(Photo: Murphy Made)
Acclaimed coloratura soprano Meghan Picerno is the recipient of several awards in the field of opera, including first-place prize at the Arkadi International Vocal Competition at New York Lyric Opera. She was also a quarterfinalist in Plácido Domingo’s Operalia International Vocal Competition at the Royal Opera House.
But Ms. Picerno’s star truly began to rise after her first collaboration with legendary director Hal Prince as Cunegonde in his new and final production of “Candide” at New York City Opera. Meghan also starred as Christine in the US Premiere and First National Tour of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Love Never Dies” and was handpicked by Hal Prince himself to lead the new world tour of “The Phantom of the Opera” where Meghan returned as Phantom’s leading lady, Christine Daaé, for its historic Broadway reopening, for which she was nominated as Broadway Replacement of the Decade.
OperaWire recently caught up with Meghan at her home in New York to learn more.
OperaWire: You’re pretty much unique in that you are a classically trained artist, having performed opera, yet achieving remarkable success in Broadway and elsewhere. How did that come about?
Meghan Picerno: I suppose I had a pretty “normal” childhood, growing up as a suburbanite of Chicago. But from the very beginning, music was ALWAYS something I gravitated towards. I was, again, just a normal kid. Normal in the sense that I didn’t know what I wanted to do. So I kind of did it all! In high school I was a cheerleader. Somewhere you can see a video of us competing in Nationals on ESPN… But also, I was in National Honor Society, in all college level classes. I was in the musicals, but I also played tennis… I was the type of personality in high school where none of my best friends could have hung out because I was friends with basically every different social group. I lived that fascinating dichotomy of simultaneously belonging everywhere and nowhere. So, I was like a sparkly, fun, smart, traveling lone wolf who was accepted into many a different den, I suppose you could say. It’s funny looking back now because I look at those years and think, “Wow! I was already setting the tone (the stage?) of what later in life and my career would grow into: basically, breaking boundaries and refusing to be put into any one box.” When it comes down to it, I just love people, so translating that into a performance: whether I’m singing classically or Broadway or jazz or rock…. well, no one wants to hear me sing rock, although I am one hundred percent a rocker at heart, born into a coloratura body! I just love communicating and connecting with humans, in whichever the best storytelling medium is called for in any situation.
As I mentioned, I grew up in the Midwest, into a very proud Chicago Italian family. If you’ve ever seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding, that is my family, but Italian! There were very polar opposites played out in my house when it came to musical tastes. We listened to a variety of classical works, particularly symphonic works, ranging from Vivaldi to Mozart, to Verdi to Wagner and everything in between. But then again, we would also ROCK out. As in, give me that Black Sabbath, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Kiss, CCR … I mean you name it, some of the most incredible songwriting of the 20th century was most likely being blasted in the Picerno household. So basically, I grew up on the classics: Classic Rock and Classical Music! And, like all good Italian Americans, still to this day, we OF COURSE whip out the Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Harry Belafonte, etc. when it’s time to cook dinner, or especially around the holidays. We are proudly 100 percent THAT family making arancini (the most delicious Sicilian rice balls- those who know…KNOW) with “‘Hey Mambo Italiano” cranked to the max in the background— a sight to be seen, let me tell you. Interestingly enough, I never actively listened to opera OR Broadway tunes growing up. I saw ONE musical theatre show (Les Mis) in Chicago growing up, and later in high school I saw two operas, which unbeknownst to me at the time, would influence and completely change my life. I may as well mention now that it didn’t take long for me to realize what generally happens to me is that a thunderbolt moment strikes, and my life completely changes, and I ultimately just dive right into whatever new path was made with said thunderbolt. But indeed no, I funnily enough did not grow up with opera or Broadway lilting through the halls.
OW: So when did you actually start singing, and what was it that you sung?
MP: Well I actually studied piano, and I was good. Like VERY good. Great, dare I say. I was talented at classical piano and immediately my palate wanted more. So, I also took lessons in jazz, the blues, and ragtime. I was actually in a jazz band and then I devastatingly decided I was “too cool for school” and no longer wanted to practice piano. I look back sometimes and ask my parents, OMG! But did you even know what I had?! To which they lovingly, firmly, and calmly reply: “Meghan, once you’ve set your mind upon something, there’s no stopping you.” They know me well.
But the universe knows what it’s doing, and my falling out of love with piano soon turned toward a fervent curiosity and flirtation with singing. My freshman year (first year) of high school, on a whim, I auditioned for “The Music Man” which was THE big musical at The Academy. Here I was, just a freshman, and SCANDAL! I was cast as the leading lady: Marian, the librarian. In the following years I was cast as the lead in every show in my high school. FYI, I went to a Catholic, private college prep which was primarily very academic, but the arts department was indeed highly competitive and coveted. There was much more social mixing at my high school than the “traditional” very large public high schools. So, I would perform the leads in the musicals, but I would also train with track and like I said, cheerleading, and this and that. Many football players were our stage crew.
OW: So you were what, a teenager? I guess you hadn’t studied voice to any appreciable degree at this point?
MP: Well, it’s kind of interesting. I always sort of had “this” voice inside of me. The instrument, the warm Italianate colour… it was always just waiting for me to do something with it. To nurture and to grow it. To give it that special attention and love. I just had absolutely no idea what to do with it. And the ever talented and intelligent, rebellious wild child in me didn’t really understand at the time what intense discipline and focus it would take to develop, and to really fuel and grow this voice. I also knew nothing of the performing arts industry, none of my family are in the biz. In my junior year of high school, our French class went to see Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette” and “Carmen” at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. This experience ABSOLUTELY changed my life, and rather quickly. I remember sitting there in the opera house and thinking, (feigns astonishment), What is THIS?! WHAT is happening right now- what am I watching??????! To be honest, most of my class were supremely bored, but I sat there electrified and awakened thinking, “This is the best thing I’ve ever seen! That woman’s dying and she’s lying down… she’s singing in FRENCH?!” So quickly after I started taking classical voice lessons, for fun (enter “Caro mio ben” haha!). Then in my senior year of high school, I auditioned for All State Theatre where most, if not all, high schools in the entirety of the state of Illinois, audition for one massive show to be presented at the annual festival. It’s a really big deal. The show was Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Pirates of Penzance” and, just like my freshman year, I auditioned, and I was cast in my first operetta as the leading lady: Mabel.
It was now time for university, and I still wasn’t sure what I really wanted to do. I went to Illinois Wesleyan University on a full ride scholarship, and there I experienced yet another thunderbolt “aha!” moment. A gentleman from the Ravinia Festival, a marvellous and massive music festival in Chicago, was speaking to our incoming class, offering advice and inspiration. So here I was feeling more than a little lost as to what my path may be at the beginning of my freshman year, and this man from the festival was passionately speaking about “following your dreams” … and it happened: BOOM. Just like that. “Oh my god!!! I want to – no I NEED to sing. And: I want to sing opera!!!” I remember telling my parents and they were rather amazed, though I suppose, coming from me, you must always expect the unexpected. A very Elle Woods moment for those of you who know Legally Blonde (ahhh .. am I dating myself?!). I told them matter of factly: “Yes. Yes! This feels right. And, you know, if I’m going to sing opera…well then, I’m going to obviously go… where Mozart lived.”
And so, that is exactly what I did. Without speaking a lick of German, I flew to Europe and studied abroad in Vienna (laughing). So, there I was all within a span of a year: a wonderful whirlwind of deciding I was going to change my majors and become an opera major and on the flip side, also “I’m going to join a sorority because, doesn’t Greek life sound like a blast to meet lots of different people… and so Kappa Kappa Gamma, that’s what I amma! Haha. But also, it was nice meeting you all- I’m now going to go to Vienna to study classical music!”
As a little sidebar: RIGHT before I studied abroad, I had also joined my first ever choir; that happened to also be the crème de la crème of choirs at our school: Collegiate Choir. Co-Choir sang quite literally around the world. Thus began my ever-on-going love affair with jetting off to distant lands to perform. So, fun fact – my first time ever out of the country, right before I went to Vienna was actually to St. Petersburg, Russia and to all of the Baltic states. SUCH an amazing experience. Anyways. Back to studying abroad …
I went to Vienna, and this was also another life-changing moment. Oh Vienna… I absolutely fell in love with everything Viennese. I also gained around 30 pounds (14kg) because, boy oh boy, did I fully indulge in all things delicious: those schneckens, goulash, beer… everything (laughing). “Give me a Wiener schnitzel and a Käsekrainer and I’m good to go for the day.” But of course, I was hungry for more than just the delicious wine and cuisine. I had an insatiable hunger for all that Wien had to offer in culture: art, opera, music, museums of all kinds, cafes… it was the time of my life where I was massively exposed to opera for the first time at the magnificent Wiener Staatsoper and Musikverein. Aside from the two operas I’d seen in my French class in high school, this was when I finally began my true exposure to this Olympian art form. It changed my life. Everything about it. I almost stayed. I quite literally almost didn’t come back to the States, which would also have been very “me.”
But I did return, and in the meantime, another twist of fate happened that would also alter my life path forever: my parents moved to New Jersey, New York City’s next-door neighbour.
OW: So the original, Italian American Soprano family!
MP: (Laughing), TRULY. Haha I actually have a story there (no surprise here)! I love this crazy story regarding my family, that I only just learned a few years ago. I’ve always wondered, where did I come from?? This music person…kind of a black sheep in the family… WELL. As it turns out, my grandparents on my dad’s side met at Capone’s famous night club, both performing jazz. My grandfather on the bass and my grandmother…ON DRUMS! How badass is that?! I never really met / knew either of them because my grandmother passed when I was very young, and my grandfather passed before I was born. Apparently when they had kids, they “did the responsible thing”, gave up their instruments and had a traditional family life. I guess it’s just been, kind of waiting…music… just wild, running in my blood waiting to come out.
OW: So, I have seen recordings of you singing “Don Giovanni” and “La Traviata,” which I thought were commendable. What else have you sung, and how does performing opera differ from performing on Broadway?
MP: Wow, yes, so both of those performances were from when I was a baby back in grad school before the Broadway train came barreling through. “Traviata” of which I had NO business singing at such an incredibly young age, however maybe one day in the future.
Actually, fun fact: that “Don Giovanni”…. the Commendatore was the amazing Ryan Speedo Green. Fast forward to today, and he and I are now on the same classical roster!! Promethean Artists. I love to see how his star has risen, it’s so amazing to see when your friends from years ago experience stardom. SO, it’s been a hot minute since I sang full classical repertoire, and as I cross back over into this classical world now, I have a fresh new perspective after living in the brilliant and bright world of Broadway.
We just spoke about Mozart repertoire, and personally, I think we need to remember how mischievous and full of life Mozart was, and how opera was not just for royalty, but for all! I mean, he was a rocker back in his days! A REAL true rockstar. When you start really feeling that vibe out, again, as someone who has kind of left that bubble and returned, and kind of living in both worlds, I wish we could be a little messier in the opera world. A little more human, regardless of the grand nature of the story and show. Like Broadway, a little grittier. A little more earthy, and I think, of course, the style and Olympian technique that takes years, decades to perfect. As I’m prepping again to do more roles in the opera world. I mean, my goodness. I’d almost forgotten the intense skill it takes to vocally execute an aria to give it the justice it deserves. It indeed is the Olympics of singing… BUT. And there is a big “but” here for me. And that is the purpose of this art form, as any art form, is to serve as a medium for story telling of the human condition. The playfulness, the insatiably beautifully pathos of flawed human nature.
I think if we only think about the voice, as opposed to the story, then something is missing, and we are left wanting. Yes, of course the voice is the most important in Opera. But, opera is passion! I want that passion. The decades of technique opera singers develop and perfect should give an artist the means and capability to fully play. To fully become a vessel of the music and the story. This is just my very strong opinion, of course, but as someone who has lived outside of the opera bubble for several years now, and who has been living in very commercial art form, I definitely understand, “for the masses” and “for the people.” I think there’s a happy medium of keeping true to the high art form and making it more accessible. In opera, yes you must have the voice. The technique. But what you DO with the voice and the music, that’s where the art and magic happen. Like I say, there’s something mischievous about Mozart, but you’ve got to get the joke.
I absolutely love the idea of creatively reinventing an opera, but only if it serves the show. If it doesn’t, if it confuses the audience, or takes away from the actual story, to me, the reinvention has failed. Particularly as someone who has lived now as a “traveller,” performing other art forms, I feel in North America we really need to make the classical world much more accessible to people. I don’t by any means mean to dumb it down- not at all; in fact, raise the bar. I think you’d be surprised how many people will step up to the plate and feel, “Wow! This is incredible.” But if the production is too off the cuff or too cerebrally symbolic, it won’t translate well. For me, again, I love thinking outside of the box- I live it every day: obviously my career is proof of this.
But the reason we go to the theatre, whether it’s to the Broadway stage, a pop concert, or opera, is to share a human experience together. There has to be so much intellectual work put into what we do to prepare our operas, but as I have said many times over now, then we must transcend the Apollonian nature and unleash the animal. Release the Dionysian and animal in us all. The raw human emotions expressed in one of the most incredible of ways. An audience wants to feel.
For me, Broadway is very much blood, sweat, and tears; a beautiful convergence of people coming together to birth and grow a show. Of course, there are “divas” and “divos” on that side of the business. But it is few and far between, especially in our generation. You won’t last long with this attitude.
There are quite literally tens of thousands – hundreds of thousands – of talented people competing for one role. Unlike opera, where there can be several productions of the same role simultaneously performed around the world— there is only one Broadway. The competition to be a Broadway star is just too fierce in this day and age to be unpleasant to work with on or off the stage. Someone else can do that job just as great if not better, and be a joy to work with, so unhealthy egos quickly must be checked at the door.
For me, there is more of an ensemble feeling to Broadway. I love it. You are given the mission to perform on the very taxing, extremely challenging journey of giving your best show EVERY NIGHT. EVERY DAY. EVERY SHOW. EIGHT. SHOWS. A WEEK. It is a superhuman, grueling schedule, which also quickly reminds you of how human you really are. It is quite LITERALLY blood, sweat, and tears. And if you’re touring in a show? LET ME TELL YOU. It’s a feat of pure determination, human spirit, and will power. You become such a team and family. You must be. You need each other. It is too rigorous, far too much of a privilege and great responsibility to not band together for the greater good. Of course, I strongly feel this attitude should apply to classical world, whether you are singing Mozart, Puccini, Verdi, etc. If you’re not singing as a performer, for the piece, for the art, to be a vessel for this story, together with the company, and instead you’re singing for yourself… this is just such a turn off and let down. I personally feel that, as a “showgirl” or as a performer, as an artist; it is my duty to give my best performance, not for me, but for the show, and for everyone who is experiencing that show.
OW: So, your big plan was to do opera, you went abroad, you studied, you performed some. How did your Broadway existence come to be?
MP: Well, that’s quite another story, too, just like everything else in my life, (laughing). I will go back a little bit because it does tie in together. I’m often asked in interviews what to recommend to young singers, or what personality trait of mine do I think has helped me and served me in my career, and I think it is, BOLDNESS. I always remember when I first got off the train at Penn Station in New York, I felt, feigning amazement, “Oh my gosh! No wonder I sometimes felt like I didn’t belong in the Midwest: it’s because I’m supposed to be here…where there’s a man talking to his reflection over there, and there’s trash down the street, but there’s singing and dancing in the streets and… oh!” The pulse of New York ran through my body and I remember proudly saying: “Mom, put your phone away! We’re New Yorkers, and I don’t care if we get lost!” (Laughing). And I just thought: this is it. This is where I was always meant to be.
So, I gathered a list of coaches and teachers at Julliard and Manhattan School of Music who were also involved with The Metropolitan Opera. I cold emailed them and wrote “Hello, I’m Meghan Picerno, I’m from Illinois, and I would love a lesson with you.” The crazy thing is, everybody wrote back, and everybody said, yes. My first lesson ever in New York City was in a rehearsal room at The Metropolitan Opera with the legendary Nico Castel. I did not register exactly who that really was at the time! Oh Meghan … Of course, I look back to my incredible fortune. But at the time I just had no idea. I would bring him cupcakes to my rehearsals, and I always remember… (laughing) … he actually very actively helped me get into grad school … we were prepping my arias and coaching “Una donna a quindici anni.” He said to me: “Now, my dear, if you do not double that ‘n’, you are saying that you have fifteen buttholes!” To which my response was “Oh! Well let’s definitely double that ‘n’ then.” (Laughing)
So that was my first ever coaching in New York City. And then, Marianne Barrett at Julliard who’s still a dear friend of mine, an incredible German coach, really helped me to get into the Manhattan School of music. I graduated from MSM, and was overcome with shock, and I experienced pangs of “what the hell did I just do?!” I had a slight identity crisis because I thought, “Hang on. Wait a minute! Am I going to sing opera? What have I done?! I did that just on a whim. Oh my god. What does this actually mean?!” So, I just…started singing. As fate would have it, right out of school I had the amazing experience of singing with an incredible program “Wo Chang Beijing” and sang opera, Broadway, and Mandarin songs at the National Centre of Performing Arts in Beijing, China, all the while studying with coaches from The Metropolitan Opera who had also been brought over to China with the program.
After returning from China, I was at a dinner party near Lincoln Centre hosted by the founders of that program, who remain very dear friends and mentors, Martha Liao and Metropolitan Opera Bass, Hao Jiang Tian. The Domingo family was there, and all of us were full of delicious food and of course had had some champagne, as one does! (Laughing). Martha proclaimed: “Meghan! Sing something for us” and so, bubbly in hand, I sang “Glitter and be gay” from “Candide.” Plácido Domingo accompanied me on the piano, and I sang this aria that would, yet again, unbeknownst to me at the time, be the one song that would change my life forever.
Afterwards, Marta (Domingo) urged me to come sit next to her, took my hand and said to me:
“My dear you are absolutely wonderful. I want you to audition for Operalia.”
Yet again, on a massive learning curve, I naively shook my head and thought, this sounds amazing! And poof. I auditioned for Operalia, and I was chosen as one of the artists from around the world to compete at the legendary Operalia… (Laughs)…and … I did not win!
Let’s be honest, I probably wasn’t really ready to compete at this level. I’d be ready now with all of my performance experience. But that’s OK. It’s so funny how life works. I was fresh out of school. I had very little stage experience and just wasn’t mentally ready. But it was so fun, and the talent was off the charts. We were in London, at the Royal Opera House. I quickly made wonderful friends, who I’m still in touch with, and I learned a lot. Fun fact: I shall be doing a concert in the near future with my old Operalia buddies. So, you just never know what life has planned!!
Anyway, fast forward a few months, and I’m on my way back from a trip from Spain, where I’d spent some time singing, and upon my return to NYC, I’d agreed to do a recital, as in: right off the plane. OH, in true, Meghan Picerno fashion! God, so many things could have gone wrong, I realize in hindsight. I would never do this now!
I was quite literally right off the plane from Spain, changing into my gown in the Uber and warming up. I thought: “OH! You’ve done it again, Meghan! You should never have done this.” Anyway, the travel gods were on my side, I arrived right on time, sang a myriad of classical repertoire, and then I sang Bernstein’s “Glitter and be Gay.”
Afterward, the pianist said to me: “Meghan, for the past month that you’ve been in Spain, New York City Opera has been looking for their leading lady for ‘Candide’ and haven’t been able to find their Cunégonde. It’s a very very special production of ‘Candide,’ as the legendary Hal Prince will be at the helm of his revival.”
During my time in Europe, I had let my European agent go and I had no representation. I remember feeling a sense of panic thinking “How do I get an audition for New York City Opera?” Fortunately, I have a group of women who I call my fairy godmothers: two of them, Joan Dornemann and Dietlinde Maazel, persuaded Michael Capasso over at New York City Opera to hear me audition.
So, on a lunch break, I come trouncing in, (laughing), and I performed “Glitter and Be Gay” but I sang it my way. Not your usual stand and sing approach. I’ve seen a lot, probably every version, and I knew I wanted to perform it in a different manner. So, I went into the room, and let loose like the stage animal I am! (Laughing). With no expectation of the outcome, fate would dictate if I received a call back.
This audition was very different from anything I’d ever experienced. To note: I was just about to begin auditioning for opera houses when this came my way. There were ten people in my audition, at the beautiful Dimenna Centre in New York City. The piano was here at one end of the large rehearsal hall and, gestures, a huge panel of people in front at the other end. I thought, “This is crazy, I’ve never seen so many people at an audition!” And as I sang “Glitter,” an older gentleman began shouting across the table to the others:
“Well, she’s great, isn’t she?! She’s absolutely spectacular!” and I’m thinking, “Wow! This is amazing, I’ve never actually had someone during an audition actually cheer me on. The panel also kept encouraging “Dear, can you come closer, please, come closer.” Before I knew it, I had left the “soprano cove” by the piano and could nearly touch them all from across the table. FYI – Broadway auditions are not the same as opera ones. They are a completely different animal. Everything about the experience is different! (laughing).
Now, what I didn’t know at the time was, that gentleman cheerleading me on during my audition? The gentleman was none other than Hal Prince. I didn’t hear anything for months and assumed it had gone to one of the well-seasoned opera veteran sopranos who were also at the audition. Something I frequently say in my Masterclasses: I was the only five-foot-two tall brunette there. Fresh out of school. Everyone else was established from the business, and they were tall and blonde. So, I was this other, weird thing! The different thing. I was the other. The unexpected. The unique. I firmly went in as myself, which can feel risky sometimes.
I was singing in Joan Dornemann’s IVAI opera summer program when I got the call, saying that they wanted me for the role of Cunégonde. Another lightning bolt moment. My life and career was about to drastically change for the most amazing twist and turn of fate.
There were many interesting things about this production. It was not run like an opera. It was run like a Broadway show because Hal was running it, and Hal wasn’t going to do it opera style. First of all, we had two, three months of rehearsal. What a luxury- I wish opera in general could do this— the rehearsal process is where the glue is made where people come together. This cast was magical. It was so cool. It felt like Harry Potter and the different houses: the dancers, the opera singers, and the Broadway performers all came together in Bernstein’s blended operetta/opera/Broadway masterpiece.
This cast was stellar. Absolutely world class. This was Hal’s show, after all. Multi- Tony, Grammy, and Emmy award-winning legends such as Chip Zien, Brooks Ashmanskas, Gregg Edelman, Linda Lavin, Jay Armstrong Johnson, who were all so incredibly generous and FUN to work with. I quickly began learning from them, especially acting. I’m singing 100 percent as an opera singer, but I’m learning about acting and performing, quickly as from these Broadway and TV stars. Let me tell you, those rehearsals, holy moly! They were intense! The schedule was beyond intense!
I remember my agents at the time saying: “We think there is a mistake in the schedule.” We had tech week, with twelve-to-fourteen-hour days, straight into sitz, orchestra dress with an audience, invited dress Friday morning, opening on Friday night, two shows on Saturday and two shows on Sunday. Welcome to Broadway baby! But, also, sing opera. I felt like I had earned a badge of honor getting through my first five show weekend.
In the middle of the rehearsal process, Pat Birch, world famous choreographer and another fairy godmother, and Hal sat me down and asked: “Dear, would you ever want to do Broadway?”.
I pondered: “Well, I’ve never really thought about it!” (Laughing)
And tickled, they assured: “Well, you should.” And I responded, “Well, if the Steven Spielberg of Broadway is telling me I should think about Broadway, then I should probably think about Broadway!”
There was another piece of this sit down he very seriously said to me, which I’ve never mentioned before in an interview up until now.
He said: “But, you should not leave the opera world completely. Both worlds need you. You’re different. You’re unique. You belong in many worlds my dear.” It’s funny, because here I am, seven or eight years later, crossing back over into the classical world. Again, not leaving the Broadway world. I just want to expand and play in the fabulous opera sandbox now as well.
He then asked me: “Have you ever seen ‘Phantom of the Opera?’ I sheepishly responded that I hadn’t. And he chuckled that I must be the only girl in the world who hadn’t seen it.
So, he said: “I’m going to get you tickets and I want you to go see my show”.
So I went to the Majestic Theatre, it was completely sold out. I remember people leapt to their feet and I’d never seen anything like this in the opera world before. It was incredible! Of, course, it’s the most epic Broadway show ever created. Ever. Full stop.
At first, he wanted me to do the 30th Anniversary of “Phantom” but then said that there was a “new, old show” that was premiering in the US. A sequel to “Phantom.” He very plainly stated “It didn’t do well in London, but they’ve rewritten it in Australia, made a movie, and it’s a smashing success.” He explained that Andrew Lloyd Webber wanted to bring it here for the first time ever, adding: “I want you to sing for Andrew.”
So, I sang for Andrew Lloyd Webber, and this is the quickest turnaround after an audition I’ve ever had in my life. I was given a stack of music, literally, like half the show, and asked, “Can you learn this by tomorrow for your audition?” (Laughing) Unlike the opera world where you’ve been preparing your arias for an eternity, I just dove in.
So here I am, singing for Andrew for “Love Never Dies,” and he jumps up, and says (imitating English accent):
“My dear, do you know anything from the other one?” and I embarrassingly say, “You mean ‘Phantom’? Oh, Maestro, I don’t know that music, but I could learn it for you!” He just laughed, kind of like, who the hell doesn’t know Phantom?! So anyway, I sing the packet of music I had stayed up late studying the night before, and three hours later, I was cast as his leading lady, Christine, in the US premiere of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Love Never Dies.” Which, by the way, was indeed a massive success. Sold out in nearly 41 cities around the United States.
A theme I’ve noticed in my career is having the very good fortune to work with the creators and sources themselves. The creators: I worked on “Candide” with Hal Prince, “Love Never Dies” and “Phantom” with Andrew Lloyd Webber and the original creative team. What a dream! The cool thing about working with those who actually created these iconic works is I think a little bit of collaborative and creative license could be had, it’s not so staunch.
Yes, like in opera there is style and tradition to be considered, but when you have the privilege of working with the original creative team, the mentality of “Well, everybody’s done it this way, so it has to be done this way!” can be bent a bit. You are given the permission from the gods themselves in a way. For example, getting permission from Hal, and the Bernsteins, to interpolate to the high F in “Glitter.”
So, anyway, here I am, cast in the premiere of “Love Never Dies,” and Hal sitting me down in his iconic Rockefeller centre office saying: “Touring is very difficult, pal. But you’re going to get five to ten years of experience in these one and a half years: press, what it means to lead a show, fandom, and to experience a performance schedule many humans simply just cannot do.”
Boy was he right, of course! We rehearsed for two months, then we went on tour and premiered Andrew Lloyd Webber’s baby in 41 cities. It’s crazy. I love all my road warriors. You can arrive at a location for a week or a month, get into new theatres – massive theatres, by the way. Massive! So much bigger than Broadway theatres and opera houses. It premiered to a huge and continued success. This was also my first experience with “The Phantom.” I mean “The Phantom” is a force, man! It has a multi-generational, international cult following, and you become a rock star! It’s unbelievable.
Hal was right: Tour life gave me so much experience in many arenas. In some cities we were there for only a week, meaning we would travel on our “off day,” Monday, get into the new theatre, Tuesday, do sound check in the afternoon, do the show for the critics for opening night, have the opening night party, and then I would do press, 7am on the news channels in every city in America, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, perform two shows, Sunday two shows, and then Monday do it all over again. Wild.
Haha it’s insane, it’s absolutely insane, but somehow, you do it. The scheduling gods were also on my side. Any vacation I had from the show, I filled those breaks with other performances. I premiered “Candide” at the Liceu, made my debut with the extraordinary Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Fransisco Symphony, sang in several Bernstein Centennial celebration concerts all around the world, including São Paulo, Brazil. I was on a train that JUST. KEPT. GOING.
Bernstein and Andrew Lloyd Webber. These two composers have changed my life. I feel such a kindred spirit in both of them. Like me, they don’t fit into one box. They are travelers to many worlds.
So we’re about six months into our run of “Love Never Dies,” and Hal, Kristin Blodgette, Music Director, conductor and another fairy godmother, and Andrew sat me down and explained there was to be an upcoming world tour revival of “Phantom,” and asked if I would I like to lead it as my “younger Christine self,” adding that after six months on that tour, they would like me to then transfer into the Broadway production of “Phantom” as the leading lady, Christine Daaé.
Of course, I excitingly agreed – “Yes!” So, for two years I knew I was going to Broadway, and I couldn’t say anything! I was dying! And that was crazy too, because in a way, I didn’t audition for Broadway. My audition was being in the show. To be honest, I’ve had the incredibly good fortune of only having three or four live auditions over the last seven to eight years. As we all know, auditioning is its own beast- requiring such a unique skill. Anyways.
Many people ask me: “What’s it like auditioning for Christine Daaé?” and I say honestly: “I don’t know!” It all started with New York City Opera’s ‘Candide.’”
I remember we closed “Love Never Dies” in Austin, Texas, on December 3rd and then on New Year’s Eve three weeks later, I was on a plane to the Philippines to build “Phantom” from the ground up with an international cast. We performed it in the Philippines, we premiered “Phantom” for the first time ever in Malaysia, in Singapore at the stunning Marina Bay Sands, and then my last stop was premiering it in beautiful Tel Aviv at the opera house there, before transferring into the Broadway company. So, I just never stopped. Once “Candide” hit seven, going on eight years ago, I never stopped.
OW: Tell me about the process of applying or modifying your voice, and how it differs when singing Broadway from classical.
MP: It is a lot of work. A lot of discovery, a lot of “failure,” maybe not really failure— just experimentation, with many a bout of frustration, growing pains, this goes both ways— crossing from opera into Broadway and then back to relief, elation…and a feeling of intense accomplishment when you finally figure it out. Which is a never-ending process.
It’s like training for different sports. A sprinter and long-distance runner are both runners, but they need to develop differently to best suit their specific type of running. We had to thin my voice a lot! I had to learn how to sing straight tone, mixing, belting, take a lot of the natural color I have out of my voice to serve, especially, younger Christine. Concept of vowel placement and laryngeal placement is also different. Broadway is North American speech level. The vowels are much more spread, and you are purposely taking away some of that cylindrical width and harmonics when singing classical music to create the best sound for singing with a microphone, which will immediately compress your sound. In my experience, it’s why sometimes when we hear opera singers who do not have much microphone experience, this used to be me, maybe due to a large outside concert sing with one, the sound doesn’t sound quite right. It’s missing some of those beautiful harmonics on both sides of the spectrum.
Musical theatre singing is much more pharyngeal. I use the epigastrium slightly different than when I sing opera. Opera is so much more full-bodied, open, and cylindrical. If opera singing is an oval, musical theatre is more of a square or an upside-down trapezoid. I had a tendency to “over-sing” at the beginning of my Broadway journey. Now circling back, I’m going through the exact opposite experience: opening the voice, my concept of pianissimi must be adjusted, breathing is deeper, the larynx in a different position. The tongue is ever so slightly different because now we are not in North American speech placement. Mixing or belting to me feels like an inverted triangle, or like an inverted trapezoid because you’re dealing with that aforementioned speech level concept of vowel which is very different, as I’m learning again now, (Laughing) from Italian, German or French vowel placement. Now, as I’m re-opening the voice, in opera, I’ve done the opposite. I go a little bit too far sometimes and I over-darken or I over-open because I don’t want to “sound like a Broadway singer” singing opera, so now I’m learning the right cocktail that is my true opera voice cocktail mixture.
A note on “thinning” the voice: I found when you’re “thinning” a voice, the hardest thing is figuring out how to keep the foundational “colour” that is yours, in it. You can’t just strip it down to nothing or just a pale, bland sound. And of course, at first, I didn’t know how to do that. But the universe continues to take care of me: the really cool thing is that my Broadway teacher, who’s the best in the business, studies with an opera teacher who is also one of the best in the business. I study with both, so it’s a perfect blend of understanding where I’m coming from and where I’m going.
Also, Christine in “Phantom” and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music is kind of its own technique anyway because it consistently goes back and forth between chest voice and the passaggio. It is its own subsection of technique that I’ve personally found in my years singing it.
Lots of people may say: “Oh, but isn’t it easier? Singing Broadway? You have a mic.” Fair. We use amplification. We don’t have to worry about carrying to the back of a 5,000-seat house unamplified. But, I still had to sing out fully and every day! Two shows a day, 14 days straight sometimes. For years! If anyone tries singing for two and a half hours every single day, running around, dancing, climbing ladders… it’s a lot. The athleticism of Broadway is incredible. You must be physically fit. The train does not stop! There are no luxurious 48-hour rests in between shows. It barrels on, with or without you on the daily, monthly, and yearly. Of course, there are advantages of singing with a microphone: I love how many more colours you can play with, especially when singing dolce and pianissimo. It allows you to play and discover a whole other colour palette.
Speaking of the show must go on: I sang in nearly every condition. I remember one time the entire cast was sick with food poisoning and so, I quite literally sang wearing a diaper on stage! Let me tell you, you’ve never lived until this happens! Pride? Out the window! I sang vomiting off stage, running back to sing. I sang with aura migraines, altitude poisoning…I mean it’s absolutely wild because I just didn’t stop.
That being said, I firmly believe one of the reasons I was able to continue day after day, month after month, year after year, was because of my classical training and my intense discipline. My technique from the classical world laid down such a strong foundation with knowledge of my instrument and body.
For years, I didn’t talk during the day of a performance unless I had press. I had no social life. Fast forward to Broadway, and it’s an even extra different animal. It really is just a beautiful beast. Same deal: mute until the show, press, show. Then do it all over again.
Then Covid hit, and I had the great privilege of re-opening Broadway which hopefully was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It also came with its own incredible feats: sound checking at 4am in Times Square for our Good Morning America performance in front of millions, straight into an all day rehearsal… that kind of thing!
So, my journey at “Phantom” was coming to an end, of which I happily passed the crown. As in opera, “Phantom” is a legacy, and to have had been such a unique and important part of its history was an honour. Hal Prince and Andrew Lloyd Webber have forever changed my life, as have my forever “Phantom phamily.” There really isn’t too much more I could have done with the role. Again, I had such a unique and important run, I couldn’t have asked for anything more. So, I was ready to move on. And, once I’d passed the crown of Christine on, I had an unexpected idea strike me.
My original “plan” was this – I love how opera houses around the world have been including some Golden Age musical theatre and the “Sweeney Todd’s” of the canon. This is my jam. This genre is where I thrive. In my strong opinion, even when a revival comes around to the Broadway stage, which is few and far between, the current casting trend tends to be cast more toward the pop sound rather than the classical sound. Which to me is such a pity, composers back then used to write for the classically trained voice. In my opinion these revivals, even when beautifully acted, are sometimes missing so much of that beautifully colourful singing that a classical voice can execute.
So, my grand plan originally was: “You know what? I want to continue performing musical theatre, but I will return to my roots and bring all my experience from the pure Broadway world and bring it into the opera house”. A fascinating and beautiful marriage of the two genres. I can firmly say as someone originally trained in opera; I honestly did not really know how to perform musical theatre in all its glory. Now, I do. But I can also add a bit of classical flair to it.
Which, by the way, I still have every intention of carrying out. Since I have the very unique experience of coming from the opera world but living nearly a decade in the Broadway world, where better to use my new skill set, than at an opera house?!
When an opera house performs a musical theatre piece, it needs a different flavor. It is no longer the pure opera world. It is something else. It’s not full Broadway but should indeed be performed in the tradition and style of Broadway, or else the very thing that makes music theatre magical, is missing.
Out of curiosity, in tandem with this idea, I took a few of my coloratura arias out to play with and I was shocked, in a great way – ha!
The beautiful thing about singing musical theatre for seven, eight years? Well, I sang primarily in my middle voice. And guess what grew? My middle voice.
In March of this past year, I decided, sure, I want to sing “Candide” all over the world, maybe Adele in “Die Fledermaus,” Eliza in “My Fair Lady” … all this wonderful repertoire I was born to play. But my curiosity regarding my “opera” voice was absolutely piqued, and I remembered what Hal had said about living in both worlds and how my talents could bring something different and unique.
So, I sang one of my arias, and I was shocked. My voice had grown, and with an extension! I mean, yes of course, I’m a little older, but by singing in my mother tongue every single day in the middle voice for eight years, well I had inadvertently collected a whole new palette of color that I now just need to translate into operatic technique. Yes, it’s different, you have to reopen the voice, for instance. But it’s so exciting! So unique. I can hit high Q’s (ha!). I mean, the dog whistle notes (laughing), and I didn’t have those before, and I think it’s because I was singing so much in my middle and chest.
Currently, I’m still singing my Broadway repertoire, but actively and diligently studying and re-learning my classical repertoire and technique. I need to see where the universe needs me, because much like what’s happened over the last decade, I never would have expected the AMAZING and epic career plot twists and turns that have occurred. So, I’m doing the extremely hard work, and letting the universe decide where I’m meant to be next.
But to return to answer your original question on how I modify my voice to be able to sing both, it really comes down to intense discipline and study. And honestly, sometimes I feel utterly “stupid.” I feel like a beginner all over again, though I am far from it. I have to put my ego aside. Remind myself that I’m a star in my own right, but to humbly embrace the rediscovery and newness of it all. Work on patience. I have to honour “failing” time and time again until I succeed. It’s a whole other kind of sweat and tears. Having a full understanding of my instrument regarding placement and style that is appropriate for multiple genres is double, triple the work.
It’s definitely not for the faint of heart, and it is very challenging. I impatiently want everything to line up in an impossibly short timeline, but as we all know, the voice is on its own divine timing. You must honour it and treat it with such care and love. The voice is ready when it’s ready. When it’s time, is when it is time.
I understand why there are less than a handful of artists who have successfully played in both worlds. It can be incredibly frustrating. The more I learn, the more I constantly feel like I have no idea what I’m doing, though this is also far from the truth. The day that you think you don’t need to learn anymore, then you’re done.
One phrase I always say is: “If you can, wear the appropriate outfit for the event”.
As in, if I am singing Broadway, I need to sing Broadway as a Broadway singer, not as an opera singer, singing Broadway! And when I cross back over, recalibrating the voice so I can sing opera, as an opera singer.
I understand there may be some people who stigmatically and judgmentally may think: “Oh, that’s amazing she’s from Broadway. But can she sing?” Well, yes! I can. And I’m going to use my voice to sing as an opera singer, not as a Broadway singer. But, I’ll bring a whole other unique storytelling skill set the opera world does not experience on the regular.
I know I am different, and different can be scary, terrifying to some. As humans we love to safely put people in little comfort boxes and keep people in “their lane.” There will inevitably be the naysayers. And that’s ok! But to others, my wild card nature will be the very thing they’ve been waiting for. My spice is the exact flavour they’ve been craving. And those are the creative humans I’m obviously most looking forward to meeting and working with, all it takes is one. One chance, one person, with an open mind and vision.
Another advantage coming from the land of Broadway is that I had no choice but to be in peak physically fit condition. And I believe this lends itself to opera in a good way. Being a petite person, I don’t have lungs the size of an elephant, but I have a much bigger voice than you would think for such a petite person. I’m small, but mighty! Being in top physical condition allows me to tell the story better, as a full performer, especially for my voice type. I’m able to sing high coloratura and jump around if called upon.
Speaking of performers, some of my favourite opera singers, Teresa Stratas, Natalie Dessay, Edita Gruberová, all incredible voices but what sets them above and beyond others are that they were/are performers. Artists. That’s what I want to see on stage. That to me is the most thrilling kind of opera. When you have the technique to execute the pyrotechnics and Olympian feats of operatic singing, but you’ve taken this technique as a tool and as a service to the story. In this day and age, I find this to be so very rare on the operatic stage. But when you experience a true artist on stage. My goodness it’s a transformative experience!
If there was ever a time for some form of crossing over/blend of genres to occur, I’m not talking about crossing over like classical crossover singers like Katherine Jenkins have done, I’m talking about opera and Broadway. I feel strongly that the time is now.
The arts desperately need each other, and the worlds can help each other in the most beautiful of ways. They can learn from each other. If willing. Look at Bernstein. I’ve never heard a more beautiful “La Sonnambula” than his conducting with Maria Callas singing. He was a man of many worlds. And both worlds were better because of him.
On the flip side, I wish more opera singers would seek out acting training and come over into the Wild West that is the Broadway world. To hear a voice that’s been classically trained, but to know how to wear the “Broadway” dress, it’s delicious. It can happen, and as an American, I feel like musical theatre is part of my blood. Part of my legacy.
So, let’s see what the universe has planned for me. I’m learning more operatic roles right now. Maybe I will only ever sing more musical theatre, but maybe not. Maybe there is a world where I can do both. Keep your eyes peeled. Something incredible is coming.
OW: So, will we be seeing you in the opera house before too long and what do you aspire to sing?
MP: You absolutely will see me in the opera house. What you’re going to see me sing, I’m not quite sure yet. In a perfect world, I would love for you to see me as Eliza in “My Fair Lady,” or Clara in “The Light in the Piazza.” I would love for you to see me as Olympia in “The Tales of Hoffmann.” I would love you to see me as Zerbinetta in “Ariadne auf Naxos.” Oh, yes, and Marie in “La fille du régiment” and Adele in “Die Fledermaus.” Plot twist: “Lulu?” I also have the brain for contemporary opera. I love creating new works. But if the universe deems it correct that I shall sing more and more opera, one day, I would absolutely love to be “Lucia di Lammermoor.” My voice is more on the Bel Canto side of things. It is Italianate. In the meantime, let’s see, I think I’ll be performing a very interesting Venn diagram of roles (laughing).
OW: It’s clear that you’re dedicated to your chosen profession. Is there any time or plans for anything else in your life? Relationships? Children?
MP: (Laughs), Oh gosh no! I’m building an empire and have to go and conquer the world! I have plant babies. (laughing) But I just have too much to accomplish right now. I’m already a “late bloomer,” and the next massive lightning bolt moment is about to strike. I can just feel it. I don’t know exactly what it is, but it’s happening, and I need to stay focused. I’m normally a highly extroverted creature who just loves people, but when it comes time to study and create, I morph into a somewhat lonely introvert. That dual nature also means I have intense bouts of where I cocoon into my own world away from all, not a great time to meet potential mates, haha. So, it’s all timing. One day I would love to have a family of my own if it’s in the cards. And of course, I would love to have a true partner in this crazy game we call life. But that human will have to be a very very special person, and I can firmly say I haven’t met them yet. When the time is right, I’m sure the universe will send them my way. And in the meantime, I love people, and I have been incredibly blessed with an amazing group badass humans who I have the honour of calling my family, my inner circle, and chosen family… who in true Meghan form are, of course, at the top of their game from all eclectic walks of life and professions. I’m so grateful to be on this path of greatness together, and I can’t wait to see where it leads to next. Somewhere extraordinary.