When we moved to Charlottesville, we quickly realized that there were not many theater practitioners who lived in town and had worked on an opera before. This was kind of tricky.
I began a vocal studio in order to make ends meet. As a singing teacher, I met an array of students; some stayed, and some passed through. They all had some previous training and were interested in learning more, but from there the stories varied.
There was the brilliant Chinese physicist who hated physics and wanted to call himself a singer instead; the seemingly curmudgeonly senior who was unable to hold back tears whenever I asked about the meaning of a song. There was the soprano with such an instrument that I spent the first year pulling out my hair with frustration that she didn’t want to be a professional singer, and the lyric coloratura who turned away from singing in order to not become her mother (a famous singer).
And then there was Celena. Speaking loudly, laughing constantly and sharing openly about her life and struggles, she came in as a lyric mezzo, but after a couple of weeks, and some other evidence that presented itself (her tall, strong frame, her big, big spirit), I decided to give her some Wagner. I am one of those teachers who is not afraid to ask students to work on some Wagner, no matter their voice type. Challenging as it is, I’ve never known a singer to walk away from Wagner without having improved their breath capacity and sense of line and having discovered a newfound love of not holding back.
Celena took to Wagner like a fish to water, and all of a sudden, where previously her ambitions had been muted and somewhat resigned, new hope sprouted. With her new voice type that felt so, so right she began to truly dream of a performing career and could really see a niche for herself in the terrifying, over-populated industry.
After a few months of learning new arias (Erda, Quickly, Zia Principessa, Eboli) Celena started researching young artist programs and planning her path.
Meanwhile, I was in a very different place. After 25 years, I had withdrawn from the “traditional industry” to start my own company, and the memories of being on some of the world’s most prestigious stages was still fresh in my mind. I was missing it. More than that, I was questioning my very existence, my identity and my calling. Had I made some terrible mistake? If I wasn’t meant to be a singer (forever), then why was I called to be one at 14 years of age? Why was it so all-encompassing? Why had it felt so right?
I tried with all my heart not to impose this personal struggle on my students. I succeeded, and I failed. But I truly feel that they did not notice either way. Instead, they noticed the voraciousness of my teaching style and the passion with which I trained them as though they were headed for the Met Council Regionals!
Celena was accepted into a prestigious program, and my heart leapt. Here was undeniable evidence that I was, indeed on the right path! I was here because she was supposed to be in this program…because she was supposed to be a singer! I could live with that, I really could.
From several states away, I watched the reviews come in for her first performances as a professional. They glowed, and I was so proud. “She’s going to fall in love with this now”, I thought to myself. “She’ll never want to do anything else.” And sure enough, Celena came back to Charlottesville that Summer aglow with the thrill of what had happened.
It wasn’t until our next lesson that the carefully-worded stories began to surface. The stories of unqualified directors taking out their insecurities on her as a young singer. The stories of seeking some small corners of dignity as a performer, and being mocked and denied. Slowly, the light faded from her eyes, and her attendance at lessons began to wane. She began to work with a local theater education program, and before I knew it, she had drifted away from performing. Away from opera.
Once again, I looked myself in the mirror and gave myself a talking to: “She’s not you. She doesn’t want what you want. Her path leads somewhere else. You’ve done what you set out together to do, and now the choice is hers.” But somehow, I felt that my art form had failed her.
As time went by, Victory Hall Opera continued to produce projects, and continued to search for staff that were the right fit: music-readers who were available during the day and who enjoyed a high-intensity rehearsal environment. It came to us one day that we could try to recruit our students. And so, Celena began working for VHO as….ha! Well….er…whatever we needed on any given day. Through the years that followed, she ran lights and projections, she assistant-directed, stage-managed and lighting-designed. She costumed, sold drinks and licked envelopes. Occasionally, she also sang in the chorus. Much as I missed my aspiring singing student, I gradually gained something even more precious: a protégée.
When we discussed theater, Celena would ask questions like “Do you think this movement is triggering for the actor?” She informed me of her plans to train as an intimacy director and laughed when my wife and I struggled with technology. In return, I set her loose amongst my troupe of hard-core singing actors who were boundary-free masters of their craft, and would drop her jaw with their vulnerability both on stage and off. For five years, Celena was woven through the fabric of our company, and settled in to a revised plan for her future; this time with a certainty that felt very different to the singing dream, but seemed to fit her like her tailored winter coat.
As we were sitting together in a La Traviata music rehearsal one day I turned to Celena (this time acting as our COVID compliance officer), and asked her, “Does this make you miss singing?” “Nope” she replied with her trademark head shake and belly laugh. “It makes me want to direct! It makes me want to design!”
When our stage manager withdrew from our current production- our very first opera commission called Fat Pig- I called Celena. Now living in New Mexico, she hopped on a plane, and arrived in a blizzard to help us out. When she arrived, I introduced her to Bethany. “Beth is another one of my stud….” I paused-
“No. She’s my student. You’re my colleague”.
After rehearsal today, Celena stopped me as I stepped on the elevator. “Do you remember the time you asked me if Traviata made me miss singing?” she asked. “Of course! And you said NOPE!”. We had a little laugh, and then she said, “This. Right here. Fat Pig. This opera makes me miss singing.”
I guess we’re all on the right path. The tenor who feels shy about calling himself a singer because, you know, he’s really a pianist. The mezzo who can’t stop calling herself stupid and has recently discovered that Mahler is her spirit animal. And me. The soprano stepped out of the spotlight to find true joy in the wings.
Celena Cox (Image by Gina Proulx)