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

The Carnegie Hall Experience: Uncut

July 2, 2009

My journey began a year ago when pianist, Tali Tadmor, and I had 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 which music we wanted to perform at our Carnegie Hall debut recital. I would say that this was probably the most difficult part of the entire process. There is so much wonderful music to choose from that I had a very difficult time making decisions. I knew that I wanted to perform Libby Larsen’s Try Me, Good King song cycle, as it has become one of my signature cycles (the combination of beautiful music and great drama is perfect for me!). I also met the very talented composer Lori Laitman at the NATS competition and sang several of her pieces while working with pianist Vicki Kirsch in Los Angeles. I love her music and after contacting her and listening to several pieces, I decided that her flowing cycle “Early Snow” would be a good contrast to Larsen’s dramatic queens set.

Vicki Kirsch also suggested that I contact Tom Cipullo, the composer who won the NATS Art Song Composition Competition that same summer. After contacting him and going over his music, I realized that there was just too much American Art Song music that I loved and I couldn’t possibly decide on one or two sets to have in my recital (in an Art Song recital, usually there are several different kinds of music presented: English, French, German, etc.). In addition, I knew that I wanted to have an American musical theater set as well, since I consider it to be one of my strengths and something everyone enjoys listening to. As I was explaining my dilemma to Vicki, I recall her specifically saying, “Why don’t you just do an entire recital of American song?” Immediately I became excited about the idea, as I was looking for ways to make this particular recital interesting and different from the norm.

From that point on I began putting the program together. Upon hearing my idea of doing an American song recital, Tali shared my excitement and asked if we could do a set of Charles Ives songs (whom she just loves). I hadn’t sung Ives before, but studied him in school and always thought his music was intriguing. After looking through his songs, I realized that they would be the perfect addition to our recital. His texts are quintessential American and the music is full of references to old tunes from the past. It’s seemingly simple, but at the same time it is some of the most complexly written music for that time. I fell in love!

After completing three sets, I needed to solidify the musical theater set and an additional one. For the latter, I thought it would be a great idea to have a set that consisted of several different composers’ music, combining some of the well-known American composers of the past with composers of the 21st century. Tom Cipullo’s song “Desire” instantly touched my soul and I thought it would be a perfect way to begin a set; with the following songs pertaining to nature (since the last line of Cipullo’s song is “I will describe…everything in the world beginning with A”). I then researched songs relating to nature from composers that I admire and came up with five additional songs by Argento, Gordon, and Hoiby.

The last set to be determined (and the most difficult!) was the musical theater set. I had performed a fabulous set of Weill, Sigmund, and Friml for my Master’s recital a couple of years ago, but none of those composers were truly “American”. When I turned to the Great American Songbook to choose songs and composers to represent, there was so much great music that it was a daunting and exhausting task! Finally, I narrowed it down to about fifteen of my favorite songs (ones that spoke to my soul and that I would enjoy singing) and after reviewing them with director Mark Lamanna, we compiled a dramatic set of songs that worked nicely together to tell a story.

Once the program was complete, it was full speed ahead practicing and preparing the music. Of course, I spent several hours daily singularly working on the music. I also worked with coaches in Boston and New York to refine things, made a trip to Illinois for practice performances to work out the kinks (which was stressful to prepare for in so little time, but I am thankful that I did it!), and made a trip to California preparing the program with Tali and to perform one last time before the big day. Unfortunately, the day before our recital in Los Angeles I came down with the flu and we had to cancel. I was devastated! It was the first time I ever had to cancel a performance and on top of that, it was just two and a half weeks prior to our New York debut. So, naturally, I focused on just getting healthy.

By the time I left Boston for New York, I was feeling healthy again and ready to perform the program in Carnegie! 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 who would be in the audience. It was a warm day in Boston, but the plane was freezing (which happens all the time)! And the temperature had dropped in New York, so waiting out in the cold for the bus and then taking the hour-long bus ride to where I was staying was arduous. By the time I made it to my destination, I was exhausted and my throat was feeling a little strange (which is not a good sign for us singers!), so I drank some tea and quickly went to bed.

Our dress rehearsal in Carnegie Hall was scheduled for the next morning, so I needed my sleep. I fell asleep quickly but woke up a couple of hours later, realizing that my throat was now fairly swollen (and a little soar) and it felt like a cold was on its way. I panicked! I got up, gargled with salt water, drank some more tea, and did everything possible to calm myself down and get back to sleep. I knew that I was going to need plenty of rest for all of the major events that would be happening within the next two days. I also knew that worrying wasn’t going to solve anything. However, I couldn’t get the idea out of my head that I was going to get sick and have to cancel yet again, making the trip a bust for all those who traveled to New York to see me! I prayed fervently, asking the Lord to calm me, help me go back to sleep and heal my throat. I kept running Bible verses through my head that usually sooth me in times of trouble. I even put my headphones on and played a sermon about David (who experienced much greater troubles than I ever have!) while I tried to go to sleep. I nodded off a bit here and there, but for the most part, I didn’t sleep and had to get up at 7:30 AM the following morning to prepare for the dress rehearsal and be on my way. Fortunately my soar, swollen throat was not any worse when I rose from bed. But it wasn’t any better either. I gargled with more water, breathed in as much steam as possible while in the shower (very good for the vocal folds), and was doing everything I could think of to take care of the problem.

My friend Stacey welcomed me in the morning when she woke up and asked how I was feeling. Of course I told her about my inability to sleep and how I was worried about my throat. She immediately looked at me and said, “Courtney, it’s just nerves! You have nothing to be worried about! Pretend it’s like an annoying little voice next to you that’s just talking away and all you have to say is ‘Thanks for sharing!’ and forget about it.” It took me a little while to believe this but eventually, I remembered one other time in my life when this sort of thing happened. It was the day of my Bachelor’s recital, where my throat did almost the exact same thing. It swelled up on the day of my recital, causing me to worry about it before and during the performance. But as soon as the performance was over, my throat was completely fine! (It’s amazing how the body responds when it’s under pressure and how it attacks the thing you use and need the most!)

With that in mind, I headed to our dress rehearsal and decided that I would just sing through it and try not to think about it. I warmed up gently and slowly before the rehearsal, and although my throat was swollen, my voice was in pretty good shape. I then headed to Carnegie and followed Tali’s instructions of going through the stage door, giving the guards my name, and maneuvering the hallways (what an experience to go through all of that!). On the way up, I noticed a poster in the elevator that stated the events taking place within the next few days. There were Tali and I under “June 18, 2009 in Weill Recital Hall”. It was surreal to see our names on that poster in the Carnegie Hall elevator! My heart began racing once again.

When I stepped out of the elevator, I was backstage of Weill Hall. I made my way to the stage where I heard voices and met Tali, Jocee, and her aunt in the hall. It was gorgeous! There were these huge, hanging crystal chandeliers. The walls were an ivory color with beautiful columns and carvings in the ceiling. The seats were dark green velvet and the shiny wood stage had a gorgeous piano on it (which Tali was playing). I was practically too nervous at this point to really soak it all in! Everyone greeted me and Tali gave me a huge hug, asking how I was feeling. I expressed my worries and nervousness. I remember asking her if she was nervous too and she replied, “Not after seeing this hall and playing this piano!” She felt completely comfortable with it. The hall was intimate and inviting. And she described the piano as being “So sensitive that all I have to do is blow on the keys and they start playing!” It was a perfect venue!

Once I had my things placed in one of the dressing rooms (and spent a few moments in rest position, trying to calm my nerves), we began to go through the recital. We sang through both the Nature Set and the Ives Set, since Ken Merrill (a wonderful coach that I’ve worked with) was there and was checking for balance, especially in the Ives pieces (since the accompaniment can be very dense at times and the vocal line sits in my middle register…the part that doesn’t carry as well). Slowly, I was beginning to relax and kept telling myself to just focus on the music and relate. After Ken gave us a few pointers, we finished up the rehearsal, touching on the rest of the program but running through all of the Laitman and musical theater, as those were the most difficult sets. We practiced everything except for the encores, but decided to run through those later in the day. I recall one point during the rehearsal when Tali’s wife Jocee said, “Oh my gosh! You both sound so amazing! Take a moment to really soak this in. You’re in Carnegie Hall!” Tali and I definitely needed that reminder! It’s amazing how focused you can be on what needs to be done and forget exactly where you are and what you are experiencing. So, I tried to keep that in mind during our rehearsal process and it ultimately helped me to calm down.

By the end of the dress rehearsal, I was completely exhausted, my voice felt tired, and I was ready to go to my hotel room and take a nap. I headed in that direction after speaking with a good friend of mine, Gian-Carla Tisera…a wonderful mezzo-soprano, who came to the rehearsal and had a couple of pointers to share. She reminded me about my high notes, using the entire upper round space to let them ring out. Those dreaded high notes! I will probably have to work on them for the rest of my life! However, it was great to have Gian-Carla there and her affirmation that I was doing a lovely job was much needed.

The rest of the day I steamed my voice, drank a ton of ginger and chamomile tea, took a nap, went over my music, and rested as much as possible. The day before a performance I like to go through all of the music mentally, just feeling it in my body and responding to the text, thinking about the transitions, connecting everything emotionally, and bringing it alive dramatically. It helps me really settle in and focus on the music, rather than be distracted by everything else around me. By the end of the day my throat was feeling a little better and I was ready for a good night’s rest. As expected, I only slept a few hours that night as well. While beginning my career, I didn’t sleep before any performance. However, after performing numerous times, I became more comfortable with it and have been able to sleep incredibly soundly before each performance (even when I was singing Violetta in La Traviata!).
Nevertheless, this performance was different. There was something about the thought of singing in Carnegie Hall…a place that years ago, when I was visiting the city with my family on one of my grandmother’s incredible trips, I had a picture taken of myself in front of Carnegie Hall and said, “One day, I’m going to sing here!” At the time, there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that I couldn’t do it. I’ve always thought that if it’s the Lord’s will and I put my heart and soul into something, that anything is possible. Having it happen at this moment was much sooner than I anticipated. I just couldn’t believe it! While I was lying in bed that night, I felt like I was crawling out of my skin with excitement. There were times when I wanted to thrash my legs around. I felt like a bomb that was waiting to go off and I was ready to explode! I have never felt that much pent up energy and anticipation and nervousness for something in my entire career! I knew then I was ready to go out there and do what I do best!

The morning of the debut finally arrived and I was anxious for the day to get started. But this time, my throat was practically back to its usual state and I was feeling pretty good. I headed downstairs for a hearty breakfast with my husband Jared and family. It was thrilling to have them all there, sharing my excitement. I had never seen Jared this excited before! He was so giddy and practically jumping off the walls. He too couldn’t wait for me to get up there and sing my heart out (I think he also couldn’t wait for it to finally be over so I would no longer be consumed with it!). After breakfast, I spent the rest of the day in preparation mode. I steamed my voice for a while, listened to a sermon and read through parts of the Bible, reminding myself that the ultimate glory is the Lord’s and not mine. The time I spend in His word daily is a crucial part of my life because it’s easy as a singer to get your eyes on self and only think about your needs and wants. So, I need a daily reminder that it’s not about me, but about Him working through me to bring glory to His kingdom. And Carnegie Hall without the Lord is nothing!

After focusing spiritually, I then made my way to the practice rooms to warm up for a bit and focus physically. 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 felt prepared and excited. After going back to the hotel, I decided take a little nap (as I knew I needed whatever rest I could get). Surprisingly I fell asleep. However, I woke up with a jolt, my heart racing faster than it ever has. I don’t know what propelled me into panic-mode, but it took a few minutes for me to relax again. That was one of the craziest things about the entire experience. There were times when I felt totally at peace and fired up for what was going to happen. And then instantly it could change and I would feel great panic, worry, and anxiety. It was certainly an emotional rollercoaster that I will never forget! As humans, we have similar experiences throughout our lives. There are times when I feel complete peace and rest in the Lord…that He is taking care of me and I have nothing to worry about. And then there are times when I feel like the whole weight of the world is on my shoulders and there isn’t any possible way I can get through the day. It’s a constant struggle that just happens because we’re human and imperfect. Still, I don’t believe I’ve experienced a struggle so intense in such a short period of time, repeating itself so rapidly. No wonder I was completely exhausted after the concert!

Following my nap, I jumped into the bathtub to relax a little bit. I was running out of time, so I had to speed things up, blow-drying my hair rather quickly. Tali, Jocee, Jared, and I made our way to the hall with all of my dresses, make-up, music, etc. We jumped into a town car that wanted to charge us $30 to get to the hall (when it only takes about $12 normally). Although Tali didn’t seem to mind, Jocee and I were not willing to pay this much and were about to catch another cab, when we finally negotiated him down to $15 (which cracks me up because we were on our way to our Carnegie Hall debut and I still wasn’t willing to pay double for a cab…a definite “thanks” to my frugal mother!). Once we made it inside, I quickly began to get my dresses ready. I had two changes to make throughout the performance. One of which was a very quick change into a regal looking eggplant-color blouse with stuffed collar and long black skirt for the wives of Henry VIII set, making sure that everything was in place and ready to go for that change. I then applied my make-up and during that process, my mother and sister Shelby came in the door. Before helping me with what I needed, my mother showed me the boxes of chocolate that my grandma Dolly had custom made for me and the guests at the reception following the concert. They were beautiful gold boxes that had “Carnegie Hall, Courtney Huffman, June 18, 2009” printed on the front and then once you opened them, you found a huge bar of chocolate with a piano carved in it including my name and Carnegie Hall. I smiled and said, “Only my grandma Dolly!” She always goes above and beyond and I was grateful for her generosity and imagination. I couldn’t wait to bite into that chocolate bar!

Soon afterwards my mom and sister proceeded to help me with whatever needed doing. Shelby took pictures of me nervously getting ready, while my mom stuffed the collar of my eggplant blouse. Once that was finished, we piled my hair on top of my head with so many bobby pins that I lost count. I had to make a quick trip down to the ground floor to sign the papers for the recording we would receive after the program. I hadn’t anticipated this distraction, so my heart began racing once again, but one never knows what kind of distractions there will be before a performance! I made my way back up to the dressing rooms and met my husband who was waiting with a beautiful bouquet of flowers. After thanking him with a kiss, I requested that everyone leave the dressing room so I could relax in rest position for a few minutes and warm-up. My mom returned to my dressing room fifteen minutes prior to the recital. I needed her help getting dressed. The first dress I wore for my recital was actually the dress I was married in just under two years ago. For my wedding, I decided that I didn’t want to get married in a traditional wedding dress. Instead I found a beautiful bronze, form-fitting, off-the-shoulder gown, and that’s what I wore for the opening set of my recital. The dress is especially meaningful to me and I wanted to wear it for my Carnegie Hall debut.

Once my dress was on and I was ready to go, my mom said a prayer with me and then wished me luck as she headed down the hall. Thankfully, my throat was completely back to normal by this time and my voice was feeling great. I think that I probably could have used about 20 more minutes of extra time to just relax, sit in a chair, focus on a spot on the wall and settle my nerves. But as it was, I only had about five minutes to prepare, and for an event this big and anxiously anticipated, it was almost impossible to settle down! Tali knocked on my door and came in to tell me how excited she was about the evening, and how she wouldn’t want to share this moment with anyone else. She was practically in tears and I said, “Tal! You can’t cry! We have to perform! Wait until afterwards!!” It was a very touching moment and I was so happy that she was by my side. After she left, thoughts were flying through my head a million miles a minute, my heart was 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 have the time of my life, sing my heart out, and let Him speak through me to touch the lives of the people out in the audience. With that in mind, I asked Tali if she was ready to go then said, “Let’s do this!”, and gave the stage hand the nod. 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. The only seats without any bodies in them were the ones in the balcony above, but even then, it was a small balcony (the hall holds about 260 people and there were probably about 220 there). Tali and I walked to the edge of the stage, took a deep breath, and bowed. I tried to just take in that moment for a second and remind myself where I was and how long I had waited for this…how much planning and energy…and it was finally here! Of course, there is a dichotomy. Because as soon as you think, “Just soak this all in! This is amazing! I’m in Carnegie Hall!” your mind instantly goes into “Oh my gosh! I’m in Carnegie Hall! Aaaaaaahhhhh!!!”

Therefore, the whole first set I was just trying to calm my nerves, stay with the music, and relate to the audience. The mind is a crazy thing! One minute you can be totally in the music and expressing it fully, and the next minute you can be thinking about which encore you’re going to sing. Mark Lamanna used to tell me that you’re going to have distractions as a performer. That’s a given. Something is always going to happen (a cell phone going off, someone dropping their program, someone messes up in the accompaniment, you forget a line; suddenly your mind just starts thinking about something else). The important thing is that you notice it and then gently bring yourself back to the music and what you are communicating. You’re going to have reactions and you’re going to feel things. Even if you perform the same thing 100 nights a week, each night you’re going to feel different and be in a new place with new distractions. So, it’s a matter of just staying with it, being honest with where you are and what you’re feeling, and expressing yourself fully.

Consequently, although there were times when I felt distracted or not quite connected, there were other times that I felt so in the music that I forgot where I was. This happened a couple times in the first set, however, my nerves were pretty high in this one, so I was battling with that. The Ives set felt extremely connected and full of music-making. After coming off of the stage from that set, my mother met me back stage to help with the quick change (God bless my mother!). I had to get out of my bronze gown, put on the black skirt, eggplant blouse, change earrings, pin the jewels on the blouse, and put my shoes back on. I was still pretty wound up at that moment. I remember not being able to get one of my earrings into my ears and I became a little frustrated. Thank goodness my mom was there to help! She was amazing.

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 felt very alive, however, I felt like I was pushing things a bit too much. I could feel my body wanting to do more and give as much as it possibly could. It was also extremely warm onstage and there were a couple of times that I felt overwhelmed with heat. During the intermission, I asked them to turn on the air conditioning and told myself to just relax. I still had 40 more minutes of music! I couldn’t give it all away at once! I remember my mom meeting me backstage after the Larsen set and saying, “Wow, Court! That was powerful!”

I made my last change of the evening during intermission and my mother helped me one more time with taking my hair down and putting a shawl on. I wasn’t sure if I should keep my hair down because it was a huge mass of curls! But mom persuaded me to go with it (which I’m glad she did, because everyone loved it). Intermission was much shorter than I thought it would be and I didn’t have time to relax like I thought I would. So, I took a few more moments to get focused, said a prayer, and was on my way out for the Laitman set. This was probably one of the most nerve-wracking sets of the evening because it was the set that I lost my place in during one of my performances in Illinois (which had never happened to me before), and it is extremely challenging vocally (there is a high B-flat that has to be floated at the end and feels so exposed!). I just 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!

We finished the evening off with the musical theater set, which proved to be a ton of fun. After explaining the set to the audience, I asked them to hold their applause until the end and they loved some of the pieces so much that they forgot not to applaud after the first few songs. I had to smile! Tali and I were a little worried about the set because it was the one we had the least amount of time together to work on. But everything went smoothly and we had a ball!

After the last song of the musical theater set, the crowd jumped to their feet and gave us a very generous standing ovation. We were 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 going to do (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 knew that after all this great American music, the audience was still a little hungry to hear me do something operatic with some vocal fireworks. I knew the aria would be just the thing. So, I said, “Let’s do ‘Sempre libera’, Tal.” To which she replied, “Really?! Are you sure?” And I said, “Yes!” Of course, after I had started the aria, I questioned whether I should have done it. I was mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausted by this point. I could feel that it was taking every part of my being to perform this aria. I honestly think that the Lord lifted me up at that moment and gave me the wings to fly because after singing all the notes and that last chord being played, the audience leapt to their feet with a roar. I couldn’t believe it! I was right…this was what they wanted to hear!

The performance was a success! It certainly wasn’t perfect. But it was my Carnegie Hall debut! And of course I was going to be nervous. So, although I wish I hadn’t been, I couldn’t be happier with the way that it turned out. Friends and family at the reception afterwards surrounded me. There were people there that I didn’t even know would be there, making it a wonderful surprise to see them. I felt so supported and blessed to have all these people by my side. I couldn’t have done it without them! I took a moment at the reception to thank everyone and to sing “Happy Birthday” to my mom whose very birthday was on the day of my recital. She contributed so much in preparation for the recital. It was very deserving!

Everyone seemed to have enjoyed themselves (and I had several comments from people that they loved “Sempre libera” and were thrilled that I sang it). 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 our 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

Carnegie Hall Press Release

April 23, 2009

Soon after I returned home from the Motezuma performances, publicist Jona Rapoport formulated a press release for my Carnegie Hall debut. After numerous hard working hours to help publicize this important event, it has been posted on the Musical America website. Click on the following link to view the press release: http://www.musicalamerica.com/news/newsstory.cfm?archived=0&storyID=20551&categoryID=5. Hope you enjoy!

LA Times Review

April 16, 2009

I am thrilled to announce that on March 29, 2009 I received a rave review from The Los Angeles Times for my performance as Motezuma’s daughter, Teutile, in Long Beach Opera’s production of Vivaldi’s ‘Motezuma’. Mark Swed writes, “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…”.  This being my first review in a major newspaper, I couldn’t have been more excited! To read the review in it’s entirety, click on: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/culturemonster/2009/03/vivaldis-motezu.html

Professional Concert Debut

September 1, 2008

My professional concert debut with the Sunriver Music Festival Orchestra in Sunriver, Oregon was held on August 22, 2008. Teaming up with mezzo-soprano Sarah Mattox, we performed a concert of “opera favorites” with several duets and arias. The highlights included Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro”, excerpts from Carmen, and the famous “Flower Duet” from Lakmé. Maestro Lawrence Smith was a delight to work with and the Sunriver Music Festival Orchestra played beautifully. What a joy to perform in my hometown and to feel so welcomed by the audience! Click here for Sunriver article: http://www.ktvz.com/Global/story.asp?s=8619047

First Place at NATSAA Competition

July 28, 2008

On June 27, 2008, I experienced one of the most exciting moments of my professional career thus far. After months of auditions and competing all over the country, I was awarded First Place in the NATS (National Association of Teachers of Singing) Artist Award Competition in Nashville, Tennessee and will be making my New York solo recital debut at Carnegie Hall next summer.

The journey began in the winter of 2007, when I applied for the competition. Each applicant needed to offer 18 pieces of music (an entire recital program), and comply with many repertoire requirements (there had to be a certain number of pieces from American composers, German and French Art Song, opera arias, etc.). After submitting my application, I was granted an audition in the first preliminary round, which took place at Chapman University in Southern California in early March of 2008. I won first place in that round and to my surprise, proceeded to win the Cal-Western Regional round in Utah, Arizona held in April. As a result, my pianist Tali Tadmor and I would be heading to Nashville for the semi-finals and finals in late June. Unfortunately, the last segment of the competition would arrive just three days after my final performance of Violetta in La Traviata, but I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to sing in Carnegie Hall. I was careful to remain healthy after Traviata then headed for Nashville.

There were fourteen singers from all over the country who competed in the semi-finals on June 26. This part of the competition was similar to the previous rounds where each contestant began with their choice of song and then the judges would choose from the remaining 17 pieces until you sung for 20 minutes. Naturally, my voice was still a little tired from just finishing three Violettas in a row, but I sang well enough to make it into the final round. I couldn’t believe this because there were so many wonderful singers!

Six of us were chosen to sing in the finals, which took place the following day. Each finalist had to prepare a 15-minute program out of the 18 pieces of music we originally offered and we performed our programs for the entire NATS convention (there were several hundreds of people in attendance). Because I had worried about my voice the day before, I decided that during the final round I would only focus on singing my heart out, having the time of my life and praising the Lord’s name. To my delight, I achieved my goals and had an incredible experience! Since I was the fourth singer of the evening, I was able to hear the sixth singer’s program and knew she was extremely talented. After hearing her I thought I didn’t have a chance.

Following a brief reception after our performances (to give the judges time to make their decision), they gathered all of the finalists up on stage and started awarding 6th prize, then 5th, 4th, and so on. As the awards were being presented, my name continually went unmentioned and when it came down to being one of the last two competitors, I couldn’t believe what was happening! Then when they announced the 2nd place winner and didn’t call my name, I just about died of shock! The woman who received 2nd place performed right before me had this enormous, incredible voice…I couldn’t believe it!!! I looked over at Tali, who was sitting out in the audience, and she was literally jumping out of her chair. It was surreal!

Along with cash prizes, the most exciting news is that I will be performing a solo recital at the Weill Recital Hall in Carnegie Hall in New York. I am looking forward to this opportunity with great anticipation and am already planning the program, which will take place on June 18, 2009. In 2010 I will perform another recital for the next NATS Convention to be held in Utah. In addition to of all of this, NATS will be asking me to perform in regional conventions throughout the country. I’ve also been awarded a scholarship to attend the AIMS summer music festival in Graz, Austria any summer of my choosing.

I couldn’t be more ecstatic about all of this and would like to thank each one who has supported me throughout the progression of my career. Thank you!

Professional Opera Debut

July 16, 2008

On June 14, I made my professional opera debut with the Intimate Opera Company, portraying the role of Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata. This production came to life under the baton of Kristof Van Gryspeer and the direction of Mark Lamanna.

I began learning the role in Italian in January of 2008, and worked on it with my vocal instructor and coaches. The production was performed in English, but I wanted to be certain that I knew the Italian as well, and could sing it artistically in the language it was originally written. Coachings with Maestro Van Gryspeer began in April. Kristof is a talented conductor and was such a pleasure to work with. He helped me find the speaking quality in the words (to not just sing them, but really communicate what I was saying) and was always present, providing the support I needed every moment while I was on stage.

At the end of April, I temporarily relocated to Pasadena (a 2 hour drive from my home in San Diego), residing with a friend of the family. Staging began and we had intense rehearsals 6 days a week, so I was able to return home one or two days weekly to see my husband. I absolutely loved working with the staging director, Mark Lamanna. Mark has the incredible ability to make each and every character in a show three-dimensional. He is extremely sensitive to their situation in life and what they are going through, and uses the strengths of each performer to naturally bring out the character they are portraying. He is so honest and caring in his work. I felt I could take the necessary risks to put myself on the line emotionally, vocally, spiritually, and physically. One of the greatest things I learned from him was how to channel the emotions from my body out into the audience for them to experience. Mark also encouraged me to trust myself as an artist. To go out there, sing with my heart, live fully in each moment, react honestly to every person who is onstage, and to let my voice soar. He would say to me before I went on stage, “Just fly, Courtney!”

On June 14, 2008 I had my debut performance as Violetta and it was thrilling, proving to be a wonderful first performance. Opening night jitters were unavoidable during the first act, but Act 2 and Act 3 went beautifully. I will never forget the feeling I had after the curtain closed on that first show. I was so exhausted but so fulfilled at the same time. As I came out for my bow, I was in tears.

We had 4 performances in all, with one performance during the first weekend and three performances on the second. I was a little worried about how my voice and body were going to hold up for three consecutive performances (Friday night, Saturday night, and Sunday matinee). However, Saturday’s and Sunday’s performances were the best. I felt so energized after each show. It was a fantastic sensation to completely feel every moment and channel the emotions right through me! Ultimately, it was a huge success, with three of the four performances being sold out and the audience loving it.
If you’d like to see and hear more of the production, browse pictures on the “Gallery” page (under “Production Photos”) and visit the “Critical Acclaim” page to read a review of me as Violetta. Video clips and audio recordings of the production will be coming soon!

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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