio State University and obtained his bachelor’s degree in Vocal Performance from Capital University.