Interview: Soprano Michelle Bradley, A Young Artist On the Rise
Soprano On Almost Quitting, the Met Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist & VerdiBy David Salazar
On Nov. 9, 2018, Michelle Bradley will perform in the last of four Verdi Requiem performances at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. And then in January the soprano, who adores Verdi’s music above all else, will make her role debut as Leonora in “La Forza del Destino.”
It’s been a tremendous 2018 overall for Bradley, who made her role debut as “Aida” at the Opéra National de Lorraine in September and previously appeared as Donna Anna at the Opera Nacional de Chile. That all came after she completed her three years at the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Program, which allowed her the opportunity to appear in such recent Met Opera productions as “Norma,” “Idomeneo,” and “Aida.” She’s also received the 2016 Hildegard Behrens Foundation Award and the 2017 George London-Leonie Rysanek Award, among many other accolades.
“I am thankful to be at a point that I don’t worry about what I have. I just give it,” she told OperaWire in a recent interview. “I have everything I need to do this. Not to sound conceited or anything, but I believe that I have something that once I leave this earth, no one will ever hear it again.”
She didn’t always have that self-confidence. In fact, she almost never made it this far.
Bradley always knew that she wanted music in her life. She was used to hearing her parents sing gospel hymns and would try her best to imitate them.
“I played piano by ear. I taught myself. I had perfect pitch,” she noted. “I always loved music. I didn’t know what I would do with it, but I knew that I always wanted to have it in my life.”
During those early years, Whitney Houston dominated Bradley’s imagination.
“I tried to be Whitney Houston. I loved her smile. How she carried herself. She was always so lady-like.”
So, when it came time to make her move and head to school she picked the Kentucky State University with the intentions of becoming a music teacher. She minored in piano and majored in voice.
During her time there, she studied under Andrew W. Smith, who introduced her to the classical vocal style.
“The Winterreise were the first German songs I learned,” Bradley revealed. “From there, he showed me opera.”
One of the first albums that she came into contact with was “Prima Donna” by none other than Leontyne Price. Bradley could not believe what she heard.
“Leontyne Price is the reason I fell in love with opera. When I heard that album, I knew what I wanted to do. If Leontyne was still performing, I wouldn’t be singing. I wouldn’t even bother. That’s how amazing she was.”
From there Bradley started pushing herself toward the goal of becoming a professional opera singer.
But it wasn’t easy.
As her 30s fast-approached, Bradley found herself working to find a breakthrough, traveling far and wide to put her voice out there for others to hear.
“I was living with friends and sleeping on their couches,” she noted, emphasizing that money, or lack thereof, was an increasing problem. “I was cleaning houses for $40. I would then put $20 in my car and then take the other $20 and get some McDonald’s or something. That’s how I would make it for a few weeks at a time.”
She was also dealing with her own inner demons.
“At the start, I was very shy and didn’t talk much. My teeth were crooked and it made me scared to talk to people. I stayed with parents. Didn’t leave the house unless I had to,” she explained. “But here you go on auditions and meet new people and they just look at you. You never know what they’re thinking. That makes room for negative thoughts.”
During this time, she was studying with Lois Alba who encouraged her to head over to the Music Academy of the West to study with Marilyn Horne, the legendary mezzo with one of the most noted Met Opera careers in the later 20th century. Alba had always thought that Bradley had what it took to sing at the Met and felt that this was a step needed to get to that stage.
“You have one hell of a voice,” Horne told Bradley during their work together during that summer of 2014. She did the program for a couple of weeks and in January of 2015, she had booked an opportunity to audition for the Met Opera Lindemann Young Artist’s program.
Bradley had come to a point where it was all or nothing. The struggle of being an artist had taken its toll and she came to the conclusion that if she wasn’t good enough for the most prestigious young artist program in the country, she didn’t want to continue with her career.
A New World
“I was approaching 32 and hadn’t really done anything of note to that point,” Bradley noted. “My thinking was that I had given it everything I could and if this didn’t work out, it was probably a sign that I might need to go on with my life.”
She was living in Houston at the time and as time passed, she decided that it was indeed over. She applied for a music director position at a church.
“It was well-paid and I would have set myself up pretty well,” she explained.
And then fate struck.
“And as soon as I accepted that job, the Met called to invite me to the Lindemann program.”
She explained the situation to her new employers who were understanding. She worked with them through the summer months, helped the church find a replacement and was then off to New York to embark on a completely new adventure.
The last three years have been everything that Bradley had dreamed. She was connected with legendary soprano Diana Soviero, who has now taken over her vocal studies and helped Bradley find the technical security she was always seeking.
“I never get tired when I work with her. There are days when I am tired from being at Lindemann all day and still have a voice lesson. But with her, I forget it immediately,” Bradley explained. “Of all my teachers, Diana is the one that has really shined me up and taught me how to take care of myself. She really prepared me for the professional life.”
She found new mentors in such people as Ken Noda.
“He’s had a very strong hand in how my career started. I learned the work ethic to stay at this level from him,” she stated. “I don’t trust anyone to teach me my roles from him.”
But most importantly, she has found a new, better version of herself.
“I’ve learned how to carry myself and perform under any circumstance, no matter what. I have never canceled when I was in the program. I came close and thought about it, but I just can’t do that. It’s something I aspire to throughout my career. I want people to remember me for not doing that to them.
“It’s not just your time, it’s someone else’s. A lot of people’s time and money and you don’t want people to waste either of those. I want people to remember me for that.”
She has found a new way of working on operas that has allowed her to learn roles quickly and comfortably.
“If I stay focused and have time, I can learn music in a week,” she revealed. “I still have to memorize it, but a lot of the work gets done so that I can have time to develop the character and who they are to me.”
She doesn’t mind listening to recordings either, noting that she actively seeks out recordings of her favorite idols just to get a sense of what can be done.
“You are going to borrow a little something from everyone. Beyonce will go to other productions and dances to get ideas for her next concert tour. How are you going to be inspired if you don’t watch or listen? I try to find a recording of Maria Callas doing the role. I know that everything is going to be correct. Every marking is going to be there. Every feeling.”
As she looks forward, the soprano is excited about the prospect of doing more Verdi roles. “Aida” and “La Forza del Destino” were always among the operas she wanted to sing, but she still thinks that Lady Macbeth from “Macbeth” or Amelia in “Un Ballo in Maschera” could be in her future.
“I just love Verdi. His music is perfect for my voice,” she noted. The three Donizetti queens would also be a dream, as would “Norma,” the opera she recently performed at the Met, albeit as the small role of Clotilde.
But she would also like to go back to the German repertoire at some point. Back to the language with which she started this musical journey.
“Many years down the line I would like to try Wagner and Strauss. Brünnhilde? Elektra? I love the German repertoire. It’s non-stop flawless sound.”