The Carnegie Hall Experience

July 7, 2009

My journey began a year ago when pianist, Tali Tadmor, and I were honored with the incredible experience of winning the NATS Artist Awards Competition in Nashville, Tennessee (a moment you can read about if you scroll down to “First Place in NATSAA Competition”). After that surprising event, Tali and I began to brainstorm regarding the music we wanted to perform at our Carnegie Hall debut recital. We ultimately decided on American music, celebrating the music of our great country.

Following months of practicing, rehearsals, lessons, coachings, and several performances in Illinois, we headed to New York for the big day. I remember feeling confident and excited about the concert as I looked down on New York City from my airplane window that Tuesday evening, June 16. I was ready to have the time of my life, be myself up on that stage and share my heart and soul with all of those who would be in attendance.

I prepared for our dress rehearsal the following morning, making my way to the stage door of Carnegie Hall. Inside the elevator there was a poster noting the scheduled events for the next few days. Tali and I were mentioned under “June 18, 2009 in Weill Recital Hall”. It was surreal to see our names in the Carnegie Hall elevator! My heart began racing yet again.

Once settled into the dressing room, I met with Tali to run through the recital. We rehearsed the Nature and Charles Ives sets, as Ken Merrill (a wonderful coach I’ve previously worked with) was checking for balance. Slowly, I was beginning to relax and kept telling myself to focus on and relate to the music. After receiving several pointers from Ken, we wrapped things up, touching on the rest of the program but running through all of the Lori Laitman and musical theater sets, as they were the most difficult.

By the end of the dress rehearsal, I was completely exhausted and ready for a nap. A good friend of mine, Gian-Carla Tisera (and a wonderful mezzo-soprano who came to the rehearsal) caught up with me to share a few pointers, reminding me to use my entire upper round space to let the high notes ring out. Having a friend affirm my performance was a welcome relief.

Resting for the remainder of the day, I went to bed early for some much needed sleep. Unfortunately I was awake most of the night, too excited thinking about what was to come. Finally, the morning of the debut arrived and I was anxious for the day to begin. After sharing breakfast with my enthusiastic family, I spent the remainder of the day in preparation mode by steaming my voice, reading my Bible and reminding myself that ultimately this performance was to glorify the Lord, not myself.

After focusing spiritually, I began to focus physically by warming up in the practice room. My voice and body felt like they were in great shape and ready to go. Tali and I met briefly to discuss a few things and review our encores one last time. We both were prepared and excited.

I returned to the hotel for a short nap then began preparing for the recital. After taking a cab to the hall, I organized my two dress changes which were scheduled throughout the performance. I took a few minutes to relax in my dressing room and warm-up while my mother pinned up my hair and assisted me in getting dressed. The first dress I chose to wear was a beautiful bronze, form-fitting, off-the-shoulder gown. The dress is especially meaningful to me because it is the dress I was married in, so I was thrilled to be wearing it for yet another special occasion.

My mother and I prayed together then parted with a good luck hug. Thankfully, my voice was feeling great and I was ready to go. I could have used another twenty minutes to relax, sit in a chair, focus on a spot on the wall and settle my nerves, as I only had about five minutes left to prepare for an event this significant and so anxiously anticipated. It was nearly impossible to settle my nerves. Tali knocked on my door and expressed her excitement about the evening and how she wouldn’t want to share this moment with anyone else. It was a very touching moment and I was so happy that she was by my side. My heart was now racing and the butterflies were flapping wildly in my stomach. Finally I heard the call, “Places for the top of the show!” I took a deep breath, opened up my dressing room door, and made my way to the stage left door where Tali was there to greet me with a smile.

I took a few moments to focus on a spot on the wall, take a few breaths, and say a prayer. All I wanted to do was enjoy the moment, sing my heart out, and let God speak through me, touching the lives of those in audience. With that in mind, the door swung open, my feet hit the wooden floor of the stage, and as I turned my head toward the audience, a thunderous applause began. There were so many smiling and supportive faces! The place was packed…nearly every seat on the ground level was occupied. Tali and I walked to the edge of the stage, took a deep breath, and bowed. I reminded myself where I was and how long I had waited for this…the exhaustive planning and energy. It was finally here!

I felt myself trying to calm my nerves, stay with the music, and relate to the audience. I recalled director Mark Lamanna reminding me of performance distractions when I first played Violetta, saying that distractions are expected. Something is bound to happen; a cell phone ring, a program dropped, an accompaniment error, a line forgotten. Suddenly your mind starts to wonder. It is imperative to come to this realization then gently bring yourself back to the music and what you are communicating. It’s a matter of discipline and honesty with where you are and what you’re feeling, expressing yourself fully.

There were times of distraction, then others when I was so controlled by the music that I forgot where I was. This happened initially in the first set as my nerves were on edge. Then the Ives set felt extremely connected and full of music-making. After coming off of the stage from that set, I made a quick change. Feeling fairly wound up at that moment, I recall fidgeting with my earrings and becoming somewhat frustrated. Thank goodness my mother was there to assist me.

After changing, I headed back to stage left and took a deep breath before heading out for the most dramatic set of the evening; the Larsen set. I felt very alive. However, I was pushing myself. I could feel my body wanting to give as much it possibly could. It was extremely warm onstage and there were moments when I felt overwhelmed by the heat. The air conditioning was adjusted and I reminded myself to relax. I still had 40 more minutes of music! I couldn’t give it all away at once.

During the dress change at intermission I let my hair down both literally and figuratively. Although I didn’t have much time to relax, I took a few minutes to focus, said a prayer, and was on my way out for the Laitman set. Though extremely challenging vocally, as there is a high B-flat that has to be floated at the end and it feels very exposed, I reminded myself to stay with the music, fully feeling every beat of it, and after that high B-flat at the end…I felt great!

A musical theater set completed the performance, which proved to be a ton of fun. Even though Tali and I spend the least amount of time working together on this set, everything went smoothly and we had a blast!

After the last song of the musical theater set, the crowd jumped to their feet with a very generous standing ovation. We finished with the original program, but still had one more song to sing. Coming off stage, I had to make the decision as to which encore we were to perform (we had a beautiful, quiet encore if I was too tired, or we had the exciting “Sempre libera” aria from La Traviata, if I felt up to it). Although I felt extremely tired, I thought, “The crowd will love ‘Sempre libera’. Let’s do it for them!” I figured the audience would be eager to have me execute some vocal, operatic fireworks. The aria would be just the thing. Of course, I was mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausted by this point and believed it would take every part of my being to perform this aria. I thank the Lord for lifting me up at that moment, giving me wings to fly. Once completed, the audience leapt to their feet with a roar. I couldn’t believe it! This was what they wanted to hear!

The performance was a success! Even though it may not have been perfection, it was my Carnegie Hall debut and I was extremely happy with the results. I was surrounded by friends and family at a reception following the performance. It was a wonderful surprise to see people I hadn’t expected to be there. I felt so supported and blessed.

It was an honor to have composers Libby Larsen and Lori Laitman attend the concert. They greeted me afterwards and expressed their delight with the performance, which I was thrilled about. As a musician, one of the primary goals should be to capture the essence of a composer’s intentions, while simultaneously adding your own personality and individuality to it. And when a composer is pleased with the performance of her/his work, the vocalist has truly accomplished something!

In reflection…I can’t believe it happened. Although two weeks have yet to pass, it seems like forever ago. The whirlwind of emotions was astonishing. The energy and anticipation…words can’t even express how it felt! It was certainly an adventure I will always remember. I am so blessed to have experienced the opportunity. I thank the Lord…all things are possible with Him. I will cherish it forever and I hope this isn’t the last time I perform in Carnegie Hall. It would be such an honor to do it again. “Because you are my help, I sing in the shadow of your wings.” Psalms 63:7

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The Artist

Soprano Courtney Huffman is recognized as a singer of exceptional artistry and versatility. She has a passion for opera as well as the recital stage and already has an impressive resume of roles and repertoire.
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The Acclaim

“Teutile…brilliantly sung by a young soprano, Courtney Huffman, just entering the professional arena, is treated as a supercilious young starlet…She sings and steals the stage…I hope opera talent scouts were on hand…”
-- Mark Swed, LA Times
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