Never the Diva : Carla Wood, 1955-2005

On July 13 of this year, one of the great mortal lights in the world of music went out. Carla Wood, aka CJ Williamson, succumbed to a brain tumor at home with her family around her, just the way she would have liked it. As her husband of nearly 27 years, it is my difficult task to try to share with you the CJ you didn’t see, and perhaps to give some insight into how this remarkable woman was able to make such a contribution to the opera world, and touch the lives of so many people.

Perhaps it is not as difficult a task as I am surmising, because the CJ you knew from the stage, the magazine, the rehearsal hall, e-mail, and the telephone was just the same as the one I married. She was just as genuine, considerate, likeable, and caring in all her roles.

I first saw Carla in 1977. I had moved to California with a new job out of college and attended a church Christmas program put on by a large Latter-day Saint (Mormon) youth group in the East San Gabriel Valley area of Los Angeles. I was in the back of the hall and hadn’t really tuned into the program much—until the last number. A pretty, dark-haired, young woman with a beautiful voice sang it, and it happened to be one of my favorites: “What Child Is This.” I found out her name: Carla Williamson. It turned out that this was her first public singing performance ever.

I had my first date with Carla a couple of weeks later. This was a case of two people finding in each other almost immediately a unique bond of friendship and interests that quickly turned to love. I don’t subscribe to the “one and only” theory of relationships, but in my own case, I have always felt ours was a unique and special union. We were married eight months later.

Carla was raised in difficult circumstances. She and her three sisters were targets of an abusive father, and all four siblings have suffered from that emotional trauma their entire lives. Her parents later divorced.

Her family was poor. When we were dating, I discovered that most of the nice clothes she wore were things she made. When she was 14, she fell down some steps at her family’s apartment building and injured her back, requiring surgery. From then on, she lost many potentially productive days in bed with back pain.

In spite of these obstacles, Carla was a person people wanted to be with. She was blessed with that beautiful smile, that infectious laugh, and those mischievous eyes. Look at the cover again—look at those eyes. Carla was fun. Everyone thought so, and she gathered lasting friends easily from every quarter of her life. People just knew that Carla was the real thing. There were no hidden agendas with her. She wore her heart on her sleeve and more than once had it stepped on by those who sought to take advantage of her good nature. It was something she never really understood.

It was clear that Carla’s future would involve music. She taught herself piano at a very early age, on an old upright the family owned. Then, when she was able to take lessons through the help of a friend, she had to undo all those incorrect fingerings. She won a piano competition in high school and went on scholarship to the Music Conservatory at the University of Pacific, with an eye on a career as a concert pianist. She was a superb pianist. We were fortunate to obtain a grand piano early in our marriage (which barely fit in the places we lived). She was so accomplished and musical! We still have the piano—Carla referred to it as her third child.

While she was studying piano, Carla’s piano teacher would keep her after her lessons and give her beginning voice lessons. We have tapes of some of those sessions, and she was awful! But she loved it and kept at it—and that beautiful, warm, lyric mezzo voice emerged. She changed teachers, continued to improve her technique, and by those early married years was singing more often than she was playing piano. She went through a very difficult decision period choosing which discipline she would pursue professionally, and, to the eventual betterment of the opera world, she opted to become a singer.

Carla gave her first professional performance as the mezzo soloist for a Verdi Requiem at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. I don’t recall the company, but she earned $1,000. She was so excited.

She was tuned fairly well into the opera community in Southern California back then and sang quite regularly. She had several gigs with the La Mirada Symphony, including a Mikado that featured the stage and screen actor Bill Schallert (The Patty Duke Show). The cast had so much fun in rehearsal that they lost their composure in the actual concert, to the delight of the audience. As usual, Carla was right in the middle of it.

We moved to New Jersey in late 1986 when I relocated for my job. Carla was very excited to move to the East Coast. It was like going to Mecca. She jumped right in, looking for coaches, a local voice teacher, and a manager. She attended classes and did what she could to learn the ropes. I remember numerous times when, at the end of the day, she would tell me of her frustrations trying to find this person, or that phone number, or someone who could coach some language.

“Someone ought to put out a publication for singers that tells this stuff,” she would exclaim. “I can’t be the only one looking for information.”

Over the course of the next year, this idea germinated. She talked about it with her fellow singers and was convinced there would be a market for some sort of publication for singers.

“Why couldn’t we do that?” she asked me. “I can find the information and you can figure out how to publish it!”

It sounded fair to her!

We published the first issue of The New York Opera Newsletter in December of 1987. Our goal each month was simple: Get enough subscriptions to pay for the next month’s printing bill. Frequently, we were unsuccessful—but I believe that even from those very early days, singers sensed that this was a publication whose purpose was to understand singers, and to help them.

Around this time, Carla was accepted to the Ash Lawn Opera Festival. That year they were doing Così fan tutte and The Sound of Music. Ash Lawn–Highland is the colonial home of James Monroe. The productions are done outdoors on an open-air stage. The grounds are beautiful, with peacocks and other wildlife wandering around. (Peacocks can make a lot of noise—and frequently do, right in the middle of the performance.)

The staging of this particular production had a lot of running and chasing. Carla’s costume as Dorabella was not a perfect fit, and in the middle of the performance, her slip made its appearance around her ankles, not once but twice. True to form, Carla took it all in stride and made the most of it. The audience loved it and appreciated Carla’s ability to have fun and not be so serious. The cast had a great time.

In 1993, Carla caught the eye of Eve Queler, music director of Opera Orchestra of New York, who invited her to join OONY’s Young Artist Program. Eve is a great nurturer of singers and I believe she saw a great musicality and musical empathy in Carla. Carla sang seven different productions with OONY in Carnegie Hall over the following 10 years, as well as numerous peripheral performances. Carla and Eve have been close friends, both in and out of music. Eve was one of the first people I called about Carla’s condition and subsequent passing.

Eve asked Carla and three other soloists to journey with her to Naples, Fla. to sing a concert with the Naples Philharmonic, where Eve was guest conducting. The concert was great, but it drew something less than a full house, thanks to the pounding rain of an approaching hurricane!

In 1997, Carla sang Thisbe in Rossini’s La Cenerentola with OONY, with Vivica Genaux in the title role. In a bargain basement, she found an outrageous dress that captured Thisbe’s overbearing character perfectly. There was more than a little discussion about that dress on Opera-L. It was classic Carla. Representatives from the Metropolitan Opera attended that production—and shortly thereafter, the Met offered Carla a covering contract for Thisbe later that same year. It was a great breakthrough.

Her travels also took her to main-stage roles, including Seattle Opera (Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia), Utah Opera (Rosina), San Diego Opera (Meg in Falstaff), Washington Concert Opera (Teresa in La sonnambula), Palm Beach Opera (Maddalena in Rigoletto), Opera Pacific (Stéphano in Roméo et Juliette), and New Jersey Opera and Dallas Symphony (Lola in Cavalleria Rusticana), among others.

Carla sang at New York City Opera for six seasons (1993-1999), appearing in 13 different productions ranging from The Marriage of Figaro (Cherubino) to The Magic Flute (Second Lady).

Through 2003, Carla also covered another 10 or so roles at the Met, but to her disappointment, she did not get the call to the main stage—until the last one! She finally sang a minor role in Jenufa. Carla’s health was becoming increasingly tenuous, and in 2003, she decided she would give up active performing. The travel was too difficult, what with the recurring bouts of depression and the other ailments becoming more challenging.

All this time, Carla kept the magazine on its toes. After the first 10 years, the publication had grown substantially. We had subscribers in 45 states and a handful of foreign countries, and we came to the conclusion that the publication was no longer just about New York, no longer just about opera, and had actually become a magazine. So, we became Classical Singer.

A number of the issues explored in Classical Singer were issues she faced herself, and some were issues she discovered in her conversations with singers at performances, competitions, classes and the like. Examples of such issues include Depression (March 1999), Age Discrimination (October 1998), Menopause (March 2005), Teacher Abuse (September 2002), Less Than Forthright Competitions (July 2002), and Dubious Summer Programs (January 2003 and June 2004).

Carla was an idea-generating dynamo. She could generate more projects and initiatives than the magazine staff could ever complete, particularly if she happened to be at all manic.

Carla didn’t know the meaning of the word “quit.” No matter what the obstacle, she was relentless in her search to find a resolution, a cure, a compromise, a victory. Here are some examples.


In her early years, it was back pain, later it was chronic fatigue syndrome, then it was bipolar disorder, and finally, her cancer. In every case, Carla reached out to others for knowledge, researched on the Internet, checked out library books, tried new and alternative therapies, implored God, and did all she could physically do to get back to normal. She always found another idea that might hold the key to getting well again. Even with cancer’s terminal sentence hanging over her, she insisted on seeing an ophthalmologist to see if her failing eyesight could be improved in the time she had left.


Carla was determined that the pattern of parental abuse and addiction in her family line would not continue to her children, and she succeeded. In a similar vein, one of her early voice teachers in California began to touch her inappropriately in the guise of demonstrating some technique. The experience was humiliating and she determined it would never happen to her again, or to any other woman she could help (see the September 2002 issue).


This aspect was much more difficult for her. Carla’s style was never “in your face” or “look at me.” She was never one to toot her own horn, and it probably cost her a number of gigs. She was not overly pushy with any of her managers, nor assertive with presenters; she was much more subtle and hesitant. That was frustrating for me as I perceived various opportunities possibly slipping away. But her magazine work also was a major factor here. Carla was tremendously concerned that she might be perceived as trading magazine favors for jobs. If she ever thought that perception would be possible on a particular job, she would back away.

Serving Others

When Carla saw a need, she felt compelled to do something, and it didn’t always work out for the best. For example, Carla was acquainted with a woman going through a painful divorce and experiencing some significant emotional challenges. Carla sat down with her to see how she could help, and discovered the woman was quite talented at manicures and pedicures. To help her get on her feet, Carla designed business cards and flyers for the woman and offered to help get her established so she could make some money and get her life into a positive direction. Carla probably overdid it—her help was rejected as too forward.

As a separate example, Carla became acquainted with two young black boys who were in our church congregation in New Jersey and lived in inner-city Newark. They came from a troubled home and had very limited opportunities. With their mother’s permission, Carla began bringing the two boys to our home each Sunday after church. For the better part of two years, Carla helped these two young boys with their homework, helped them practice reading, fed them a good dinner, played games, and sang songs. She helped them get acquainted with computers for the first time and even taught them some beginning piano.

In a tragic turn of events, a bus hit and killed the younger boy one day after school, and it about broke Carla’s heart. She had invested so much in giving them some kind of chance at a decent life. She never quite got over that boy’s death. She continued trying to help the older brother—but it just wasn’t the same: Carla was in such pain, and he lost interest and has since taken to the streets. We ended up moving from New Jersey to Utah shortly thereafter.

Finally, a review of Carla’s life would not be complete without including her faith. She was an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons), and used that faith to sustain her in difficult times. At times, she openly wondered why she had been given such a plethora of challenges, challenges that kept her from really making the kind of progress in her life she wanted. In retrospect, it now seems to me that these soul-deepening experiences allowed her to reach people in a fundamental way she never could have achieved otherwise.

Carla believed deeply in the sanctity of the family—particularly our family—and invested her best in our two children, David and Lindsey. David is a college graduate and just a great young man, and now launched into his own career. Lindsey is following her mother’s footsteps in music. She is an Eastman graduate in french horn, but plays the classics on piano beautifully, just like her mother. Carla and I have always been very proud of both our children, and it is principally due to her nurturing.

Carla never really believed that her work made much of a difference. As much as I would try to show her evidence to the contrary, it never really sank in—that is, until the end. In the hospital room, and later in our home under hospice care, I read her every goodwill message gathered from singers at the 2005 Convention, every card that was sent to our home and the CS office, every message that was left on the two websites where people could leave comments. The response to her illness was no less than overwhelming, and she finally did admit, shortly before she left us, that “Maybe I did make a difference.”

Such a difference! As I write this now, some six weeks after her parting, cards, phone calls and e-mails still arrive with regularity, expressing sorrow that this light has gone out.

Carla’s last gig was to have been a Mozart Requiem with the Boise Symphony in April of this year. She had done the mezzo role numerous times, it was not a difficult sing, she had sung with all the other soloists before and had good camaraderie with them. But her health at this point was getting to be a daily obstacle. We discussed at length whether she thought she should try it. She finally decided that she would like to try if I would go with her to support and help. I readily agreed. At the first rehearsal, Carla could tell she was not at 100 percent and questioned whether she would compromise the performance. We consulted with the conductor, Jim Ogle, and true to form, Carla offered to back out. With Carla, it was not about her, it was about the music. It was about doing the right thing. Jim sent her a personal letter and a bouquet of flowers for her unselfishness and professionalism.
Less than a month later, we got the diagnosis of her brain tumor.

So here is a woman who clearly lived by a set of principles that governed her entire life. She loved and served others, she had integrity in word and deed, and she gave of herself in time and talent. Again, it was never about Carla. She was not a publicity seeker and was not into—or onto—pedestals. In fact, as she looks down, I am sure she is aghast at the idea that this issue is a commemorative to her work and legacy. She would just as soon stay in the background and savor the satisfaction that her idea worked and helped someone.

David D. Wood

David D. Wood is the publisher of Classical Singer.