As this year’s winners of the annual Gerda Lissner Competition prepare for their May 23rd Zankel Hall performance, I sat down with soprano Courtney Mills to discuss her recent 2nd place win as well as what makes this soprano tick.
Jacob Paul: You won your award from The Gerda Lissner Foundation singing Dich Teure Halle from Wagner’s Tannhauser; what prompted your repertoire choice?
Courtney Mills: For competitions and auditions, singers offer 4-5 Arias. Dich Teure Halle is one of my main audition arias. I enjoy singing it because it really allows you to open up the voice. This particular aria has a special place in my repertoire because it is one of the aria’s I was able to perform while a young artist with Maestro Levine and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. That was truly one of the most amazing moments I have experienced. Wagner really knows how to write lines that soar and make you feel like you are flying over the orchestra. That is especially true of this piece.
JP: It’s my understanding that you’ll be singing the aria at Zankel Hall.
CM: Yes! I’m looking forward to it.
JP: You, like many young singers with soaring voices, try to steer away from categorizing yourself in a particular fach.
CM: Yes, I do. I think it is dangerous to categorize yourself especially as a young singer, while the voice is still growing. You need to have a focus in what you sing, but you also need to adapt and change with how your voice develops. I began singing in high school with the Queen of the Night, Blondchen, and Cunegonde. These are all roles that are now incredibly inappropriate for my voice. I believe if you feel good singing something and you don’t have to strain yourself to sing it, you should go for it. I personally have a large voice, but it comes from a high soprano placement and it likes to move. A lot of other large voiced young soprani may have started as mezzos therefore what is comfortable for them may not be as comfortable for me and vice versa. Also, some roles such as Butterfly and Tosca, written by the same composer for a similar weight of voice feel completely different. Tosca for me is fun to sing while Butterfly is not. It’s all so personal. I can say that it’s very important to know your own instrument and what you can do comfortably so that you can make intelligent decisions when it comes to rep and casting. The cast of Cosi fan tutte at one house might be light lyric voices and the cast at another might be slightly more weighty. It all has to do with the mix of the voices. Price has sung Fiordiligi and so have a lot of lighter voices. One isn’t more correct than the other necessarily- it’s all personal preference. Another good example is Boheme. Some people prefer Mimi to have a larger voice than Musetta because she is the main character, others think Musetta should be larger because her personality is written to be more like Mae West.
JP: You made your Metropolitan Opera Debut while a member of the house’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program. Can you tell me what that experience meant to you?
CM: Wow, it was an experience of a lifetime. I mean how often do you get to do anything for thousands of people all at once, let alone something you love? It was also really great to get to have my family there to see me accomplish the goal they had been supporting me with for the previous seven or more years. More than that though, the Metropolitan has a magical presence. The orchestra is the best in the world, the acoustic is the best in the world, and the ghosts that haunt the stage are the best singers in history. To be able to sing on that stage at all is life changing. When I was being considered for the Young Artist program, we had an audition on the main stage and that moment more than any other singing moment has a special place in my heart and memory. The energy in that space is palpable.
JP: You’ve had a lot of interesting performance experiences since… including singing on a French National radio broadcast live from the Louvre Museum.
CM: Yes, that was another great moment for me. They have a beautiful auditorium and their musical series is really phenomenal. I get updates in my email and I wish it was an easier commute to go see concerts there because the list of artists and events is really quite impressive. I came to sing there because one of the patron’s heard me in Verbier. It was a really awesome surprise when they contacted me for a recital. I was honored to be included in their recital series.
CM: Haha yes! Well, for me the words are the most important aspect. You have to know what you are saying and why, so that you can understand why the composer wrote the music a certain way. You know, back when Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi were composing, the librettist was actually billed first and then the composer, so you would see Luisa Miller listed by Salvadore Cammarano and composed by Giuseppe Verdi- not the other way around. Today we all know the composers and not the librettists, it’s an interesting reversal. I also really like to feel connected to the character and this is the easiest way to get a feel for the character. So I begin by translating (yes I use my Nico Castel books, but I also like to look up words on my own so that I really know the text), then I memorize the text while listening to the music, and finally I learn the notes with piano. Also it helps save a bit of money on coachings which can be really expensive in New York City. So yes, I do a lot of work sans piano at Starbucks.
When not at Starbucks learning her latest operatic role, Miss Mills can be found in NYC’s piano bars singing her favorite classical musical theatre and jazz standards.
So here I am, 45 minutes into my flight back to Manhattan, I really need to use the restroom, the seat belt sign has been turned back on thanks to turbulence (which I have yet to feel), while I listen to the man behind me describe how his parents got by for 2 years on money they made donating plasma… its a fascinating story, but I’m now plugging in my headphones to try and listen to Danielle de Niese’s new Mozart album that I just downloaded. Let me just say that I really really love this singer/ actress.
Speaking of Mozart, I was visiting two of my best friends, Kim, Josh and their newborn daughter ( my Goddaughter) Kiera when I started thinking about something I read in The Mozart Effect a few years ago. The book discusses the various effects that not just classical music, but Mozart’s in particular has on our brains. Did you know that some music can actually make you dumber? I wonder if that applies to the millions of Justin Bieber fans… Anyhow, Studies have shown that when an adult listens to Mozart’s sonata for two pianos in D Major, his or her IQ actually raises by about 7-8 points, but only for about 15 minutes after an initial 10 minutes of listening. The study also showed that when newborns were played the piece, they showed an astounding improvement in spacial-temporal reasoning. As you know, babies spend that first 3 months adjusting to, well… everything. From being able to produce Melatonin in the evening to having a visual range that expands beyond twelve feet, we literally experience a whole new world as a developing human.
Another study involved control groups of 3-4 year olds in which one group was given piano lessons for eight months, the other groups were given computer lessons, singing lessons and one was provided with no training. The group of children who were provided the piano lessons scored on average a staggering 34% higher in tests of spatial-temporal reasoning than all the other children.
So what does this mean? Simply that some music makes you smarter, some doesn’t, and Justing Bieber just might fry your brain.
I met MT during intermission at Musical Theatre Southwest’s production of Beauty and the Beast. My friend Javier was playing the beast/ Prince Charming and the entire choir seemed to be in attendance. I hadn’t quite decided if I wanted to be in the music program at UNM, but I was being encouraged by a few of the faculty who had either sat in on my choral audition or heard me sing elsewhere. I wasn’t too crazy about the music program at UNM at the time, and was hoping to try and transfer out at the earliest convenience, little did I know, it would take me three years to do it. According to the students in the voice program, MT was the best thing UNM had to offer- she had had an international career, and was on the monumental George Solti recording of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. When I saw her sitting with drag queen extraordinaire Carmen Seguidilla from my choir class, I decided to take the opportunity and introduce myself. I was quickly scheduled a trial lesson and an audition for the program.
My audition qualified me for placement in MT’s studio, as well as a spot in the school’s opera studio, which traditionally, freshmen were not allowed, but one other girl and I were the exception. I showed up every Tuesday with my music books and waited outside her studio, which resembled a turn of the century salon in Paris. MT, then seventy nine, would tell me story after story of her youth, and her education at the prestigious Manhattan School of Music. She told me of the grueling hours she spent perfecting her voice, and how she played Irish Harp and organ throughout her childhood. Apparently, MT was really from Brooklyn and was incredibly embarrassed of “Americanisms” as she put it when she ventured out to Europe to sing. These lessons were plagued with anxiety on my part. I wasn’t allowed to speak unless spoken to, and I was always supposed to be perfecting my posture. My attitude wasn’t appreciated either, which, according to M was too flamboyant. I spoke too much, and needed to understand that I could never have anything more interesting to say than she did.
After my first year studying with MT, she began to dote on my “unique gift” as she put it. She began to put down other students in the program in my favor, and began gossiping with me about her opinions of the other instructors. “They don’t know what they’re talking about” she’d say “how can they pretend to understand what this career is when they haven’t left Opera Theatre Southwest? I sang with the greats. I sang in real opera houses with real conductors who knew what they were doing! These people are kidding themselves.” It didn’t stop there, she would have me and my best friend Hannah carry her things around in the halls while she announced her distaste for Dr.Q , the head of the choral department, and his choices right in front of him. It was rumored that Dr. Q had an affair with Dr. S, the head of the theory department, a few years earlier, and that the affair was the catalyst for Dr. S’s divorce with Dr. HPG, the head of the conducting department. The three had been the best of friends at the Eastman School of Music, and were now what my generation likes to refer to as a cluster fuck.
Soon, I wasn’t just escorting M to her ride home, I was her ride home. My apartment during my second year of school was only about three blocks from her extravagant house, and I was automatically her ride to and from school three days a week and to the grocery store on weekends, and every day if it was opera rehearsal time. If I showed up early enough to pick her up, I was greeted with orange juice and the occasional bagel. I also had to do random chores for her, like pick up her Chanukah bread and the occasional dry cleaning. None of us were allowed to take her to get her hair done though, which was as thick as a helmet and was supposed to make you take her seriously. M unfortunately didn’t just resemble Jackie O, but rather what her decomposing corpse must currently look like.
Nothing I ever did in lessons was ever right. If I stood too still, she’d have me move my hand a little, and if I did that exact gesture the following week, I was scolded for moving. M would then force me to sing repertoire that I told her wasn’t ready. She would give me a list of things to learn, and if I came with three out of six pieces learned for a lesson, she’d want to hear the other three, and force me to sight sing. I would then get yelled at again for it not being perfect. I wasn’t perfect though; the music was getting increasingly more difficult. I wasn’t the best musician and had very little piano skills at the time. Things got increasingly more strenuous when M would try to get me to sight sing composers like Tchaikovsky, which, if I couldn’t do, proved that I was an idiot.
Between the harassing lessons were the occasional outings to museums, restaurants, concerts, or even more rare, dinner at her home, which Hannah and I were expected to attend by ourselves wearing our Sunday best. The conversation was usually dull, and revolved around one time or another that M had stood up to a rude conductor and made him apologize. We were shown how to properly butter our bread, how to hold our wine glasses, and how to sip summer borscht, which apparently requires a special bowl. We would follow her around her home while she showed us the Rembrandt sketch she owned and a gaudy portrait of her mother as Thais from the turn of the previous century. We were also told how we should and shouldn’t speak to real musicians. I was a classic example of what not to do as she put it. I still didn’t quite have the right demeanor, and needed to shut up and soak up like a sponge what was around me.
My lessons became increasingly more abusive and odd. One time in particular I walked in and I was greeted with “Why were you sitting talking to Dave and Marisol at that table in the lobby?” to which I replied “We were doing a crossword puzzle together, they’re my friends.”
“Well you shouldn’t waste your time with people like that.” She said “I would much rather you keep away from them. In fact, I suggest you keep a little book with you, an encyclopedia of music, that way, should you ever find yourself accidentally in their company, you can pretend to be studying. Really, that’s what you should be doing anyways. You waste your time with those invalids when you could be at the piano.”
A few weeks later, after a concert the opera studio gave, my sister told me something that really bothered me.
“So that bitch teacher of yours asked me to move at the concert the other day” said Anna.
“What! Why?” I asked, stunned.
“She told me I needed to sit towards the exit because it was likely that your nephew would have to be taken out.”
“That’s so strange” I said “M’s seen Aydan before, and I’ve repeatedly told her how much he loves classical music, she’s even commented on his behavior at the other concerts.”
“Well she was a bitch!” exclaimed Anna.
When I walked into M’s studio the next week, I was caught off guard by her rude comments.
“You wouldn’t believe what happened to me at the concert. This overweight woman gave me such an attitude because I simply told her that her child was bound to be a nuisance in the concert. People like that disturb me; she really could stand to lose a few pounds.”
“Well that was my sister” I said peeved “and my nephew has been to every single performance I’ve given here- he has never acted up. I’m sorry; I think I feel ill, I’ll see you in class on Thursday.” I exited her studio and treated myself to a mocha at Satellite café. M had a huge problem with people that were overweight, and would often tell them to their faces. She once told a woman named Cody, that she needed to lose weight, and that she didn’t feel like spending the extra money on extra material for her costumes.
My actual vocal development seemed a little weird at the time too. It seemed that the more lessons I had, the more it hurt to sing. I would complain that I was getting hoarse in lessons to which M would simply say “that’s because you aren’t singing enough.” That was lie, I was singing all the time, and I practiced all the time. I was becoming increasingly doubtful when M started telling me that she saw me as a Wagnerian bass-baritone. I apparently had such a big voice and needed to sing big things, or my true talent would never come out. My vibrato also began to speed up which I also thought was strange. M told me that it was just a unique color in my voice, and that I was very lucky to have it.
When my beloved coach, Brady McElligott decided to move to Tulsa Oklahoma, I realized that I would have to work like a dog over the summer to keep learning music and since the school was only going to provide us with mediocre piano students to practice with, I had to find a coach outside of school. After having many a coffee and sandwich with Steve Gokool, I asked him if he would mind working on some repertoire during the summer of 2007. He was a heldentenor and had a degree in performance from the University of Toronto. He had also performed with the Canadian Opera Company, so I felt confident that he would at least make a decent coach. When I went to Steve though, he asked me if we could work a little on technique, and since I was eager to learn, I agreed. Through Steve, I realized that I had developed a tremolo with M, a rapid vibrato caused by pressure on the voice and bad technique. All the “big” singing I was doing was incredibly unhealthy to my voice and was detrimental to whatever future I had as a singer. It was during this summer that I decided to transfer institutions.
When I returned to UNM in the fall of 2007, I was equipped with more technical knowledge and $5,000 from my new sponsors (I’ll touch on this later). When I tried to incorporate what I had learned over the summer, I got “What is that, where is the voice?” from M. I was told I needed to stop pussyfooting and put the garlic back in my pasta. I believed her for a moment until the end of the lesson, when my voice was hoarse again. I took off for a long personal weekend that fall to visit the University of Michigan, where I discovered what a real music program is supposed to be like. When I returned, I mentioned my great weekend to M, as well as a Youtube video I had seen the evening prior of Maria Callas singing Casta Diva. “You shouldn’t waste your time with that, you don’t learn anything from these videos, you learn from sitting at the piano and creating your own musical style!”
The next day, we had a visiting artist. Neil Rosenshein was a former Metropolitan Opera tenor, and voice faculty member of the Manhattan School of Music. He was holding a master class for the second year in a row. Two weeks prior, M told me I would be in the master class. When I came back from Michigan, my name was left off of the program. I watched about a dozen singers get up and sing all the wrong repertoire in all the wrong ways to a perplexed guest artist. M kept yelling at Neil that he had to hurry along because her students were last. She didn’t really say the last bit, but she did motion to her watch, and she was in front of the entire audience.
Hannah went last, and sang a great rendition of “No Word from Tom” from Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, which Neil was able to help tremendously. Hannah had the tendency to be a little strident at her top if she had to sustain more than she was comfortable, but Neil helped her voice blossom beautifully. Everyone was able to see that she was capable of even more than the vocal fireworks she had been stunning everyone with lately. Since I was giving Hannah a ride home, I had to wait for her after the master class. When everyone filed out, I was left alone with Hannah, Javier, M and Neil.
“Well that was fun!” exclaimed Neil “Did you have fun Hannah?”
“Oh yes, yes I did, it was brilliant” replied Hannah.
“You know” said Neil “I have been so obsessed with this thing called Youtube lately. Do you guys Youtube?”
Hannah and I nodded while M rolled her eyes and huffed.
“It’s brilliant!” he yelled excitedly “you can actually watch these videos of Maria Callas that people have uploaded. It’s really such a great learning tool!”
I was sold. After months of being told that my opinions didn’t matter, here was a perfect stranger who happened to be a world renowned opera singer giving a rebuttal on my behalf… and he didn’t even know it! After a few more minutes of discussion, much to M’s dismay, Neil provided each of us with his card in case we wanted future lessons. Neil owned a hotel in Santa Fe, and was often in New Mexico.
“Seriously, if you’re ever in Manhattan, give me call, we’ll schedule a lesson.”
I realized between the summer lessons, the trip to Michigan and the inspiring master class, that I had to leave UNM. I stopped by M’s studio one day on my way from history. I told her that I felt that I had to leave UNM, and that I was in a toxic environment. Given that the theory, choir and music history classes all posed huge problems for nearly everyone, she didn’t suspect that the problem was her. The general attitude given by the music professors at UNM was that “I went to Yale. I went to Eastman. I went IU. This is nowhere near top tier, so why should we treat you as such?” My piano professor Arlene Ward even stopped me once after I corrected myself in a site reading test. “Now why did you do that?” she asked.
“I’m sorry, I know I should keep going if I mess up… bad habit” I apologized.
“Well you really need to learn not to” she said “I can honestly say that no one in this room is actually going to make a career in performance, so you have to learn how to accompany simple tunes well enough that way you can follow little children in a music class.” This was the attitude that we were constantly faced with. No one believed in the students were capable of anything more than teaching elementary music. Why should they? The school didn’t necessarily have an amazing track record for successful performers.
When M asked me what my plans were. I lied.
“I really don’t know, I was thinking the University of Cincinnati” I said.
“I don’t suggest you try for a school like that Jacob” replied M “you’re too timid, you’re not musical, you aren’t cut out for a conservatory.”
“Then I don’t know” I said “I guess I’ll just need to clear my head.”
I had actually already been accepted to one prestigious music program, and didn’t want to tell her. I was also granted an audition at the Manhattan School of Music… her alma mater. I took the spring semester off from the music program and flew to Boston and New York City looking for a new voice teacher; I auditioned at the Manhattan School of Music, and got in. I was assigned to work with, of all people, Neil Rosenshein.
When news broke out at UNM that I was accepted into the prestigious program, M was livid. She told other students to stop talking to me. They did. Rumors also started about how I got into the school. A small group of what I like to refer to as toxic twinkies from choir suggested that I did more with my mouth than just sing to get in. None of these people cared to realize that I had to sing in a very real audition with about twenty people judging me in order to be considered. I found out from Brady McElligott that M was planning on writing a letter to the Manhattan School of Music telling them that they shouldn’t take me. She also called and told them she wouldn’t be making her annual donation due to my acceptance (her name is actually engraved on a wall for her 2004 donor bracket). My remaining months at UNM were plagued with various rumors, lies and snares from other students, but they had been jealous all along. No one could understand why I wouldn’t just switch to another incompetent voice teacher and stay at UNM. When I brought up the topic of technique, the others simply didn’t understand “but isn’t singing just singing? You’re good or you’re not” they’d say, so I eventually shut my mouth.
That summer, M boarded a plane to China. When she arrived, she fell and shattered her hip. Two months later, I boarded a plane to New York City, when I arrived, I started over.