Song of Triumph: New York-based soprano Marsha Thompson shares her inspiration for singing, even in the midst of difficult times.
by Patrick D. McCoy
PDM: What would you say was your biggest inspiration in pursuing a career as a classical singer?
MT: My biggest inspiration in pursuing a classical singer career was the concept of travel and singing in foreign languages. I get bored easily and I wanted to have a career that would provide me with endless options and the least probability of boredom. As for operatic singers who inspired me, I’d have to say Luciano Pavarotti, Shirley Verrett, Mirella Freni, Maria Ewing, Jessye Norman, Martina Arroyo, Régine Crespin, and Leontyne Price–in no particular order.
PDM: How was your career choice received by family and friends?
MT: When I first decided to change my major from violin to vocal performance my parents were livid. They had just purchased me a new violin a year prior to my decision to double major in voice. I was a junior in college, so I ended up paying for that violin for the next 5 years! It seemed a shame that the barrier jury at the University of Houston passed several people less talented than me, on their violin barrier juries, yet they insisted that I had to choose between violin and voice. (They brought me to UH to study violin performance on a scholarship with the world renowned violinist Fredell Lack, so of course I was good enough.) I reluctantly chose voice after my fifth year in college and two unsuccessful barrier juries. They had never had a student who performed in two applied instruments at a high level, well enough to be a professional in both areas. It was a means of control in my opinion. I was advised to sue the University for wasting my time and money, but I was tired and ready to graduate and felt the process would be a waste of resources and too much negative energy. I ended up leaving Houston to move to NYC before I completed my last six hours because it was one road block after another to adequately fulfill my obligations to complete a bachelor degree. It seemed like the administration was completely against my success, except for three individuals on faculty. By then I had already been in college for 8 years-having had to work while in school, teaching, playing in regional orchestras, and singing in university and local opera performances with Opera in the Heights and Ebony Opera Guild. It was time to move on and I could have cared less about those last 6 hours of course work. I got a New York agent and was invited to audition for the Franco Zeffirelli Aida. They cast me in the second round of shows which took place in Milan at the Piccolo La Scala, summer of 2001. I used the money earned from that first professional singing engagement to move to New York City. 9/11 occurred 7 days after I settled in the Bronx, and in October of 2001 I was cast as Bess and made my New York City Opera debut February 2002. I definitely feel like I made the right decision, although it was a very unpopular one with family and friends. I returned to University of Houston in 2009 during the recession to complete my degree. It was a unique university and early career experience. There was lots of pressure from my parents and the university. I’d never want to repeat that part of my life.
PDM: Talk to me about the preparation that it requires present music at such a high level.
MT: This is a great question. Dedication to the text and music is so important. I write my words several times per day when learning new music. Even if it is in English, you always learn more about the text, and how it is set when you have the added dimension of writing it out. I have a breakfast, lunch and dinner rule as well. Looking at the music 3 times a day, like a dietary schedule, allows it to become second nature. Also, having been a violinist, I always know the orchestral score. This is a big one. I know when I am doubled by certain instruments or how I am juxtaposed to an instrumental interlude, or when a big orchestral moment is happening underneath me which requires the need to give “more,” etc. I notice that lots of singers are obsessed with counting. I rarely count. Seriously! It sounds bad, I know, but counting in an obsessive manner inhibits the ability to phrase and breathe with the freedom required to create great moments. Of course there’s and internal metronome that comes from experience. I typically know the score cold and even if the conductor and orchestra have an awkward musical moment, I’m usually, always with the orchestra, because I know their entrances as well as they do. Most orchestral players, especially string players, lead as though they are playing chamber music. Opera is grand chamber music. So, when I am on stage I feel this amazing connection with the orchestra and do my best to translate that connection into how I breathe and sing dynamics. I think I sing much better with orchestra for this reason. There are two types of singers and not all singers are orchestral singers, which is why piano vocal auditions give the listener a false sense of what a singer sounds like with orchestra in a performance hall…but that’s a different topic…
PDM: Recently, you experienced a very personal medical scare. Share about how good physical health is important to an active career as a performer.
MT: Well my medical scare was something that I knew I needed to take care about a year and a half prior to my surgery. The doctor that I had previously gone to never checked my blood levels, so I had this false sense of well-being although I constantly felt tired, especially when I sang. I had no idea that I was so severely anemic that my blood levels were at 50%. Two days after returning from a brief trip in Germany, I had a follow-up visit with my new doctor to get the results of my sonogram and to schedule my surgery. My doctor said that not only was I in jeopardy of having a heart attack due to low blood levels, but that I needed the fibroid removed immediately because of where it was situated in the wall of the uterus.
I had a concert in 3 weeks and emphasized that I absolutely could not be incised/cut. My medical team at Bronx Lebanon, led by Dr. Ami Shah, was great! They understood my unique needs as an opera singer and the surgery was a success. She went in via the vaginal canal to remove as much of the tumor as possible, and I had 3 bags of blood via transfusion. (Fibroids are like aliens growing inside or outside your uterus that suck up large amounts of blood in order to grow. Many women of all races, but especially women of African descent, suffer from this disease state. Fibroids are benign tumors in most cases.) There is still a bit of the tumor left because of its position, so I have to take a 3 month dose injection called Lupron, which will continue to shrink the tumor. I’m still getting better. I feel great! No more vomiting or dizzy spells on a monthly basis. It was sheer hell those last 9 months but I’m still standing. Praise GOD!
PDM: Transparency is a rare find these days. Why did you decide to share such a private medical matter with your “fan base?”
MT: That’s so sweet of you to say “fan base.” LOL! I don’t think women discussing fibroids should be a private issue. After I did that video post, several men reached out to me to thank me for shedding light on the issue, because it helped them to better understand the needs of their spouse/significant other when they are experiencing complications with fibroids, or any other female issue. I also learned through my journey, that many women from earlier generations had the same issues but never spoke about the symptoms. So, generations of women have known that fibroids are an issue but older women suffered in silence and didn’t share their experiences. Most women that I’ve spoken to in younger generations, had no idea how our mothers, aunts, and grandmothers had suffered. The dialogue about fibroids actually being a “disease state,” and the symptomology surrounding it, must be a part of open discussion in order to bring about awareness and funding for research. More women suffer from complications from fibroids than that of heart disease or breast cancer combined-if I’m not mistaken! The numbers are startling! Sometimes, if not treated, people do in fact die from those complications. For years it was taboo to say menstruation or period in public. This is the bodily process that all women go through in order to bear offspring. This is why you and I are here, because of the monthly sacrifice that our mother’s bodies made until they became pregnant with, and birthed us. Everyone should be informed.
PDM: You have had some wonderful performance experiences? What was it like to return home to sing for your hometown audience? What was on the program?
MT: Well, I have not yet sung for my home town audience in a symphonic concert for opera or at Shreveport Opera. I have sung with the Shreveport Symphony on a Christmas gala in 2004, coordinated by the Shreveport Suzuki School, where I began my violin studies. I sang “O Holy Night” and “Gesu Bambino” and played violin with my former Suzuki colleagues in the Bach Double Concerto. I also gave a solo recital at the Centenary School of Music in 2010, where friends, family, and former teachers attended. Texarkana is 1 hour and 15 minutes from Shreveport. It is an oil and gas town, like most of the Ark-La-Tex area. The people were extremely warm and welcoming. I felt the love for sure. Maestro Marc André Bougie is a wonderful young conductor who, in my humble opinion, has an amazing future. I hope to see him conducting a major ensemble as the resident conductor someday. The tenor Jonathan Reisen, is a Shreveport Opera Studio alum, so it was a sort of homecoming for him too. We sang “O Soave Fanciulla” from La Boheme and “Libiamo” from La Traviata. I sang solo arias, which included “La mamma morta”, “Merci jeunes amies,” and “Vissi d’arte.”
PDM: What advice would you give to any emerging artists pursuing a career in classical music? If you could sum it up in three words, what has been your experience?
MT: My advice to young artists is to be eager, but not desperate. If you do not reach the pinnacle of performing opera, you are still a success! Not everyone will sing at the MET, Houston, LA, etc. I have sung is some amazing places and have had beautiful experiences and I’m so grateful and joyous about my life, because most people never have the opportunity to have the experiences that I’ve had, in or out of the opera business. We don’t all have to have the same path to get to the top, nor do we all have to have the same way of thinking, or the same way of being. This journey is a super marathon. Those who persevere with joy and love in their hearts will survive with their sanity intact. I have seen people with such anger, malice, and darkness in their souls because of what the business can do to you. Needless to say, their sanity is NOT intact. There are some good people in the business, but there are some bad people too. I ignore the bad people as much as possible, and do my best to be a good colleague. Fortunately, since I began singing again in 2013, I have had amazing experiences with lots of good people. It has been a relief, because the early part of my career was difficult, and there were lots of toils and snares. I’m grateful for those experiences though, and look forward to a rosy future no matter what I’m doing, because I also have a medical device business, and I do consulting work. My daily affirmation is: “Abundance flows freely through me and I always attract abundant opportunity.” Three words of affirmation: Perseverance, Resilience and Joy!
–A native of Petersburg, Virginia, Patrick D. McCoy is a graduate of Virginia State University and Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester, Virginia. He has been an arts contributor for Examiner.com, CBS Washington, The Afro American Newspaper and most recently was the Performing Arts Columnist at Washington Life Magazine for four years. As a church musician, he currently serves as Organist/Choirmaster at Saint John’s Episcopal Church (Zion Parish) in Beltsville, Maryland. Visit www.patrickdmccoy.com for all of your arts news and send press releases and ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.