The making of an opera diva
By Glenn Hare, firstname.lastname@example.org, 803-777-3685
Valencia Callens exudes confidence and determination, handy traits for a person pursing a career on the stage. “For a short time, I doubted myself, and I double-majored, studying vocal performance and accounting,” recalls the Montgomery, Ala., native. “Accounting was my backup plan.”
But Callens had no passion for number-crunching and soon dropped the backup idea to focus solely on singing. “I just stepped out on faith and my will to achieve,” Callens says.
While earning her undergraduate degree at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Callens studied under Kristine Hurst Wajszczuk. Master classes with Metropolitan Opera singer and University of South Carolina voice professor Janet Hopkins influenced her to pursue a master's degree in opera theater at Carolina.
Opera at USC fans may remember hearing Callens’ most recent performances. Last fall, the soprano sang the title role in Jacques Offenbach’s “La Perichole.” She portrayed a beautiful, yet poor, street singer who is pursued by a lecherous viceroy. She also appeared in Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte,” singing the role of Despina, the housekeeper. “I really enjoyed that part,” Callens says. “Despina is buoyant and feisty. And I just loved her craftiness.”
A singer from an early age, she gave her first solo performance at 7 years old. “It was only one line, but I clearly remember the rush of performing,” she recalls.
From that point forward — except for the accounting thing — she has been a singer. Opera became her genre of choice after a few minor roles that introduced her to new forms of expression, she explains. “I was completely intrigued by the different aspects of opera, with the beauty of the music, in collaboration with the costumes, lighting and choreography. But most of all the stories and how all these aspects come together to create this phenomenal craft,” Callens says.
Cio Cio San’s tragic romance in “Madama Butterfly” is her favorite story line. “I’m completely entranced by the passion of that story,” she says. “And I feel Cio Cio San’s happiness and pain each time she sings. Her longing for Pinkerton is so emotional. It doesn’t matter how many times I read the libretto or see the production, I just hate Pinkerton for what he does to her.”
In addition to rehearsing and performing, Callens has used her two years in Opera at USC getting behind-the-scenes experience. She has worn many hats, performing duties as a stage manager, program coordinator and assistant to the director.
I was completely intrigued by the different aspects of opera, with the beauty of the music, in collaboration with the costumes, lighting and choreography. But most of all the stories and how all these aspects come together to create this phenomenal craft.
As graduation approaches, Callens has one last role to sing as a student. She will appear in the upcoming production of “Speed Dating Tonight!” a comic one-act with words and music by noted American composer Michael Ching. The opera tells the story of speed dating event in a local bar. Callens will sing the role of the dating coordinator.
“’Speed Dating Tonight!’ offers a unique and often amusing look at the ways of meeting new people and the world of dating in the 21st century,” says Ellen Douglas Schlaefer, the director of the production that runs this weekend.
The show is presented as part of School of Music’s Lanny and Sidney Palmer One Act Series, which was created to showcase America opera. “’Speed Dating Tonight!’ is accessible both through the story line and the musical language,” adds Schlaefer.
Influenced by the likes of Leontyne Price and Kathleen Battle, Callens has high standards, but is undaunted by the challenge ahead and is preparing for the next phase of career. With aspirations of being an international opera singer, she’s spending the next several months auditioning for young artist residencies and fellowships in companies here and abroad.
One day, she hopes to move audiences giving life-changing performances, perhaps with her interpretations of Cio Cio San and other famous roles.
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