From CS Competition Winner to Diva

Gillian Hollis’s Lessons Learned

Gillian Hollis, the University Winner in 2012 CS Vocal Competition has found success and challenges since winning and she has some things she’s learned  about dealing with competitions that are worth any singer’s time.

   Gillian lives in Cleveland but works all over the Midwest. Last year she sang Berta in Barber of Seville with Cleveland Opera Theater. This past summer she had a solo recital and a musical theater review while an apprentice artist with Central City Opera, where she covered Queen of the Night and sang Isabelle/Madeline in The Face on the Barroom Floor.  This summer she’ll perform Mabel in The Pirates of Penzance with Opera North with more work already contracted as well.

1. As the University Winner of the 2012 CS Vocal Competition, what advice do you have for current competition participants?

Sing something that you LOVE, that makes you feel good, that you like to sing. Sing it like YOU. Most importantly, be gentle with yourself before, during, and especially after you sing. Competitions make for long, grueling weekends. Remember that you are there to sing, not to win. Winning is nice, yes, I’m not gonna lie. But I wish I had been kinder to myself in those days, I think I would have sung even better.

Gillias Hollis was the University Division winner of the 2012 CS Vocal Competition. The 2019 Competition will in Chicago, May 23. Register at

2. What has been the biggest singing challenge you’ve faced since winning the competition?

Whoa, what a question! I feel like every new experience is the biggest challenge, my voice is growing and changing and my understanding of my body, mind and technique is shifting too. So I’ll say my most recent challenge was singing Queen of the Night as an apprentice artist with Central City Opera this past summer. 8,500 feet above sea level is REALLY high and dry.

However, I value honesty so instead of leaving it there I will tell you: I had been away from the role for a while, and I felt that the stakes were high (not just the altitude.) I got into my head and let tension and anxiety take over. But the woman I was covering, Jeni Houser, is a queen in real life. She and my colleagues in the program rallied around me with words of support and encouragement, both in overcoming technical challenges and mental ones. I nailed it in the show. I’ve never been prouder, and never more grateful to my fellow artists, and you better believe I will pay that favor forward for the rest of my career.

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3. What has been your biggest highlight of your career so far? 

   This one is easy. Zémire et Ázor (Beauty and the Beast) with Skylight Music Theater, Shari Rhoads conducting and James Ortiz directing. Zemire was my first title role, and a challenging sing to boot. But beyond that, the production involved magnificent puppetry with a posse of really fantastic artists. I sang most of the show to a giant beast puppet operated by four actors, and I completely forgot that he wasn’t alive!

I grew as a singer/musician, and as an actor, but more than that, I was part of something really new, really different, and truly wonderful. That production has been done in a couple other houses since then, but I will always be proud to have been part of the first. I’ve been chasing that thrill ever since.

4. Who is a a singer or teacher that you try to model your career or life after? And why?

One of the things that all of my teachers and coaches consistently tell me is that the business has changed since they came up in it. Young artists these days are hustling like never before, and must be more entrepreneurial than in previous eras. So I don’t actually think I CAN model my career after anyone who came before. But I will say that I carry Reri Grist like a talisman in my heart, though I have never met her. She paved her own way, sang whatever she wanted, and she worked with incredible people. I guess I want my career to be wild and free and full of brilliant, interesting people along the way.

5. Making it as a singer is tough. Why do you do it?

HA! I think the theme I’ve stumbled on in these questions is “challenge.” I thrive on challenges although tension and anxiety are enemies of mine — I know I’m not alone in this! When I feel their absence I think I must not be working hard enough. (Spoiler alert: I am.) The industry is rough on singers, and the music I am drawn to is difficult, and digging around in yourself for truth in performance is not exactly a moonlit walk on the beach. Yet, I love it. If I didn’t sing I’d have to go into something like alligator wrestling or experimental physics, and I really like my limbs and my math skills simply aren’t up to snuff. Singing it is!


CS Music Staff

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