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Volume 26, Number 4 — April 2019

Hilary Ginther is on stage across the country

Hilary Ginther as Lureen in “Brokeback Mountain.”
Hilary Ginther as Lureen in “Brokeback Mountain.”
Additional photos below »

By Leslie Grace | A! Magazine for the Arts | January 30, 2019

Hilary Ginther, mezzo-soprano, has a busy schedule coming up, but she’s prepared for times when she is between roles.

“In April 2019, I’ll be reprising the role of Carmen with Fargo-Moorhead Opera in North Dakota, followed by a world premiere called ‘Companionship’ by Rachel Peters at Fort Worth Opera in Texas in May,” she says.

She began planning a way to pay the bills when she wasn’t performing, while she was still in graduate school.

“During finals week of graduate school at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, I went to bartending school.I knew I would need other skills to help pay the bills while pursuing a career in music, so it seemed like a smart move. I learned the basics and got my first job bartending at the Cincinnati Country Club.Several months later I moved to New York City and had a few restaurant jobs (where I met my husband) during my first couple of years here.

“I have now been working at an insurance agency in New York City on and off between singing gigs since 2013, and it is the perfect way to stay afloat between operas.I also have a job as a church choir singer, which I enjoy immensely; there are several people in the choir who had major opera careers, and it’s incredible to hear their stories.The ultimate goal is to not have to have a supplementary job outside of singing, but it is necessary in a country whose government does not fund the arts.Hopefully, I can make that a reality in the next couple of years since my management is not just in the United States but worldwide,” she says.

Some of the performances she’s been a part of include a cast album of Bernstein’s “Mass” with The Philadelphia Orchestra, which was released by Deutsche Grammophon. She made her Carnegie Hall debut on a program of Haydn and Forrest, followed by a New York City Opera debut in the U.S. premiere of “Brokeback Mountain” and a third debut with Los Angeles Opera in June in Gordon Getty’s “The Canterville Ghost.”

“My favorite roles that I’ve sung so far are Carmen, Rosina in Rossini’s ‘The Barber of Seville,’ Sesto in Mozart’s ‘La clemenza di Tito’ and Hansel in Humperdinck’s ‘Hansel and Gretel.’I recently got to wear a bright red polyester bell-bottom suit with red cowgirl boots and a bolo tie for ‘Brokeback Mountain’ when I played Jack’s wife Lureen, a cowgirl from Texas. It is my favorite costume to date.

“One of the most impactful stage experiences I had was in an opera called ‘The Passenger’ with Florida Grand Opera.It was based on the experiences of the prisoners and SS officers in Auschwitz, and the costumes and staging were so real we all left the stage shaking and bawling every night. I played one of the prisoners,” she says.

Ginther decided in high school that she wanted to pursue a career in opera, but she began to sing as a child.

“I began singing in the children’s choir at St. Anne Church in Bristol when I was 9.I joined because a lot of my classmates were in the choir, and I wanted to be a part of it.After a few months the choir director, Richard Davis, noticed I had some natural singing talent when I tried out for a solo.I started cantoring the Catholic Mass when I was 9 or 10, and then joined another group, the East Tennessee Children’s Choir, where I met Beth McCoy who was their director at the time. After a year or so in ETCC, I started private piano and voice lessons with Beth.

“When I was in eighth grade, she mentioned there was a local music competition being held by the Lions Club,and we both wanted to see how I would feel performing an Italian song on stage. When I applied, I was told it was for high school students only, and that they didn’t want my feelings to be hurt if I didn’t win. I personally called them and asked to enter regardless; that I just wanted to try.I won that competition singing Stradella’s ‘Pieta Signore’ and was instantly hooked.Later on in high school I began studying with Mark Owen Davis and his guidance kept me on track until I was ready for college.

“When I was taking voice lessons from Dr. Maryann Kyle at ETSU while I was in high school, she called me one day and said she was moving to Mississippi to teach at the University of Southern Mississippi, and that if I wanted to major in music I could get a lot of performing opportunities there. I remember thinking about it for about two minutes while crossing the lawn of my high school, University School in Johnson City, and making the choice right then that I would get my degree in vocal performance and pursue a career on the opera stage.

“Once I graduated from USM I was hired by Mississippi Opera to sing Maddalena in Verdi’s ‘Rigoletto.’ That job was the first time I was a hired professional amongst others, not just a college student.I learned so much from the principal singers.They would often take me out for lunch or coffee to ask about my trajectory and give much appreciated advice.It was also the first time a fellow singer was inappropriate with me during the performance process.While this was a negative experience, it taught me what I may possibly experience in the future and how to properly and professionally defend myself and diffuse the situation.As it is a profession of self-employed contractors, there is often no one to help us in a situation we would normally take to a HR department, so while it may be uncomfortable to discuss, it is important.That being said, my positive and supportive experiences in this business have far outweighed the negative.

“When I was growing up and in college my parents were huge supporters so I was lucky.My teachers in the Tri-Cities when I was young, Beth McCoy and Mark Davis, and my teachers in college, Maryann Kyle and Tom Baresel, were major factors in my development and motivation.Now I have an incredibly supportive husband, and a team of coaches and managers who help keep me on track,” she says.

Ginther’s typical day is to wake up at 5:30 a.m., and be on the subway to work by 7 a.m.She takes her iPad and studies/listens to music she needs to learn on her 45-minute commute.Then she works at her desk job until 6 p.m. while she studies for another 45 minutes on the subway ride home.Once she’s home, she rests a bit and eats dinner. Then she practices before winding down or writing emails to her managers. At 11 p.m., she’s in bed, ready to do it all again the next day.

She still works with a vocal coach and has to study other skills.

“I have had to take what is called a pants role class on how to move and carry myself like a boy or man.This seems odd, but I play a lot of male roles since I have a low voice for a woman.It’s an operatic tradition to cast pre-pubescent or young men with low voiced women, and it’s so fun to play the opposite of whom you are.Playing a boy means I also have to fence every now and then so I am an extreme novice with a sword ... more lessons to come.

“I am also about to begin taking castanet and flamenco lessons in preparation for ‘Carmen.’ There are a few numbers in the opera where she dances and plays the castanets and the more authentic I can be, the better.

“The singing to acting ratio is a delicate balance.Opera is meant for a large stage where the audience is pretty far away, so when that is the case you have to exaggerate your acting to play to the back of the opera house. Sometimes the emotion of the character is too intense to let yourself go all the way with it, so you have to make sure you don’t let the tension creep into your voice or you’ll never make it through the opera.I feel I have equal vocal and acting abilities, and one may hold precedence over the other depending on the opera, orchestra size and venue.At the end of the day, opera is drama, so I like that it is essentially heightened acting.

“Some of the toughest things I’ve dealt with are having to miss out on big life events of my friends or family if I have a gig.That always stings and never gets easier.Being away from my husband for extended periods of time can also be hard. Right after we got married I left for a gig for seven months, and we only saw each other three times during that period.It also makes it more difficult if you want to start a family and have children.I’ve seen very few singers make it work before eventually giving in and stopping their singing career due to traveling and finances.

“My goal has always been to be able to pay my bills and live comfortably by singing only.I would like to be there in the next five years, hopefully sooner.I have set the bar high for myself, so I would say my ultimate goal would be to sing at the highest level such as The Metropolitan Opera, La Scala, Paris Opera, Covent Garden, etc.I have found that I’m usually capable of more than I thought so I am hoping that I may reach my ultimate goal one day,” she says.

For more information about Ginther,

Rachel Barker-Asto wants people to sing

Hilary Ginther

Ginther in "Hansel and Gretel."

Ginther has appeared in "Barber of Seville."