In high school, I made a vision board by cutting out pictures and clips from old magazines and newspapers. At the top of the board, I pasted a clip that read: “Star in your ownshow!” This has become my life and career motto. At the time, I was exclusively focused on opera and classical singing. And even at 16, I knew my path would not be easy or straight forward. Fewer that one percent of singers with a B.M. or M.M. in opera or voice get enough work to live solely on their art. Performing at the Met is the dream, not the reality, so I knew I’d have to forge my own path.
My first voice teacher introduced me to opera at 13. She played a cassette tape of Cecilia Bartoli’s 24 Italian Art Songs and Arias (I think it was “Se Tu M’ami”). I smiled politely, ever the good girl, then went home and bawled. That’s not how I wanted to sound when I grew up—I wanted to sound like Julie Andrews!
The three people in my hometown who knew about music—my church choir director, my high school volunteer musical director, and this teacher—told me I was “operatically inclined” and that I simply must study opera. So that’s what I did–for the next 11 years, eventually earning a Bachelors from Furman University and a Masters in Vocal Performance from the Manhattan School of Music (MSM). Two degrees, even though opera wasn’t me.
The worst part: I knew it, even at 13, yet didn’t act on the basis of this knowledge. If anything, I studied opera as though my life depended on it. In fairness, I was good at it, which only added to the confusion. At least, I was good enough to be accepted into a top conservatory and study with the world’s best teachers, though none of it came easily to me. Opera was never intuitive. I found it excruciatingly difficult and, for over a decade, I felt like I was swimming upstream.
I had moderate success, singing chorus gigs with the New York Philharmonic, landing small roles in regional opera houses, and working a semi-regular church job. None of that came remotely close to paying my bills. Soon after graduating from MSM, I took my voice teacher’s advice and switched gears, seeking work in musical theater. Surely all those years of classical training would wow the Broadway world, right?
Wrong! I’d had next to no dance or acting training. Broadway performers are triple threats. I was, at most, a single threat who’d never learned to belt, mix, or phrase in a Broadway style. Having little to no success in an art form I adored but hadn’t studied, I auditioned for a cruise gig.
For the next three years, I traveled the world on six-month contracts, performing in big song-and-dance productions. Theaters on cruise ships are as big as some Broadway houses and bigger than any off-Broadway venue. At first, I was terrified. But what did I have to lose? Over three years at sea, I visited over 80 countries, met my soon-to-be- husband, and saved enough money to pay off my student loans.
Surely Broadway would be knocking at my door now, right? Wrong! I had no better luck getting theater jobs now and I quit auditioning for opera jobs altogether, though I did continue to sing in the Philharmonic and some random gigs.
Desperate and sad, I vented to my best friend, a pianist from grad school. Over many glasses of wine, I caught him up on my life since then. He listened intently, then gave me the most important advice I’ve ever received: “Collect these stories and write a one-woman show.” I grabbed a cocktail napkin from the plastic container on the bar and began to outline a cabaret show. That night, I brainstormed songs that would illuminate the narrative. We met at his apartment in New Jersey soon thereafter and collaborated on the show, laughing (and sometimes crying). Though not a costumer (much less a seamstress), I made a costume of cheap feathers and boas from the garment district. The whole show cost $500, in 2009.
The opening night was sold out. If you know anything about New York cabaret, this is a big deal, particularly for someone without a name. I packed the house with friends in and out of the arts, corporate colleagues, and my mom. My life changed forever that night. My solo show was a hit! I went on tour with the show, performing in many cities to rave reviews. A cruise ship agent was in the audience at one of the Miami shows. He signed me the next day. I now perform that show, and others, as a guest headliner in exotic locales and get paid thousands of dollars on top of the free travel.
I’ve crossed every ocean and sunbathed and snorkeled at some of the most coveted and beautiful beaches in the world. My most recent performance on a cruise ship was in a theater of 1200 seats with state-of-the-art sound and lights, along with a seven-piece band. None of this would have happened if I hadn’t had the courage to write my own show.
Cruise ships were just the beginning. I went on to write three other shows and perform extensively in the NYC cabaret circuit. I won an award at the prestigious Metrostar competition, which came with a prize of several thousand dollars. The money allowed me to hire my idol and mentor, the legendary Marilyn Maye, to direct my next show. Her mentorship and guidance has been invaluable. Not long after the Metrostar, I performed in the Jerome Kern tribute at Carnegie Hall. What got me to Carnegie Hall? Not my opera training. It was writing my own show with my best friend.
After a cabaret show in the city, I met the woman who is now my manager. She pulled me aside after the show, “You’re a great singer, but you belong on television or in film.” I signed with her a week later and in less than a year, I booked my first co-starring role on a major network television show. I now have several of these major television credits, something I never considered when training for an opera career.
Starring in my own show made me visible to the industry in ways I never could have imagined. Creating something that began as a little soul whisper allowed me finally to feel I was sharing my authentic self with the world.
Following those inner whispers made me feel aligned with the universe. I was finally sharing my divine self. I know this sounds “woo woo,” but consider this: Hamilton began as a secret project. The show didn’t spring from the head of Lin-Manuel Miranda, one of the most successful Broadway creators and performers of all time, like Athena from the head of Poseidon. Like all Broadway shows, the gestation period was long.
The brilliance and monetary success of Hamilton are functions of its utter originality. Groundbreaking, transformative works of art don’t happen because you play it safe. It’s because you listen, exquisitely, to your deepest instincts and develop them where they take you. The work of art represents the fullest, deepest authenticity of the creator.
Even in the best of times, you couldn’t count on steady work. And now no one knows when the industry will return to normal, which was never normal in the first place. The week after making my solo debut at Carnegie Hall, I was waiting tables. That wouldn’t be normal in any other profession. In the arts, sadly, it’s typical. The one thing you can count on in showbiz is the rollercoaster of highs and lows.
That said, we have far more control than we think. The people sitting behind that table in an audition don’t have a monopoly on power. We can choose to reclaim our power as artists. It’s not easy. It takes courage and determination—and time. But it’s doable. I am not encouraging young singers to eschew traditional training or career paths. I am, however, encouraging singers to also think outside the box. What other ways can you be visible? How else can you express your talents? Writing your own show? Taking acting classes? Organizing a children’s theater? Directing a short film?
Think of your life as your show. What kind of show would you want to watch and star in? There is no one way to live the life of an artist. What worked for others may not work for you. And just because your early teachers tell you to pursue one genre or style doesn’t mean that you should, particularly when it feels wrong or inauthentic. I lost many years because I didn’t have the wherewithal to say, “This doesn’t feel right. I want to do that, not this.”
Above all, don’t waste time comparing yourself to others or wishing upon a star. If I’d kept trying to sing at the Met Opera, I’d still be broke and, likely, broken. Start now. Create—and show—that work to others. Sing music that lights you up. Buy sequin trousers. Dye your hair. Move to Nashville. Do the thing that scares you.
In short, star in your own show. I did—and you can too. I believe in you.