“If there is anything I know, it’s this—I know the voice.”
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This Little Light O'Mine
Four Last Songs of Strauss #3
I sing. I have always sung. I will sing with my last breath. I cannot remember a time when I did not sing. I sang my first solo, I Am a Beautiful Sunbeam, at the age of four to a captive audience of 300 people at church. Afterwards I announced with great authority that “when I grow up, I will be a singer.” As I grew up, I continued to sing in my church, at other churches, at home, in school, at weddings, at funerals, with the radio, without the radio, in the shower. Everywhere—I sang. Whenever I experienced pain or disappointment, I would remind myself that I would be okay because I had a little piece of gold in my throat.
My family, however, had other ideas about my singing. I was to get an education doing something to earn a living. I capitulated, majored in English, graduated, promptly married, started having babies and teaching High School English. I quickly learned that teaching High School English was not my passion. After a few years of trying to make teaching work, my inner voice said, “Girl you gotta sing!” So, on a whim and a dare, I applied to The Juilliard School. Lo and behold—they offered me an audition! I auditioned, was accepted on full scholarship, quit my teaching job, and for the last thirty years I have sung—just sung.
Singing for My Supper
Juilliard was the laboratory where I explored, discovered, embraced and honed my voice. I learned that there is music that chooses you and loves your voice, and music your voice loves to sing. So, while I grew up really liking to sing salsa, pop, hymns and musicals, at Juilliard I learned that my voice loved opera and opera loved my voice.
The singing skills I learned at Juilliard carried me to the world stage. Among the operas that loved my voice and I loved to sing were Aida, Madama Butterfly, Jenufa, Norma and Tosca. Some of the places I sang these operas were: The New York City Opera, The Kennedy Center, The Munich and Hamburg State Opera Houses in Germany, The Arena of Verona in Italy, The Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City, The Vienna State Opera, and The Pyramids in Egypt.
Then Came Spirituals
Because I come from the Puerto Rican culture, Spirituals—the music of American slaves—did not play a significant part in my black Puerto Rican growing up. Ten years ago, Spirituals called me home. Here’s the story:
In July 1997, I was approached to do a concert of Spirituals to which I promptly said: “No, I don’t sing Spirituals. I am an opera singer.” In August 1997, Princess Diana died and I watched her funeral on television. The Libera me from The Verdi Requiem—a work that I have done many times—was exquisitely performed. Then along came Elton John singing his version of Candle in the Wind. When the music stopped, I could see and hear people sobbing. I watched and suddenly understood: “This is what the Spirituals can do!” Their power can move anyone listening to tears. In that moment, I decided to do the Spirituals concert—a decision that stripped me naked. There I was on an empty stage, no longer Aida wearing beautiful costumes with dramatic sets and lighting behind which to hide, I was simply, Awilda, on a bare stage, singing Spirituals. It was a terrifying experience, but oh, so rewarding. I had found another genre of music that loved my voice and that I loved to sing!
That concert of Spirituals led to a grant from The King County Arts Commission to do a series of Spiritual Concerts in the tradition of Marian Anderson and to the recording of a CD of Spirituals in which I decided not to edit one note. I finally understood that the Spirituals are about surrendering the voice and letting the Spirituals sing me as I sing them.
This amazing, thirty year journey has brought me to where I am today and to this small piece of wisdom. I am not what I do. I just am. I am no longer an opera singer, but I sing opera. I am no longer just a singer, but I sing—all kinds of music. I am no longer a teacher of High School English, but I teach. I am not a biologist, but I know the biology of the voice. I can say truthfully “I know the voice compleatly.”