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February 25, 2008
Women with Belief Series: Notes From an Opera Singer
My mom was an opera singer who could sing high Cs
beautifully. And she had the chance to sing them often. Mom was a
leading soprano with The National Opera Company, and with the Community
Concert Series of Columbia Artists after her undergraduate and graduate
studies at the New England Conservatory of Music. Her repertoire
included Verdi, Puccini, Mozart, Gounod, Massenet, Hayden and Handel.
Mom also toured Europe for the State Department to entertain our
troops. And in 1956, she was presented with a certificate of esteem
signed by the United States Secretary of Defense, C.E. Wilson, “. . . .
for patriotic service in providing entertainment to members of the armed
forces in Europe.”
I asked Mom recently how she was able to consistently sing a
high C. She said, “You already have to believe it’s there. And once you
believe it is, you have to find a way to let all negative thoughts go so
that you can sing your high C.”
Daniel J. Wakin wrote about the high C last year in his
article, “The Note that Makes Us Weep.” Wakin quotes Craig Rutenberg,
the Metropolitan Opera’s director of musical administration, “It is the
absolute summit of technique. More than anywhere else in your voice, you
have to know what you’re doing. To me it signals a self-confidence in
the singer that lets him communicate to us that he knows what he’s doing
and he has something very important to express with that note.”
When I was growing up in Milwaukee, my parents formed their
own singing act, The Pollays. They performed across the United States
and Canada with stars like Joey Bishop, Shecky Green, Myron Cohen, Mark
Russell, Morey Amsterdam, Rich Little and David Brenner. My brother and
I often had the opportunity to travel with them.
I remember one particular performance. Mom had the flu. And
just minutes before being introduced on stage, Mom was throwing up in
I asked Mom how she was able to sing that day. She said, “I
always had a belief that I could sing under almost any circumstances. No
matter how sick I was, if I could stand up, then I could sing.” Mom
continued, “You believe you can do it. You practice every day. You know
you have the technique. You just have to concentrate and believe it is
in you.” And not only did she make it through the show, Mom and Dad
received a standing ovation.
In a chapter on self-efficacy beliefs for the “Handbook of
Positive Psychology”, James Maddux, professor of psychology at George
Mason University wrote, “The truth is that believing that you can
accomplish what you want to accomplish is one of the most important
ingredients – perhaps the most important ingredient – in the recipe for
How did a girl from Augusta, Maine become an opera singer?
Mom said, “My belief was that I could sing and that everyone
wanted to hear me sing from the time I was three years old. My mother
used to say that I woke up singing with the birds before anyone else in
the family was up . . . and I sang all day.”
“There was always singing in my home,” Mom said. “On Sunday
nights we listened to the Firestone Hour. We heard opera, operetta and
other beautiful music. I dreamed and I believed that I could sing as
well as the stars could and that some day I would sing opera and be
well-known. I bought sheet music and imitated all those famous singers,
and the singers in the movies.”
Mom turned her talent and her interest into a successful
singing career that spanned five decades and took her around the world.
Mom’s beliefs gave her the drive and courage to accomplish something
very few people do. She became a professional singer. She sang opera.
And she could sing the high Cs.
David J. Pollay. Distributed by North Star Writers Group. May not be
republished without permission.
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