In the 21st century, the idea of classical music is enough to put some people asleep.
In fact, some people even nod off listening to it. In school, teachers often play classical music to “help us relax.” All I could think whenever they did was "Stay awake for just a little longer!"
But I always found opera music interesting. There was just something so wildly intense, like organized chaos, about the mesh of singers, dancers and the orchestra. To learn more about this unique music form, I talked to seasoned local opera singer, Sarah Leuwerke. Leuwerke has performed in many operas, and also participates in a choir and gives voice lessons at the Waukesha County Conservatory of Music, part of Hartland Music.
Leuwerke is a small, sweet woman, but don’t underestimate the size of her voice and the love she has for opera. There were two instances in her life that inspired her to become an opera singer. The first was in junior high when she saw her uncle as Leporello in the opera "Don Giovanni."
"He was a bass. He’s not singing professionally anymore but he was really good. I remember being really bored but I still thought it was cool,” she said.
The other instance was in high school.
"A family friend of ours took me to see a production of 'Cats.' And I remember thinking like,'Yes, that’s what I want to do. I want to run around and sing, dressed up like a cat on stage,'" she said with a dramatic point to an imaginary stage. “College is when I was really inspired to pursue an operatic path.”
Of all the operas Leuwerke has been a part of, there are two roles that have been her favorite: Hansel from "Hansel and Gretel" and Caribeno in "The Marriage of Figaro."
Playing Hansel was fun for Leuwerke because the character is a young boy, so Leuwerke did stunts like cartwheels on stage to portray the character.
“I love to be challenged, I like getting out of the box,” Leuwerke said.
As someoneconvinced that I’ll break my neck just doing a somersault, I can’t even imagine doing a cartwheel — much less on stage. So if opera isn’t just about singing, what are some of the qualifications for being an opera singer?
Leuwerke is very passionate about what she does. She loves getting involved with the community, and all of her kids are involved in something related to music.
"I don’t think you can teach anybody to be an opera singer,” she said.
Though as a teacher, she believes that “everybody has a voice inside them” and “different voices serve different purposes.” But there’s more to opera than just singing. Leuwerke says one needs to “have a passion for it beyond your own life. You have to be an entrepreneur, you always have to be on.”
Leuwerke has gone to great lengths to ensure the show goes on. She once flew into Billings, Montana, for a gig with her 3-month-old baby. At one point she was nursing, getting her makeup done for the show and warming up her vocal cords at the same time.
“It’s very unforgivable and it’s very stressful in that way as well. But there’s nothing like singing that repertoire.”
Leuwerke also addressed opera stereotypes.
“Many people think opera singers can’t act, when that’s not true at all,” she said.
As a choir student, I agreed with her. Singing doesn’t always entail elegantly prancing around on stage or a beautifully-crafted backdrop. But singing has dynamics. A singer's way of pretending to die on stage is getting quieter or louder during certain parts of the songs, stretching words and more. Singers act — just not in the traditional sense of the word.
Like painters and writers, an opera singer's art affects the artist in ways nothing else can. While I may not be an opera singer, there are a few things we all have in common: an undeniable love for the arts, a desire to share it with others and the hope that one day we’ll get noticed.
Opera, as outdated as it may seem, isn’t all that odd. It’s another form of art that’s underappreciated, like so many others, in the 21st century. And just like other art forms, opera takes work, dedication, patience and passion.