Divas and dramas: the life of an opera singer
March 31, 2023
Soprano Melinda Whittington’s career in opera combines her passions of singing, language, history and culture.
by Vanessa Infanzon
Before Charlotte opera singer Melinda Whittington joins a rehearsal, she starts preparing months in advance of the performance. Whittington translates all the words — they’re typically in another language — so she understands what’s being said, a time-consuming endeavor for an average three-hour opera. She researches the origins of the opera and all its story iterations.
Prior to the first rehearsal, just two to three weeks before opening night, Whittington integrates the words, notes and rhythm on her own, then with a coach. “It is understood and expected that [cast members] will show up with everything learned and prepared — that is background work you do on our own,” Whittington says. “When we are together, it’s all about how you work with your fellow actors, where you’re going to move on the stage and what story you’re trying to tell and create.”
Whittington plays Violetta Valéry, the lead in La traviata, the final production in Opera Carolina’s 2022/2023 HERstory season. Performances are April 20, 22 and 23 at Belk Theater. La traviata, an opera in three acts by Giuseppe Verdi, is based on La Dame aux camélias, a novel by Alexandre Dumas fils that was later adapted into a play. Set to an Italian libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, Violetta, a courtesan, falls in love with Alfredo Germont. Drama, love and tragedy ensue as the couple, from two separate worlds, try to remain together despite interference from Alfredo’s father.
Violetta’s character moves through the three acts singing in various Fachs (types) of sopranos. “It seems to be written for at least two, maybe three different kinds of sopranos,” Whittington says. “My challenge in La traviata is Act 1, where Violetta’s in party mode and sings the famous Act 1 ‘Sempre Libera’ which has a lot of coloratura (fast vocal passages in a high register) and a lot of high singing.”
Ten years ago, Whittington played Violetta at the Brevard Music Center, a training company for young singers, as part of a summer program. “My voice is really different now,” says the mother of two. “My voice has changed a lot over a decade and especially after having kids. [It’s] deeper, darker and richer, sits lower.”
Whittington’s father was a minister, and the family moved every two to five years, living in Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia and finally settling in Wilson, N.C. In 2005, she graduated from UNC Chapel Hill with a degree in music, followed by a master of music from UNC Greensboro. She later spent two years at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia, the only tuition-free opera school in the world.
Though music had always been a part of Whittington’s childhood — her mother was a minister of music — she’d never been to an opera and had little exposure to classical music. In college, she learned about careers in music, took voice lessons and performed with an a cappella group. “I was able to gradually figure out that this was a combination of everything I love,” she says. “I loved being on stage and taking on a character. I loved singing. I loved studying languages. I loved studying history and culture, and I loved travel. All of these combined themselves into this field of opera that I realized I could study for the rest of my life and never scratch the surface.”
Like many other touring opera singers, she’s a contract employee. Whittington works with an agent to find work. Before the pandemic, she typically traveled four months a year. Now, with two young children, ages 2 and 4, traveling for a production isn’t ideal. She’s tried bringing the children with her on jobs, but it’s proven exhausting and expensive to find child care and housing on location.
Since fall 2022, between auditions Whittington’s been teaching voice lessons two days a week at Davidson College. This spring, she will release an album, Night and Day, featuring a progression of songs centered around the times of day.
For the last eight years, Whittington has performed one lead role during each of Opera Carolina’s seasons. “Opera Carolina is a little bit of a special case for me because it’s so near and dear to my heart and is my home company,” she says. “Maestro [James] Meena has been almost like a father figure to me as my career has progressed forward. A lot of my friends are in the symphony or work for Opera Carolina. It’s like a family to me.” SP
IN HER WORDS: Melinda Whittington
Comments have been lightly edited.
What’s your favorite role to perform?
It might sound cliche to say, but the one I’m working on at the moment. If I had to pick, it’s probably Violetta (and not just because it’s the one I’m working on at the moment!).
How should first-time operagoers prepare for the experience?
I would recommend reading a synopsis so you don’t feel the need to be glued to the supertitles. Extra good students could read the libretto (a translation of the full text of the opera) and/or listen to a recording of the opera. But honestly, you can just show up and enjoy, even without doing any homework.
On a free weekend, where do you take your kids in Charlotte?
Most of the time we lay low — walks on the greenway, local playgrounds and spending time with family. We enjoy taking the kids to Discovery Place Kids or Science, and recently the Museum of Illusions was really fun for the 4-year-old.
Describe the perfect date night with your husband.
Checking out a new restaurant (right now, we are obsessed with Leah & Louise), hearing some live music (classical or otherwise), and one of our amazing local breweries.
If you weren’t an opera singer, what would you be?
I did a double major in psychology and considered either being a therapist or going into music therapy. I’ve also always wanted to get my certification to teach yoga.
How do you stay fit for performances?
I follow an anti-inflammatory diet 90% of the time, and more strictly during shows — no grains, no sugar, very low carb and very high protein and (vegetables). I run or cycle 2-3 times per week, do strength training 2-3 times per week, and do yoga 2-3 times per week. Since having kids, sleeping is really a struggle for me, so I do meditation and breathwork to help.
What advice would you give to people who want to pursue their dreams?
There are a lot of paths to get where you want to go, and it may look different than you expected or than it looks for others. Also, something my mom always said growing up: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” Making small steps toward your goal each day and small choices that support that goal lead to big results in the long term.
Portrait by Brian Mullins, Performance photographs by Meg Burke