This article is from the April 2012 issue of KC Stage
Opera has long been a mysterious sect of theatre. Those who can perform professionally are few, and many audiences feel intimidated by the gravitas of music so intricate and complex that it can take years to learn and perfect. It’s a world of balance, as the opera community strives to respect and honor the classics while working to bring new light and modern storytelling to sometimes stiff or dense works. They want to keep the dedicated supporters in their seats, while bringing in those who can feel daunted by the idea of true opera, to fill the house with a diverse and enthusiastic crowd. To do this requires performers who possess a rare gift, as well as the drive and focus to hone this ability into an extraordinary instrument with years of training, study, and practice. Holly White is one of those special and talented performers. Holly White is a professional opera singer.
“When you tell people that you’re an opera singer, first of all, they don’t believe you,” Holly explains. “And then they want you to sing for them. Every time.” Holly doesn’t seem to mind, she knows that it is an uncommon encounter for so many. “We’re very few, so it’s understandable that people don’t ever meet an opera singer!”
Music has been a part of Holly’s life from the very beginning. “I grew up in a very musical household,” Holly describes. “My mom was a classical pianist. If there was a song I wanted to sing, she would sit down at the piano and just play.” This environment supported Holly’s natural talent, and she was accepted into the University of Kansas as a musical theatre major. A phone call her senior year would change the direction of her career in an instant. “I kind of got tricked into being an opera singer, I have to say,” Holly laughs. “I happened to be sitting in my voice coaches’ office, and he had just gotten a phone call that they were missing a mezzo in the chorus at The Lyric.” The show was Macbeth, a challenge for even the most seasoned of singers. “It’s one of the most impossible choruses ever for women,” says Holly. “So I was drawn in and then I got in and I was like ‘ok, this is pretty cool, this is pretty fun,’” Holly remembers. “So the next year I ended up doing every show at The Lyric.” Realizing that her voice was truly suited for operatic singing, Holly changed her major to music in opera.
After the completion of her bachelors, Holly began her masters while studying with a new voice professor at KU, world renowned mezzo-soprano Joyce Castle. She was then accepted into the new apprenticeship program at The Lyric Opera of Kansas City. However, bogged down by health issues, she made the difficult decision to drop out one year into the two year program. Following a gastric bypass surgery which resulted in a 100 pound weight loss, Holly was physically well for the first time in years, but completely removed from the career she had worked so hard to create.
“It was really hard physically getting back into shape to sing again. I had been singing opera before, and so the expectation was that my voice would sound a certain way when I got back.” Holly says. She practiced and trained to recapture her powerful sound in this new and smaller body, ultimately deciding that she was ready find her way back to her old stomping grounds. “I think that I always wanted to do it, but I had given up ... and I didn’t realize until I was away from it how much I really wanted to do it,” she explains. “I came back three years later to audition for the chorus (at The Lyric), thinking I would do maybe one chorus, no big deal,” says Holly. “I got a call a week later asking if I would like to do the second year of my apprenticeship.” She was shocked, having assumed that leaving the apprenticeship program had irrevocably shifted her career off of her previous and exciting path. Says Holly, “I hadn’t even thought about going back and doing it. I gave up and so they aren’t going to give me another chance. Well, they gave me another chance.”
Holly was thrilled to be back on stage, and delighted to find that she was being given larger roles outside of the chorus. “So I came back and it was an interesting thing, because I was given such a new set of challenges.” Among those was covering the role of Amneris in Aida, with only two weeks to learn both music and staging. “Roles like that are like running a marathon; you have to prepare for months and years to get to it. Because of that, I really quickly got back into the game; they really pushed me to get back in.” Holly continues, “I’ve stayed with The Lyric over the years just doing chorus and stuff like that, and then when the opportunity arises and they need somebody, I have done the leads and that’s what I am doing now.”
Holly is currently preparing for her role as Berta in Gioachino Rossini’s comedy The Barber of Seville, which will be performed in the Muriel Kauffman Theatre of the Kauffman Center in April. For those who are intimidated by the idea of going to the opera, Holly offers this advice: “I tell people that a good comedy is always a great introduction.” She continues, “Halfway through you go ‘oh, wait, they’re really singing like opera singers!”
Despite her rising star, Holly remains awestruck by the accomplished musicians who come to perform with The Lyric. “It’s great because I have all these great people that have come in to The Lyric, and especially now because everybody’s drawn to the Kauffman Center,” says Holly. “I get to perform with such awesome people and every one of them has been a mentor to me. I’m sure that this cast of Barber, they’re exceptional, and I’m sure I’ll learn so much from all of them.”
In addition to Holly’s accomplishments on stage, she also found time to create Lawrence Opera Works with fellow opera singer Hugo Vera in 2010. “We really started it out as a scenes program to help develop the resumes of friends and colleagues who are in the business,” explains Holly. “We started out the first year and did performances at a church here in Kansas City, and also at KU, and this last year we graduated to the Lawrence Arts Center.” Her excitement about this endeavor, along with her own singing career, is clear. “In a time when the arts is dwindling, and opera companies are closing, we are thriving here,” says Holly proudly.
Along with the glamour of a life on an exclusive stage, Holly never forgets to appreciate each moment in the spotlight, each note sung out to a world in awe of the power and beauty of her voice. “I think that people think that opera singers feel that they’re all high and mighty because this is something they can do,” says Holly. “Performing in general you have to have an ego about you, but appreciate every step of the way because it is such a blessing. You have to be humble with the gift. You have to be appreciative of everything.”
The Lyric’s The Barber of Seville will be performed in the Muriel Kauffman Theatre of the Kauffman Center April 21 – 29. For information about performance times and ticket options, call (877) 673-7252 or visit www.kcopera.org. For more information about Lawrence Opera Works, visit www.lawrenceoperaworks.com. For additional information on Holly White, visit www.hollywhitemezzo.com.
Laura Payne has a degree in theatre and music from the University of Kansas and is a local actor, singer, and writer.