When Melanie Spector was 8 years old, she had no idea that one day she'd be singing a pinnacle of operatic repertoire, the high-flying role of the Queen of the Night, in Mozart's Die Zauberflöte. Back then, as she played a little Sicilian girl in Cavalleria Rusticana at the Metropolitan Opera, she marveled: "How are they singing in those other languages?" Fast forward to present day: Melanie, now 20 years old, studies voice with baritone Mark Oswald (one of the most sought-after voice teachers in New York) at the Manhattan School of Music. Last summer she participated in Mark's workshop designed to teach young singers how to study and learn operatic roles. She was assigned the roles of the first and second Spirits (on different evenings) and covered the role of the Queen of the Night, never thinking she'd be required to sing it. Sure enough, when the scheduled Queen got sick, Melanie stepped up and sang the role, and her performance serves as inspiration for any number of tasks -- "now everything seems really easy compared to that!"
Her introduction to opera started at age 5, with Melanie's father Garry listening to Wagner's Siegfried. She credits hearing "all the banging" in Siegfried's “Forging Song” as the spark that led her down this operatic path. She asked her Dad what it was all about, and she decided she needed to see a DVD. She and her father watched the Met’s entire Ring Cycle production (directed by Otto Schenk), and as luck would have it, the Met performed it the next year. She saw the whole cycle live, and that was it: "Wagner kind of did it for me."
It's possible that Melanie has opera in her genes. Her mother Susan Laney Spector is an oboist in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and opera is an active endeavor for the entire family. As a young child, Melanie wanted to audition for the Met's Children's Chorus, but was paranoid she didn't know "opera language." At 8 years old, she mustered up the courage to audition, and was given an opportunity to appear as a super in Cavalleria Rusticana. As an introduction to the stage, prospective Children's Chorus members are sometimes asked to perform non-singing acting roles (called ‘supers’, or more commonly ‘stage performers’) to see if the opera world is right for them. They are subjected to the usual haphazard opera schedule: daytime rehearsals, late night performances, stage lighting, costumes, and what can sometimes be the over-stimulation of all the music around them. Most opera singers know that the first instinct of many kids upon hearing opera for the first time is to plug their ears -- great opera makes the ears buzz!
She passed the test of those first performances, and Elena Doria, the Children's Chorus Director at the time, fittingly cast her in Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. The Children's Chorus only appears in Act III of Wagner's 6-hour opera, so Melanie would attend the opera's first two acts with her father (Mom was playing in the pit) and show up for her costume call at 10:45pm. Watching the beginning of the opera with her Dad "made it even more special."
Overall, Melanie sang in eleven different Met productions by the time she "graduated" from the Children’s Chorus in 2013. Anthony Piccolo replaced Elena Doria in 2009, so Melanie had the opportunity to work with both directors.
Melanie says Mr. Piccolo maintained a very clear system for the kids to grow and flourish. Children are first chosen for “Beginner’s Class”, where they learn the basics and their talent is cultivated. Mr. Piccolo teaches the children lyrical singing, with a concentration on musical details, language diction and a legato sound. The Intermediate Class continues to build their skill set, and only when Mr. Piccolo thinks you're ready to sing in an opera do you graduate to the Advanced Class. From there, the children audition in groups of four for a particular opera, and parents are sent a confirmation email the next day letting them know whether their child has been selected.
Melanie gives a lot of credit to her early days at the Met. Her work in the Children's Chorus developed her musical "ear" -- the kids learn everything by ear, and she learns music very quickly to this day because of that early training. She also credits her work with providing her a direction for her professional life: "Singing in the Children’s Chorus and watching operas all my life, I figured out this is what I wanted to do — become an opera singer."
But it wasn't always easy. Melanie says, "For some reason, La Bohème is considered an easy opera to do, even though musically it's so hard. I remember my first rehearsal, and I was in with other kids who already knew it. I went home crying. Listening to a recording, it goes by so fast." But her hard work paid off. Melanie considers La Bohème and Carmen the "bread and butter" of Children's Chorus operas. She says jokingly, "If you hadn’t done at least 30 performances, were you really in the Children’s Chorus?"
The perky, affable soprano uses her knowledge of opera in various ways. You may hear Melanie as a guest on the Toll Brothers Metropolitan Opera Quiz, an assignment she's done a few times now. And keep an eye out on Instagram, where she ran Opera News' feed for their annual Awards Ceremony.
Melanie uses concepts learned in the Children's Chorus in her present-day musical endeavors. She says, "always memorize what you're working on -- just bite the bullet and do it." It makes working on the following steps of phrasing, musicality and character so much easier. And the most important thing she learned at the Met? "Always be impeccably prepared." She was clearly prepared when she was called at the last minute to sing the high Fs in "Der Hölle Rache" last summer for Die Zauberflöte, and we look forward to her continued success on and off the operatic stage.
Daniel Clark Smith, born in Barrington, IL, has degrees in Music Ed. and Choral Conducting from The University of Cincinnati – College-Conservatory of Music, and has loved singing in ensembles all his life. In concert, he particularly enjoys performing the Evangelist roles in J.S. Bach’s Passions. At the Met, favorite roles include a Lackey in Der Rosenkavalier, a soldier in Wozzeck and Parpignol in La Bohème, a role he has performed 100 times with the company. Daniel is a member of the Chorus Committee and serves as the Mens’ Chorus Safety Delegate. Daniel has been with his husband, fellow musician Michael S. Caldwell, for 26 years. Follow him on Twitter: @dclarksmith and Instagram: @danielclarksmith.