Originally hailing from New York City and born to a family of music lovers (her mother is the second oboist in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and her father an avid operatic aficionado), the bubbly and affable soprano Melanie Spector is a shining example of the benefits of musical exposure as a child, and the long-term advantages of increasing access to classical music in the lives of youth.
Having performed in the children’s chorus of the Metropolitan Opera in over 160 performances and graced the stage with the likes of Elena Garanca and Jonas Kaufman, Spector’s pre-professional career is a highly desirable one. Yet, as she shared in conversation, it seemed like she was predestined for a life on the operatic stage.
Spector graduated from the Manhattan School of Music only last year, but her hefty resume is replete with roles and experiences ranging in dramaturgical magnitude and technical difficulty. Recordings of the spirited young coloratura speak to the years of operatic training she has acquired and now continues to have as part of Detroit Opera’s newly reinvigorated Resident Artists Program, having stopped its operations during COVID and an administrative change of hands. Now, having six years of high-level training under her belt, numerous roles, and several competitions and encouragement awards, Spector has now come to Michigan to continue developing her operatic craft at Detroit Opera.
Opera and Singing
A question not asked enough by the young operatic singer is what the genre means to them. When asked, Melanie returned to her childhood and conveyed how the genre has become an intrinsic part of herself, “Opera is really who I am because I grew up around it as a child. My mother works at the MET in New York, and my father is an opera lover. It’s always felt like a part of me.” Yet, her concluding thought was a remarkable one, “It is one of the most human art forms in that it involves singing. It’s all human bone and flesh making the sound, and you can’t lie either.” The other question rarely asked, although implanted in various ways, is the meaning of singing.
When asked what singing meant and her goals when singing, Melanie’s answer was a direct one, “Singing comes when speaking is not enough. It’s one of the highest levels of conveying emotion and the internal world of a person.”
She further noted how she had to pull from her own life when singing to embody her characters, “When I sing, I am required to be honest and pull from my own experiences. I am required to look into myself and discover things in my life that I didn’t really think about before. I always try my best to identify with the characters I’m singing, and sometimes it’s a very out-of-body experience.”
Development and Career
Spector’s upbringing and initial entrance into the operatic world was a unique one, having participated at the MET as a child before diving into operatic training full-time. As she shared, she was never forced into opera. Instead, after hearing her father playing opera, she became entranced by the sound and had to know more, “One day, my dad was listening to a live-recording of Siegfried from the Bayreuth Festival, and as a five-year-old, I was entranced. I heard the forging scene, and I asked, ‘What is that? After finding out what that amazing sound was and the fantastic story behind it, I was hooked.”
Later, she went to see The Ring Cycle at the MET for the first time, and soon after, she auditioned for the MET’s children’s chorus, “I was slightly scared as I didn’t really know ‘opera language’ as I always heard the kids singing in different languages. When I was 8, I auditioned and got in. I was there for seven seasons and performed in 167 total performances in about 11 different operas and five languages.”
Spector notes that the opportunity helped solidify her aspirations, “It was an experience that cemented my love of the operatic artform, that being a professional opera singer was my calling.”
As Spector is familiar with, getting ready for the stage is not an easy process by any means and takes a lot of work to get performance ready. When asked about how she goes about learning a role, she noted how she puts a strong emphasis on the text as opposed to rushing to the music, “My ideal process is to take the text away from music, going through the pronunciation really meticulously, and various kinds of translations. Once I feel good with the language, I begin to learn the musical slowly, then put it all together. If you start by starting with the music first, it’s like making a bowl of cereal by putting in the milk first.”
Spector also remarked how she reads the primary source(s) of the operas she participates in, as to create a relationship with her characters, she must know their lives, “I also always try to read primary sources and the source materials of the opera because the story may have changed when becoming an opera. Sometimes it could be based on two stories, so you just have to be careful.”
Spector also noted that tying what happens in the life of her characters to her own life is an essential step in giving them a voice, “I always try to remind myself that these operatic characters are real people who do their makeup, eat breakfast, go to sleep. It’s hard to think about them this way, but they’re people just like us, and so we must give them a place to live.”
The Detroit Experience
When asked how she heard about the Detroit Opera Young Artist Program, Spector shared that it was her experiences as a MET children’s chorister that brought her to apply, “I’ve been a fan of Christine Goerke for a long time. Being at the MET as a child, I got to know her a bit. So when I saw the application for this program, I knew I had to apply.”
It was clear that Spector’s fondness for Goerke was more than a skin-deep fascination with the internationally acclaimed opera singer. As she explained, she jumped feet first, “I immediately began working on materials, and, when I found out I was a finalist, I was ecstatic. Even if I didn’t get in, just to get to sing at the Detroit Opera House is amazing.”
Her preparations turned out to be successful, and after her awe-struck audition, she heard back, “Luckily, I was chosen, and here I am.”
Being from New York City, one of the busiest cities in the United States, along with L.A. and Chicago, Spector is well acquainted with city life. However, she shared that there was a feeling Detroit had that New York couldn’t quite replicate. “There’s a buzz here I like. While New York has a buzz, here it’s a different kind.”
Putting a face to this feeling, Melanie expressed that it was Detroiter’s pride in their city that seemed to produce a palpable feeling of welcome for new residents, “People seem so proud to say they’re from Detroit, and you can sense it in everything this city has to offer. Newcomers like me are really welcome here; everyone here really want you like the city.” She emphasized this point by stating how Detroit, much like New York City, never sleeps, “There’s always something to do, so it’s never a dull moment.”
In a moment of levity, when asked what her favorite song cycle to listen to was, she answered without any delay: “My favorite thing to do in the wintertime is to curl up with warm socks, a cup of tea, and listen to Schubert’s ‘Winterreise’ because it pulls me in a way that other lieder just haven’t yet. The journey through the soul the character takes, and the 24 shades of sadness that the cycle’s arch produces are enchanting to me. Each time I hear it sung, I am moved to tears.”