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Singer Melanie Holliday Talks Opera, Careers

Dec. 8, 2010
SHSU Media Contact: Meredith Mohr

Melanie Holiday
International opera star Melanie Holliday, an SHSU alumna, discussed her life and career with participants of the Elliott T. Bowers Honors College annual event "Let's Talk."

In a tiny conference room just minutes before the main event begins, Melanie Holliday sits down with me to talk about her life and career in Europe singing and dancing in opera houses.

Holliday is in town for the Let’s Talk event, a round table discussion dinner held to raise money for the SHSU Honors College.

But this interview is about more than just what she’s accomplished in the past three decades. Perhaps more importantly, she also helps me understand what it takes to go from a Sam Houston State University student with a dream to a world renowned and respected figure in the opera world.

She is down to earth and easy to talk to, and the first thing I notice about her isn’t that she’s something of a superstar, actually.

As she leans back in her chair, grinning as she remembers her first role in the theater– dancing the part of Liesl in “The Sound of Music” at age 17 - I realize the ease with which the conversation flows makes it feel less like an interview and more like a get together between two old friends.

It’s all part of her charm.

We talk about her career, which has spanned more than 30 years on stages internationally including Vienna, Austria and Japan. It’s hard to believe that she started out in voice lessons with SHSU Music faculty professor Walter Foster in Huntsville, Texas.

But then she told me, her demeanor taking a serious tone, “this is what I consider to be my home.”

Holliday, originally from Houston, started out determined to be a ballerina with plans to attend The Julliard School in New York. The only singing she had done was as a youth in choir and listening to classical music with her mother at home. But a horseback riding accident required Holliday to change directions in the performing arts.

“I came to college at Sam Houston because of the accident,” Holliday said. “The connection I made with Dr. Foster was the most important part of my time here. I still come back to visit him and have voice check-ups. My first opera role was here on campus in Old Main, probably with cardboard sets. It was my time at Sam Houston that really shaped my career.”

Holliday studied voice under Foster at SHSU for a year and a half before going to Indiana University to finish her education. In Indiana, she met her future husband. She went to Vienna with him and started singing professionally in European opera houses.

“A career in the performing arts is very difficult. I’ve only broken a few bones, and I’ve hardly been sick,” Holliday said. “I’m very fortunate to have had good health, something that is essential in an opera career. You spend a lot of time on airplanes, rehearsals are tough and long, and you have to look good when you arrive. It can be very rough, but it’s extremely rewarding.”

Holliday said that it was during one of her favorite roles – dancing the cancan and singing the title role of the Merry Widow in Japan– that she first really realized that she could make a successful career out of singing opera.

“The first time I really thought it would work, the first time that I realized I could be singing all over the world was at the end of the first performance,” Holliday said. “There were two other girls performing with me, and we all had standing ovations. Then the next evening, I performed again and danced. The Japanese people were floored – they couldn’t believe American girls like us could dance and sing so well. We must have repeated it four times. At the end I was just drooping, but I knew I could make this a lifelong career.”

Holliday has learned a few tricks of the trade after many nights on stage. An unexpected skill from someone who sings for a living? The art of being quiet.

“Something people don’t understand a lot of times about my career is that I have learned to be silent when I have to,” Holliday said. “The same little muscles for speaking are the ones I use to sing with. On the day of a performance, I don’t talk at all. It’s very hard to make people understand that I don’t want to talk. On those days in Japan, there is a lot of bowing.”

She considers her knowledge of language one of the most essential things to her career. She noted that this was a good place to start for students who are trying to break into the business.

“When I first went to Vienna, I didn’t speak any German at all. I speak it fluently now, but at first I was very green. I had taken a few semesters of language classes, but I didn’t understand the importance of it until I was in the middle of it,” Holliday said. “I really want to emphasize the necessity of languages.

“A lot of students know the methods and techniques well enough to teach them, and then are good at sight reading and they have a good voice and training. But if they really want to perform, all that counts is what you do on stage and how you perform – they’re looking at voice, movement and languages. Learn a second language and really get good at it and study it. You will help build your repertoire so much faster and thoroughly.”

In the same down to earth and approachable attitude, she now leans on her elbows and tells me, with a little laugh as if it’s a well kept secret, her advice for anybody sitting in their classes, or working and wondering what to do with their lives : “be open to possibility. Dream big and work hard. Let the world be your stage.”

“Growing up in Houston, the concept of Europe was so far away, so foreign to me,” Holliday said. “Until we went to Europe, I didn’t really realize how big the world is, how many opportunities there are in this world.

“Be open to the idea that there could be a career out there that you don’t even know exists yet. I had no idea I was going to end up singing Viennese operas. You could be doing anything if you are open to the idea. I had no idea what adventures were in store for me.”



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