How Naperville native scored a top opera award
The award has been called the "Heisman Trophy for singers," and Naperville native Tamara Wilson has won it.
Wilson, a 34-year-old opera singer, will be recognized for winning this year's Richard Tucker Award when she takes the stage Oct. 30 at Carnegie Hall in New York City to be featured during a gala concert.
Wilson grew up in Naperville -- "before the Starbucks went in," she says -- and has fond memories of the city's small-town charm. She graduated from Waubonsie Valley High School and then attended Conservatory in Cincinnati.
A professional opera singer for 10 years, Wilson's recognition with the Richard Tucker Award means she's considered an American singer on the cusp of a major international career.
The Daily Herald emailed with Wilson, whose schedule changes every day as she travels, rehearses and performs with the Houston Grand Opera, to ask about her career, her award and her childhood. Here is an edited version of the conversation.
Q. How did you get your start in singing and in opera?
A. My family always had music on. I watched movie musicals from the old Hollywood greats. I had records of Julie Andrews singing Hammerstein. I grew into loving musicals and singing in general.
It wasn't until my junior year in high school when I started to take private voice lessons that I developed a true interest in classical music. I went to Conservatory in Cincinnati for undergrad and part of my graduate work. Then I made it to the finals of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Competition when I was 22.
I met the head of the Houston Grand Opera Studio who told me to audition the following year for Houston's competition, which I did -- and won. I was asked to enter the studio that very evening, hence the reason I did not complete my grad work, much to the chagrin of my parents. I think it worked out OK. It's 10 years later and I'm still singing.
Q. What do you love most about your profession?
A. I love that I get to sing these amazing roles and perform on stage. Performing is my favorite thing to do on the planet. I enjoy the fact that I get to travel the world (Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, the United Kingdom) and see cities and cultures from a different perspective than a tourist. I will live in foreign cities sometimes up to three months at a time. You make friends all over the world and that is an amazing gift.
Q. What do you find most challenging?
A. Doing taxes from all over the world! The jet-setting can look glamorous, but I'm away from the States about 70 percent of the year; I rarely sleep in my own bed.
After a show, I go home to a corporate apartment or hotel and just kind of wait until the next performance, the next country. That part is a little lonely, but the rush I get from performing hopefully outweighs that loneliness.
I get paid by performance, so if I get sick, I don't get paid; in that respect it's a very risky job.
Q. How would you describe your voice?
A. There's a voice type categorization system from Germany called the Fach system; it breaks down different voice types and the roles they are suited for.
I am a dramatic coloratura soprano. This means I can sing loudly (dramatic); I can sing fast notes (coloratura); and I have a high voice (soprano).
Q. How would you describe opera to people who aren't familiar with it?
A. There's a German phrase for opera, Gesamtkunstwerk, which means "total work of art." It's music, theater, visuals, poetry, lighting, makeup, spectacle. It's everything.
The themes in operas are universal as well. They deal with the extremes of human emotions.
I know a lot of people are intimidated by going to an opera. They feel like they won't "get it" or it's too expensive or they don't know what to expect.
But I'll say this, opera is for anyone who wants to see it. Start with a local opera company and see something like "Trovatore," "Aida," "Marriage of Figaro" or "The Barber of Seville." All of those have tunes you will recognize from popular culture, mostly "Loony Tunes."
Q. What are your favorite pieces to perform or roles to play?
A. My favorite pieces always end up being the ones that challenge me. Kaiserin in "Die Frau Ohne Schatten" by Richard Strauss is a favorite. It's devilishly hard to learn, but once it's in your voice, it's amazing to sing.
I love playing characters that are so far from me. Usually I'm bubbly and happy. I recently played Leonora in "Force of Destiny" by Verdi with the English National Opera and it was by far the most favorite thing I've ever done. I got to smash plates on stage, use blood packets and garrote myself to death -- but not before singing for another 20 pages!
Ah, opera deaths. The only time you die, but keep singing! I had to take two showers per show because of the amount of fake blood we used.
Fun fact: the dirt and blood in a show is made up of crushed Oreos and corn syrup with red food coloring. So you end up smelling like a chocolate candy apple.
Q. What was your reaction to receiving the Richard Tucker Award?
A. In our industry, this is one of the top honors and I am incredibly grateful and humbled. When I got the call, I was so excited. I think I giggled for a solid two minutes. I was jumping up and down for around five minutes. My sister, who is my assistant, came into the room and I jumped some more.
I was on Cloud Nine because I was going to be able to sing at the Tucker Gala in Carnegie Hall as the Tucker Award winner. (I will be a professional, but I have a feeling the butterflies in my stomach will be wearing jetpacks.)
Q. What was it like growing up in Naperville?
A. I loved Naperville. My mom worked at the old antique store that used to be on Jefferson Avenue. After school, we would help her clean the cases or set up cute tea cup displays.
The house I lived in from eighth grade on was originally a corn field in south Naperville. That still feels like our main childhood home. I do miss things about Naperville -- Ribfest, the Naper Settlement (my first job), the seasons, although I don't miss shoveling snow.
The thing I loved most about Naperville is the educational system and community programs. I know I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now it if weren't for Young Naperville Singers and the theater company for kids headed by the late Margo Krug, Only A Stage.
The arts in general are valued in Naperville Unit District 203 and Indian Prairie Unit District 204 in a way that I have not seen equaled across the country. Almost all of the students I went to school with are successful in the world of art in one way or another.