Meghan Picerno : Bold and Unapologetically Herself

Meghan Picerno is on the rise to crossover stardom with work in opera and Broadway. Recent successes include Christine in The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway, the U.S. premiere and tour of Love Never Dies, and Cunégonde in Candide with Hal Prince’s smash hit New York City Opera production. Her advice to young singers is “be bold, be unapologetically you.” She has certainly lived that in her growing career.

“When I got to NYC,” Picerno recalls, “I didn’t know if I wanted to go to conservatory right away. I emailed a bunch of people and introduced myself and asked for a coaching. My first coaching ever in NY was with Nico Castel in the basement of the Metropolitan Opera, and I didn’t fully understand who he was. My second was with Mariana Barrett.

“It came from me being bold, fearless, and shameless—and asking. If it’s a no or no response, try not to take it personally. With your hard work, the wheels are in motion. The universe is going to have the right person say yes to you.

“I’ve done a lot of masterclasses and meet-and-greets. The biggest thing in how I got my break was being very open minded and diving into the deep end. Just go! Figure it out—you’ll swim! Though it might not be the most beautiful, coordinated swim.

“What your gut tells you is correct; you are the captain of your ship. If something feels right, no matter how outlandish, that’s the right path. That is why I’m having the career I’m having.”

Her break came through timing, preparation, and open mindedness. “I was singing in Spain and, in true Meghan fashion,” she says, “I’d scheduled a performance right off the plane—and I was changing into my gown from the airport and went to a recital in the Upper East Side. I sang from ‘Lucia’ and finished with ‘Glitter and Be Gay.’ There’s so much in it layered to do it right and do it justice. My pianist at this recital told me about the New York City Opera production auditioning soon.”

Again, she ties her experience to advice for young singers: “Find your team—it’s going to be people who hold you accountable, that will cheer for you, that will make sure your ego is in check. They will find you. The universe will send you those people and you have to be open and receptive to them.

Meghan Picerno as Christine and Ben Crawford as The Phantom by Matthew Murphy

“It takes so many people to get you where you need to go. I have such an incredible team. Joan Dornemann is one of them. They’re mostly women. Having strong women in my court is very important to me—I call them my fairy godmothers.

“My team is very well connected and they emailed Michael Capasso about me, and I went in and sang on their lunch break.” No one gets to the top, or even a big break, entirely on their own. Picerno is quick to remember those “fairy godmothers” who helped to make her career possible.

For the audition itself, she knew she had to do justice to the piece but make it her own. “I experimented with the thought of what I wanted it to be,” she says. “It’s what sets you apart. Have no expectations, and just go in and have a blast.

“Treat an audition as a performance. You are that character, whether the people behind the table want you to be or not. Try not to think about ‘Will I get the job?’ Set little goals for yourself. You have won if you have grown.”

She was surprised to get a callback. “I wasn’t expecting one,” she says. “Opera and Broadway auditions are completely different. The piano was far back in the room. In an opera audition, you tend to stay close to the piano.

“There were 14 people in my audition, more than I’m used to, and they kept asking me to come closer. Before I knew it, I could almost touch them. I didn’t know anyone in the room, which was probably for the best.

“And someone behind the table said, ‘She’s just fabulous!’ That man ended up being Hal Prince. You can feel the energy in the room. I had recognized people that were established. I didn’t look like the rest of the girls, I wasn’t as established as the rest of the girls, at least in America.

“And I got a call offering me Cunégonde. This production changed my life, without a doubt. From the creative staff to the actors onstage with me, there were legends from Broadway, opera, and ballet. It’s one of those pieces that is everything. Our production was a smash hit because of that.

“The stakes were really high, and I got thrown into the deep end. It was run like a Broadway show, not like an opera. We had 14–15-hour days, which is so different from opera.

“We had an orchestra dress on a Thursday night, a run on Friday, and [opened] on Friday. Then two shows on Saturday and two on Sunday—that was our opening! You can do so much more than you imagine if you are open to it.”

Her openness to a new process, unfamiliar to many opera singers, helped her to succeed in this production. With that attitude and approach, she received valuable encouragement and connections to the next steps for her career. “In the midst of this,” she says, “I was asked if I wanted to do Broadway. I’d gone to school for opera, but Broadway is so American.

“They asked if I’d seen ‘Phantom,’ and I said no, which was really embarrassing. Now I understand why it’s so epic and why it’s the longest running Broadway show. You need classical training to do that show. Hal became my mentor, and when Love Never Dies came to America, I got to audition.

“My audition experience was different from opera. I sang for a casting agent and for Andrew Lloyd Webber himself, which turned into a coaching! In opera, we have our book of arias that we’ve been coaching forever. For Love Never Dies, they gave me a pack of music and asked me to learn it in two days.

“They want to see a work in progress. They want to see if they can work with you, and if you can adapt to the flavor of what they may be going for. It has a more collaborative aspect. These people were legends, and I was there creating with them. To have that collaborative aspect, that you get to put your stamp on, is really incredible—and then you’re part of a legacy.”

This quick-paced, collaborative aspect was an exciting one for Picerno. “When I got to Candide, I was fully memorized, but my Broadway counterparts were not,” she remembers. “You are expected to memorize quickly, and you are all in it together. Opera rehearsal process is so much faster—you show up with a fully realized character.

“Rehearsal process and going from the rehearsal room to the point where you can share it with an audience is one of my favorite parts of doing this. Now that I’ve been in the Broadway world more, I love that I don’t come with a finished project. If you’re married to a version that is your version, you will have some problems. You need to go in as prepared as you can be but willing to make changes.”

Another major difference compared to opera was the sheer number of performances of a given show. “For Love Never Dies, I did almost 500 shows,” she says. “I wondered at first how I would keep that fresh. You evolve and make discoveries just like a human.

“In about the 365th performance, I finally understood a line onstage. I crave those discoveries, which you can only find when you live in a role. I love living into roles and discovering them [and then] crossing back over into opera with that skill set and applying it to the operatic repertoire.”

Living in the Broadway environment has greatly informed Picerno’s choices as an opera singer, and she recognizes the need for young singers to be prepared to enter their professional lives with crossover experience. “I would recommend to young singers that they train more for acting,” she advises. “There are so many of us that can, and we need more experience. When you have the Olympic experience of singing an opera combined with acting, it is magical.

“That’s how you’re going to make it more accessible to the public. As an American performer, if you can do both, you should! Crossing over, we are trained to use our voices in ways the average musical theatre singers are not; we have way more experience. Crossing over is now really encouraged.”

Even other professionals reached out to Picerno about her crossover work. She shares, “I was overwhelmed with responses on Instagram by opera singers asking, ‘How did you do it?’ So many opera singers want to do both, and they are capable of it. I was in the right place at the right time—but there are many people who are able to do it.”

Now, during the pandemic, it’s that same open-mindedness and boldness that has prepared her for transitions into even more types of work. “There is a cross-pollination of media, especially now, and the more versatile you can be as an artist, the better off you will be,” she says. “Particularly as a young American performer, it will serve you well. It’s a gift and a privilege to do what we do—the pandemic has taken it away on a colossal scale.

“It’s important to know that while you’re in school, what happens in conservatory is no guarantee of what is going to come. What matters comes after. I know that there are only a few of my colleagues that are actually having a huge career right now, or a career at all. When you get out of school, this is when you find out if you are really willing to do this as a profession.

“The sacrifice that goes into being a professional performer is balanced by the rewards to share these beautiful pieces with the world. It’s not easy. When you graduate, you have to believe in yourself fully.”

Picerno had a level of preparation for the downturn in our industry because of her resourceful early years building her career. “I wasn’t from a wealthy family—I still have student loans,” she says. “I made my way through grad school on my own. When you get to the top, it’s the same stage.

“I didn’t audition for Young Artist Programs. I didn’t want to. I did not get success right away. I worked 60-hour weeks. I would look at my repertoire at one in the morning.

“I didn’t know in what form my success would come, but I knew it would come. I’m still at the beginning. Working as a waitress and a personal assistant with holes in your shoes and moving apartments so you can afford your voice lessons is tough. After this, as a colleague you understand what it takes to get where you are, and there’s a level of compassion and understanding—I’m grateful for all these random things I had to do.

“For young singers: keep your eye on the prize and learn from that retail job and that personal assistant job. I was Renée Fleming’s personal assistant in grad school and I learned so much from her. She worked so hard, even at the top. The hard work never stops. The learning never stops.”

Even with her success, “Student loans can be crippling,” she says. “I remember some of my classmates were immediately frightened, and rightly so. The idea that only the wealthy should learn to perform is awful. I refused to give into the idea that I couldn’t. I became very resourceful.

“People love to put you in boxes, but you have to break out of it and not let it happen. The need to be resourceful and the ability to ask for help are so important. You will be uncomfortable, which a teacher once told me means I’m growing. The growth I’ve had as a performer over the last four years has been profound. You can’t trade it for anything.”

She encourages young performers to audition as much as possible. She notes, “While you are in the safety net of school, go audition. I don’t want to bash conservatories, but when I was a student, it was ‘focus on school and be safe.’ If you book something while you’re in school, go do it. Do auditions and learn from the experience.

“Think globally. The reason you’re going to school is to have a career. Learning how to be on tour with food poisoning or monkey flu—yes, that happened—you will never get that experience in school. There are no excuses when you’re out of school. You need to get the job done and show up no matter what happens.

“I do not believe in having a backup plan. Having other skills as part of your toolkit is helpful. I randomly auditioned for a commercial—I booked it. So now I’m doing that.

“I’m doing voiceover work. Being adaptable is a skill to develop, even without a pandemic. Create community with artists in genres that are outside of your own and outside of your region. I’ve sung virtually with orchestras all over the world.

“It’s opened up a world that is going to continue beyond the pandemic. My soul died for a moment at first in the lockdown: I couldn’t sing for a short period. The community aspect of the arts [is that] we make stars out of dust. We have pivoted and are continuing to do so.”

Like many singers, she has taken time during the pandemic to learn new skills. “My knowledge of recording has so improved,” she says, “and this is adding to my tools for the world post-pandemic. Every turn I’ve taken in the last few months I’ve thought, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing,’ and then I’ve had to learn. It really makes me appreciate my friends who are audio engineers, photographers, videographers—I have a taste of their skills and I’m even more amazed by them.”

She is hopeful, and rightfully so, for the future of the vocal arts. “We’re continuing the arts even in a world that doesn’t appreciate us as much as we should be,” she says. “When this is over, we as a species will need to heal and people will turn to the arts. People are already turning to the arts throughout this—streaming services, listening to podcasts and recordings.

“I hope one of the things we see change as a result of this is support for the arts. It is essential. It is the heartbeat. What is NYC without Broadway or the Met?”

Joanie Brittingham

Joanie Brittingham is a soprano and writer living in New York City. She can be reached at joaniebrittingham@gmail.com. Visit her blog, Cure for the Common Crazy, at commoncrazy.blogspot.com or see her column, Big Apple Sauce, on the arts scene of New York, at the website JuicyHeads.com.