By Emily Mahon
Years before I even knew what opera was, my 4th grade teacher, Miss Smith gave me the “True Grit Award.” I’m not sure if it was because I was caught punching a girl in the locker room for insulting my less than popular friend, or whether it was because I led a mini-feminist revolution in my gym class against my openly misogynistic gym teacher who insisted that during Thursday free-play girls HAD to sit on the bleachers and play with their dolls while the boys got to play basketball. “No exceptions, Emily. It’s not ladylike to play with the boys.” I revolted and forced him to open free play time up for girls too.
Living in Texas at the time, I had heard the term “True Grit” thrown around a lot in positive tones, so I took my award as a real compliment. Recently, Angela Lee Duckworth gave a TED talk where she claims that “Grit” is the key to success. According to Angela: “Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
Well, heck. Thanks, Miss Smith!
Anyway, by the time I was in 10th grade, my mom made me make a hard choice: “You can be on the basketball team or sing in the choir. But not both. It’s up to you.”
I Chose Choir
I chose choir. Don’t get me wrong. It was the HARDEST DECISION I may have ever made in my ENTIRE life. I loved basketball and was really good at it; Scholarship good. I was also really good at music and loved to sing. I made the choice because music looked to me as though it would provide more long term payback for all my hard work than basketball would. Not sure how I knew this at 14 but it seemed to make sense. So, I went full in. I took weekly voice lessons, practiced every day, sang every chance I could in every genre that I could; country, jazz, classical, folk, whatever my voice could handle and felt good to me at the time. I won singing and piano competitions and developed into quite the little musician.
The Operatic Voice!
My voice was pretty good going into college. Good enough to get some partial scholarships and land me a few choice roles in the Opera Workshop productions at school. It was agile and had a crazy range that placed me firmly in the coloratura vocal fach. Maybe someday I would be able to sing Mozart’s Queen of the Night, but probably more likely that I’d stay in the light-French or at most, lyric coloratura categorizations at least till my 30’s. I was a good musician, making a 4.0 across the board and nailing my Italian, German, and French pronunciation and could sight-read like a pro. I LOVED to practice and really enjoyed the research portion of my recitals, providing lots of interesting tidbits about each of the songs in my program notes.
By my third year, my voice had grown enough to have the privilege of representing the vocal department and competing against all of the instrumentalists in a school-wide competition that came with a scholarship covering tuition for senior year. I won it singing a nice, and I emphasize “nice” as it wasn’t anywhere near flawless, performance of the “Bell Song” from Delibe’s opera, The vocal acrobatics wowed the judges and as the first vocalist in 35 years to receive this honor, the win also made me an instant enemy of the instrumentalist for the rest of my college career. (Singers apparently aren’t supposed to win those types of things just like, I guess, girls aren’t supposed to play with boys in elementary school.)
Anyway, I graduated with a slightly big head and moved back to Texas where I landed a tiny role in the regional production of Pirates of Penzance. I also got cast as Gilda in the same company’s production of Verdi’s Rigoletto the following year. It was at that point, that I started to question if this was the right path for me; If this was really what I wanted. I started to wonder if I should go back to school for my Master’s degree, knowing full well that I couldn’t afford it in my current financial state. Or maybe I could just keep moving forward, auditioning and building up my career through regional opera and young artists programs working my way up the ladder with sheer will-power, talent and…grit. So, I reached out to the internet for help and landed here: Laura Claycomb’s Young Artist Corner.
My Opera Idol
Laura soon became my newest obsession. Reading all the advice and wisdom she was sharing was thrilling! This was someone who knew what they were talking about and she was the first one to offer a road map that didn’t include grad school. It would take courage, creativity, perseverance, stamina, resilience and endurance. All gritty qualities I was sure I had in bulk. I had an option and it looked like a valid one! I printed out all of her articles and put them in my music folder to read between practice sessions. I found her email address and wrote her thanking her for all of her advice. I also sent her a CD of my voice and asked if she could give me some pointers or maybe let me know if she thought I might have the chops to actually make it in opera.
That December, I found myself getting out of a cab with my suitcase at the front entrance to the Houston Grand Opera and meeting Laura Claycomb face to face ready to spend a week on her couch learning and soaking in all it meant to be a real opera singer. She was wonderful! I remember walking on the grounds of the Opera House crunching the fall leaves underfoot and talking about how much nicer and cooler Houston was than I had remembered from one previous, August trip in my childhood. I sang for her in the practice rooms and she complimented my voice and shared her secrets for the beautiful top spin in her high notes. We talked about breathing techniques and I spent an hour sitting on the floor in the hall, outside of the closed rehearsal, practicing breathing like she taught me.
I remember going to dinner at a really nice restaurant. We shared some wine and walked back to the one bedroom condo HGO was housing her in for the duration of her contract in Houston. She told me all about her home in Belgium where her boyfriend lived and how often she’s away. I remember every night after rehearsal, in the little one room condo, sitting on the couch writing down my thoughts from the day and her sitting on her bed on the computer answering emails, working on her website, or talking to her agent or something else, constantly staying busy.
We watched the news one night and had a heated political discussion ending with me learning a whole new global perspective on politics. She introduced me to Orange flavored Emergen-C, which she drank every morning and we discussed the importance of a healthy life style for singers as their entire career hinges on their body working together just right. Then it was over. An old friend of mine picked me up from the condo and drove me to the airport and I flew back home.
Why Do You Sing?
The path seemed doable, a little lonely, a little harsh, but I could handle those elements. I’ve never minded being alone, heck, I had “grit!” but a question Laura asked me kept nagging me. “Why do you sing?” Well… I …um…I’m good at it and…um…I like…The truth was that I didn’t have an answer to her question compelling enough to give up the other things I wanted in life. I learned a lot from that visit to Houston. I learned that I, personally, Emily Mahon, needed more time to grow up before I chose an all-consuming career path that I was currently on because it seemed like what I was supposed to do after getting a vocal performance degree. I needed to explore my other, arts and music- related, very marketable and equally interesting skills and see what other paths I might take in my pursuit of happiness. I learned that no matter how much I persevered or how hard I worked, being an opera singer might not be MY answer. I ended up cancelling my role as Gilda, but giving up that role didn’t mean I gave up on singing or I that I have to hand back my True Grit Award to Miss Smith in shame.
So here is my “True Confession”
I love to sing. I still sing as often as I can.
I love how the high notes vibrate in my head when I place them just right.
I love the feeling of singing a perfect line of legato.
I love singing arias in German and Italian and how the languages feel in my mouth.
I love listening to good singers.
I love singing in great choruses surrounded by beautiful harmonies and choral synergy. (I even get a little jealous of some of those soloists and opera stars sometimes.)
BUT, I also love my family.
I love seeing my family every day.
I really love having a reliable source of income every month.
I love being able to go to a parade or a rock concert or a loud bar, let loose and yell to be heard and then waking up in the morning horse and not freaking out about whether my voice will heal in time for an upcoming performance.
I love singing jazz and old standards and not placing my voice just so and letting my voice rip and scratch through an emotional folk-ballad.
I realized that I didn’t love opera enough to let go of the OTHER things that I love. I’m still “working really hard to make my [that] future a reality.” I just realized that the future I was really wanting didn’t HAVE to involve an actual “opera career”. I love how I can apply what I learned in choir and music school AND basketball to what I do in my work now and how it applied to how I interact with my family and broader community. Nothing has been lost or a waste of time because I shifted away from something I thought I wanted. I love that I continue to apply all of that 4th grade grit to everything I do.
Grit is only one of many keys to success. I don’t make millions (yet), I haven’t sung at the Met or La Scala but I’m successful, because I have chosen how to define my success, and I will continue to be successful as long as I’m honest with myself about what I truly want out of life. I’ve learned to use all my talents – heart, mind and voice – and apply them to the many new and exciting opportunities that my work and family present me with day in and day out. And for me, THAT is what makes me sing.
Author Emily Mahon graduated from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA with a Bachelor of Music, in Vocal Performance and has sung in regional operas and musical theatre productions, jazz ensembles and professional choirs in Pennsylvania, Texas and California at venues such as the Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Hollywood Bowl. She currently manages teaching artist residency programs for K-12 schools across LA County for The Music Center, and volunteers as President of Museum Educators of Southern California all while raising two adorable children along with her husband in the suburbs of Los Angeles.