Persistently Patient: Karolina Pilou

Mezzo-soprano Karolina Pilou grew up in Athens, Greece, studied in England at her father’s insistence, and eventually made her way to New York City. As the singer admits, the concept of “home” is understandably a sensitive subject. But after almost a decade in New York City, she says she now considers it home.

And New York is where Pilou really found her singer legs. Blessed with a big voice, she has had to play the waiting game. She credits supportive teachers during her graduate work at Mannes School of Music in helping her be patient. Young Artist Programs with Des Moines Metro Opera and Aspen Music Festival, as well as Martina Arroyo’s Prelude to Performance and Dolora Zajick’s Institute for Young Dramatic Voices, have also provided valuable stage experience while biding her time.

Sitting at the threshold of that difficult transition from young artist to professional singer, Pilou has wondered if she would make it. But when the Metropolitan Opera took a chance on her—she recently made a successful Met debut as Berta in The Barber of Seville and already has return engagements booked—things began to change.

And change is something Pilou knows about. Two years ago, she began to work on improving her health and is now 120 pounds lighter. Here she discusses her early life in Greece, her teachers who have brought her to where she is now, and how she kept all of the beautiful qualities of her voice while achieving a more svelte figure.

What was it like where you grew up?
I grew up in beautiful Athens, Greece, and I feel very lucky for that! It is a wonderful country. We receive a truly great, well-rounded education, and we are surrounded by history and culture. Greeks know how to have a good time. We build strong families and have long-lasting friendships. In Greece we are deeply connected to one another in a very substantial way. Having easy access to some of the most beautiful beaches in the world doesn’t hurt, either! As for music, we start in the first grade, but just with recorders and basic rhythms.

When did you start music lessons?
I started taking piano lessons around age six. Unfortunately, I was wildly undisciplined and never practiced seriously because I was frustrated by the gap between what I wanted to sound like and what I did sound like at the very early stages of learning. I would stop for a few years, then try to get back to it in hopes that I would magically be able to play jazz piano after three lessons. Needless to say, that never materialized!

Now, of course, I regret my inability to play well. I always wanted to learn how to play the cello, but my volatile relationship with the piano told me that if I didn’t have enough patience to learn to play one instrument proficiently, I shouldn’t try a second one!

I had my first singing lesson at the age of 17 and I knew right then and there that I would become an opera singer. In fact, I went home after that first lesson and, in blissful ignorance and total arrogance, told my mother of my decision to follow that as a career path.

Were your parents musical?
Not really, but maybe that was a good thing in my case. Like most kids, I was very reactive. If I had parents who had solid musical knowledge and were trying to guide me, I would probably have given up early on and pursued another career!

My mother has an impressive voice, however, and I am confident that if she hadn’t smoked for decades and had studied singing, she would have had an outstanding dramatic soprano voice. She has a bit of that razor blade cut in her sound, a bit like that of Ghena Dimitrova. It’s very resonant.

Also, my father has a big love for music and broad tastes, to which he always exposed us. In fact, I believe that it is through his love for Pavarotti’s pop collaborations that I was first exposed to the operatic sound. Elegant soprano Jeannette Pilou and I share the same last name, but we aren’t close relatives. We both come from Corfu, however, and our grandfathers were probably [related].

Did you sing in church?
I didn’t grow up in a very religious family, so going to church as a kid wasn’t part of my reality other than during holidays. I didn’t sing in church until a few years ago when I joined the choir of the Archdiocesan Cathedral of the Holy Trinity here in New York City, which has been a most fulfilling and rewarding experience. Traditionally, women aren’t allowed to sing or cantor in Greek churches, and actually experiencing singing our traditional religious music in a mixed-gender choir in westernized arrangements has made it much more accessible.

Also, when no one was hiring me to sing opera, singing in church was my only chance to sing and perform in a professional context. It was my only chance to use what I learned in my lessons and remind myself that I get joy out of singing. Thus, singing in church now holds a very special place in my heart.

Where did you do your undergrad work?
I started back home at my local conservatory and then, thankfully, my father insisted that I go abroad. At the age of 21, I moved to London to pursue my bachelor’s in music at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. It is a highly esteemed institution with impressive alumni, but it wasn’t the best choice for my voice type at that time.

After Guildhall, I took a couple of years off to work on my technique and rebuild my confidence with my beloved teacher, Robert Dean. He literally pushed me to move to the United States, where he was sure that my “wild instrument and temperament” would be better understood and appreciated. He was absolutely right!

I came to the Mannes School of Music in 2009, and it was the most nurturing, successful educational experience I could have wished for. Everyone in that opera department, starting with Maestro Joseph Colaneri, believed in me and embraced my “different” voice. Truly, they guided and supported me throughout the hard process of bridging the gap between school and the profession.

Who were your most important teachers?
My two most important teachers were Robert Dean in London and Anthony Manoli here in New York. Although they are totally different in personality, neither of them ever made big promises or tried to sell me on what they could do for me. Yet they are the two teachers who have done the most for me, and I appreciate that tremendously. Robert Dean taught me to trust my vocal instincts, and he was responsible for my move to NYC, which was a game changer for my career.

As for my current teacher of four years, Tony Manoli, he is the man who transformed my singing. He helped me get to the next technical level after years of being stuck in the “you are almost there, but not quite ready yet” box. He picked up on the fact that my temperament was interfering with my practice and he literally taught me how to practice. He put me on what can only be described as a “military style” vocal diet for a good year, just working on my middle and low voice and not touching any of my high notes. For a former soprano who lived for the excitement of a dramatically sung B-flat, that was torture. He has been the most methodical teacher I have ever had, and somehow he made rebuilding my technique very simple. He laid out the mechanics of what needed to be done step by step, and I just had to follow the yellow brick road.

How would you describe your voice?
My voice is typically Greek. I have a wide range, a distinctive timbre, and a sound that can be perceived as a little bit acidic at the top. I have a natural chiaroscuro and fullness of volume. However, my sound is not blessed with a luxurious vibrato. Because my chest voice is distinctively cavernous, people thought I was a contralto. On the other hand, my voice definitely loves to move fast. I’m a “coloratura-happy” dramatic mezzo, I guess, and I’ve finally grown to like it!

Were you in any Young Artist Programs?
While I never managed to get into any of the prestigious year-long programs offered by the big opera houses here in the States, I had the chance to attend excellent summer programs. I was at the International Vocal Arts Institute in Israel, the Aspen Music Festival, the Des Moines Metro Opera, Dolora Zajick’s Institute for Young Dramatic Voices, and Martina Arroyo’s Prelude to Performance. Each one of these was very helpful on its own terms, relevant to my stage of development at the time. For me, the most important aspect of these programs was the chance to perform, as I had no roles in my résumé and desperately needed time onstage.

One thing I love about these programs is that they are essentially the last chance to perform in a safe space. Your mistakes will not be held against you, and you can experiment. That becomes even more constructive when you take into consideration the big variety of coaches and teachers that they usually offer.

Another piece of the puzzle for me was the speed in which good things can occur. You would be in the same performance class with someone in August, sharing your common struggles and fears, and suddenly come December that colleague would be accepted in the most prestigious Young Artist Program in the country or get a fest contract in Germany. That is motivating! It taught me that there is no timeline, no rule as to when and how certain milestones will be reached.

Why and when did you decide to lose weight?
I can’t really say that I decided to lose weight as such. It sounds awfully corny, but in all honesty I just decided to be kind to myself. It was not about losing a certain amount of weight or reaching a specific dress size. After a very difficult period, which I guess could be described as my “rock bottom,” I truly changed my life around, starting with my mindset and outlook.

I wanted as many aspects of my life as possible to be a reflection of living in a self-loving way. It wasn’t about “Is eating this going to make me fatter?” It was about “If I eat this, am I being kind to myself, and is that aligned with the vision of a healthy—on all levels—life that I now have?” Losing weight came as an extension, a nice side effect of reaching a self-loving stage. The weight loss side effect kicked in around August of 2015.

Did you have to retrain abdominal muscles as you lost weight or after you lost weight?
That is a good question! As I understand, not everyone experiences weight loss-related issues in their singing the same way, so I can only talk about my experience. I had to stop singing for a month due to sickness, but I kept losing weight. When I went back to singing, my stomach started pulling in, getting very tight on me as soon as I would try to produce a singing sound. That was a month of panic. The only thing that makes sense is that due to the lack of excess weight around the abdomen, suddenly there was less resistance, there wasn’t the usual weight to pull down on and keep my stomach “out” while singing. Suddenly I had to work harder to maintain flexibility and support.

In a sense, it wasn’t about retraining my abdominal muscles but rather retraining my brain. It was more about not panicking, not reacting to the new sensation, and to keep singing past that weird point until my brain was convinced that everything was still fine. I had to work very hard on that for a couple of months. During that time, my teacher advised me to halt my weight loss or at least slow it down even more, which was seemingly impossible as I was already losing weight at an extremely slow pace.

I learned the hard way, and my best advice is this: if you are working at weight loss, you have to keep singing every day throughout that period. If you stop singing for a while, stop losing weight until you can start singing again. The body needs to adjust, and it adjusts much easier when you reduce weight at the slowest rate imaginable. Slow and steady wins the race!

Did you count calories?
I did and I still do! In terms of the practicalities of getting healthier, the old fashioned “calories in and calories out” works for me. I have a great app called My Fitness Pal, where you basically log every single thing you eat every day. You can keep track of your weight and exercise weekly and add friends from other social media, which has been very helpful to me. It helps with accountability, and friends inspire each other to keep going. As of today I am 120 pounds lighter.

I have a fitness watch that tracks all my workouts and calories burned. That way I know how much I can eat on any given day according to how much I have worked off. That is important because I don’t want to be the person who can’t ever go out with friends and eat whatever they want! I usually save myself one “cheat day” per week. That way I don’t feel I am restricted. If I have more social outings where I am likely to go off my caloric allowance, I just get an extra workout in beforehand. After the occasion, I log my food, no matter what, and see how far off I went. That way I know how much I need to make up.

That works better for me than being on a specific diet plan where someone tells me what I have to eat exactly every day. A specific diet would go against my undisciplined nature!

What is your advice to a singer who wants to lose weight?
Do the psychological work on yourself. The harsh truth is that nobody becomes obese just because they like food too much and they are lazy. There is always a hidden reason why, and you must find it. Unless you identify the reason why you overeat, you will either put it all back when you run out of will power or you will try to replace overeating with another harmful activity.

While it can be shocking at first, hard to figure it out, and even harder to admit, the reality is that being a certain size or overeating serves a purpose. People would not put themselves through being obese just for the love of food. In fact, more often than not, those of us with weight issues are known to shove the food down without savoring it. Clearly weight issues are not about the love of food.

There are as many different reasons to overeat as there are people. What the obese person gets out of being overweight may be rebellion against their parents, a sense of safety after being abused, an excuse for not succeeding, etc. That is bigger than the immediate “pain” of being obese. I know I will get backlash for saying this—and I would have been the first person to react to such a statement a few years ago. But that has been my experience. The extra weight or the overeating provides us with something needed, and that is why we allow it to happen.

Obviously, I don’t think the same applies to those who only have 10 to 30 pounds to lose. I am referring to those of us who have at some point been so overweight that it was unhealthy. I am convinced that looking within and figuring it out, while it may take much longer and it is definitely harder, is far more important in the long run than any eating plan or diet. It is not easy, but once you discover what being overweight provides for you, it is simple. Because you can’t “unsee” what you have “seen”—every time you overeat, it is now very loud and clear why, it is no longer subconscious, and chances are you will decide against overeating.

Do you ever say no to roles you think don’t suit your voice?
Yes! In fact I just turned down a role a couple of weeks ago for that reason. I learned the hard way after suffering through trying to make my voice fit in a role that was not appropriate. It is just not worth the stress!

What will be next for you?
I am singing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at Alice Tully Hall and returning to the Met for my second season to sing the Voice from Above in Parsifal and to cover the role of Albine in Thaïs.

How much time do you spend away from home?
Define “home.” That is a sore subject for me. I had to leave my home in Greece at the age of 21 to pursue my singing studies, so I have already been living away from home, family, and friends for 12 years. I left my London home seven years ago and I still miss it. Thankfully, a few years into my move to the States, New York started to feel like home too. This home I only get to leave for a few months a year for now—but my career is only just starting, so I believe that will change soon.

What is your best music business story?
My favorite story revolves around an audition. A manager was very excited about my instrument and my technical level but he said that since I didn’t have an impressive résumé, even a “voice like mine” would still have to start from smaller secondary, if not ensemble, roles. He said my height and weight prevented me from being cast as a water nymph or a flower girl, etc., and my vocal size supposedly prevented me from being cast in secondary roles because it would be overpowering. He was trying his best to be encouraging and polite and to not hurt my feelings. He told me to keep in touch if I lost some weight.

Fast forward six months. While I was still at my heaviest, the Met took a chance on me for a secondary role. So, always do your best to keep improving and being the best that you can be. Don’t let anyone stop you from dreaming. All you need is one “yes.” Not every company needs to give you a chance. You just need one to start with.

Maria Nockin

Born in New York City to a British mother and a German father, Maria Nockin studied piano, violin, and voice. She worked at the Metropolitan Opera Guild while studying for her BM and MM degrees at Fordham University. She now lives in southern Arizona where she paints desert landscapes, translates from German for musical groups, and writes on classical singing for various publications.