Voice majors Whitney Campbell '19 and Shawn Roth '20 recount their experiences with opera legend Marilyn Horne.
For each of the past 14 years, Oberlin Conservatory has welcomed the legendary American mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne for a weeklong residency. And after each of the past six visits, Horne has awarded $10,000 to outstanding students she coached here. Both the scholarship and the Horne residency are made possible by the singer’s close friend, philanthropist Stephen Rubin, president and publisher of Henry Holt & Co.
This spring, Horne named soprano Whitney Campbell ’19 and tenor Shawn Roth ’20 the new awardees, each of them receiving $5,000 for auditions, travel, and the living expenses that accompany the life of a young artist. While singing for the Marilyn Horne was a bit nerve-racking for both Campbell and Roth, they admit that having fun has backed all their hard work at Oberlin.
When were you first inspired by the human singing voice?
Campbell: As a child, I would go around the house singing at all hours of the day. The first time I was inspired by the operatic voice was when I heard Renée Fleming live in recital when I was 13 years old. Her ability to touch the soul with her voice alone inspired me to pursue this career!
Roth: Among a few moments that stick out in particular would be the first time I heard a recording of Pavarotti singing “La donna è mobile.” There was just something so otherworldly about it—it sounded too perfect to be of this earth. I thought, “Whoa, opera’s the coolest thing there is,” because nothing remotely came close to listening to it.
What are some of your greatest musical influences?
Campbell: Since first hearing Renée Fleming in that recital, I have always gone back to her as a source of inspiration. I consider her my biggest role model. Her innate musicality and ability to express with her voice is something I aspire to achieve. I have read her book, The Inner Voice, at least three times. Angela Meade, Marilyn Horne, Montserrat Caballé, Eileen Farrell, Mirella Freni, and so many more, also influence my work. In addition to those singing role models, it was my longtime choir director, Barbara Walker, who introduced me to music and really inspired me to pursue this career. She heard me singing at the pool when I was 5 years old and recruited me on the spot to join the Livingston Parish Children’s Choir in Denham Springs, Louisiana, where I sang from kindergarten through seventh grade. She is still a major musical influence and mentor to me today. Without her, I probably would not have gotten into music at all.
Roth: Every day, I find another reason to sing, whether it’s because I’ve discovered a new aria or new singer, perhaps I found out something new when I practiced that day, or maybe someone said something I’d like to prove wrong! As far as musical influences go, I’ve had a few constants—one would be Pavarotti. I always go back to him, even if I haven’t listened to him in months. Another would be classical radio programming. I grew up in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, with Pittsburgh’s classical radio station WQED. One night, when I was a kid, I was messing with my radio before bed and came across this absolutely, shockingly mesmerizing sound. It was a beautiful symphony—I unfortunately don’t remember what the piece was, but I remember the host saying it was by an African American composer. Probably William Grant Still’s Symphony No. 1, now that I think of it. But from then on, I would listen to the classical station anytime I could, and I credit that with giving me my love for classical music in particular. When I come home, I turn the dial as soon as I’m in range!
What have been some of your greatest experiences in Oberlin? And your most valuable takeaways?
Campbell: Having the opportunity to work with Marilyn Horne is definitely at the top of my list! It was an absolutely incredible experience that I am beyond grateful for. During my four years at Oberlin, I was fortunate enough to be cast in all four of the operas conducted by Christopher Larkin. After being in the chorus for the first two, I got to work more closely with him on solo roles in Britten’s The Turn of the Screw and Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites. It was such a privilege to work with maestro Larkin during my time here. He was so inspiring with his encouraging words and musical ideas, while simultaneously teaching us how to work with a full orchestra. It’s incredible that Oberlin provided us—as such young singers—with fully staged, costumed, and orchestrally supported opportunities to grow as artists on stage.
Roth: Getting accepted to Oberlin in the first place was such a thrill, since I really only began studying voice seriously during my senior year of high school. I’ve been incredibly fortunate for what Oberlin’s given to me. I’ve had the chance to work with an amazing teacher, Salvatore Champagne, throughout my time here. As an underclassman, I got to listen to incredibly talented colleagues like Olivia Boen ’17 and Cory McGee ’18 before they took off. I’ve been in master classes with world-renowned artists such as Marilyn Horne, George Shirley, Gerald Martin Moore, and Brian Zeger. I’ve worked on operas with two of the best living composers, Du Yun '01 and Missy Mazzoli. And I’ve been invited to sing with the Cleveland Orchestra as a soloist, twice, because they reached out to Oberlin specifically for singers. How can I possibly pick a favorite out of any of those?! And I still have one more year left, which is hands-down the craziest part. Can’t wait to see what happens next year!
Singing on the Marilyn Horne master classes is one of the most exciting honors for Oberlin singers. What was that first experience of working with the great American mezzo like for you?
Campbell: As I was sitting in the audience, waiting for my turn to sing the “Czardas” from Die Fledermaus for Marilyn Horne, I was the most nervous I’ve ever felt for a performance. However, after getting through the first sing-through, she was so kind—I just knew she was rooting for all of us to succeed! She had such great, really helpful advice for me about pacing the piece. It ended up being one of my favorite performances at Oberlin. To top it all off, I got to have an hourlong lesson with her the next day! I never would’ve thought I would have the chance to casually sing through my repertoire for Ms. Horne. It was a life-changing experience, and I still can’t believe it happened. One of the coolest things she said to me was that I reminded her of herself at a young age, which was the best compliment I could ever wish to receive. I’m still reeling from it! I really hope I can continue to work with her in the years to come!
Roth: Oh God, I’ve never been more nervous than when I was waiting backstage to go on stage for Ms. Horne. As the most established living American mezzo, she’s one of the most intimidating people to sing for on the planet…at first. Once I got out there and she started asking me about my pieces, she made me feel right at home. I think both of us being from western Pennsylvania probably helped too! She’ll ask you to do things no one else will, and as a result, can improve your performance in ways no one else can. Working with her in a private lesson was just as exciting—at the time, I was singing baritone, and had Billy Budd’s aria in my package. To help me out, she told me how the first baritone to sing that role sang it, who just happened to be a friend of hers. That’s the beauty of Ms. Horne’s experience—she’ll tell you things that came right from the mouths of Britten or Stravinsky themselves.
What did your path to music and Oberlin look like?
Campbell: Following my years of experience singing in the Livingston Parish Children’s Choir, I decided to audition for the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, right in my hometown. After being admitted at the high school level, I skipped eighth grade and went straight into high school. I studied classical voice with Phyllis Treigle, expanded my art song repertory, participated in a number of opera scenes, and performed in two full operas. It was in those pivotal years that I discovered that opera was all I wanted to do. Throughout high school, I did summer opera intensives at Louisiana State University and the Brevard Music Center. It was during my junior year that my mom convinced me to go to Oberlin’s Vocal Academy for High School Students, and I fell in love with this school! I could just feel that Oberlin would help me grow into a more well-rounded artist. And the conservatory immediately became my number-one pick for undergrad. Now, as I approach graduation, I realize how lucky I was to receive such a thorough music education from such a respected institution. I am so grateful to everyone who made my experience here such an exciting one!
Roth: So, although music was a constant in my life since day one, I had a lot of insecurity and anxiety about what to study in college. Where I’m from, the only real “path” for musically inclined kids was to go to one of three or four state schools, get a degree in music education, and try your luck at applying for teaching jobs in the area. Three of my high school music teachers sat me down with my parents one day to try to scare me out of a performance-based career, because it was just such an “outlandish” idea. Of course, I chose Oberlin anyway. I think it’s worked out pretty well so far. So my advice for anyone who needs to hear it is this: Do what you want to be doing with your time. It’s not anyone else’s, and it’s the only thing you can’t get back once it’s gone.
Now for a more uplifting story! The exact moment that I knew I wanted to sing for a living came while I was singing with a regional choir in my junior year of high school, led by an incredibly talented conductor, Chris Jackson. We were preparing Mozart’s Regina Coeli, which features a solo quartet out in front of the choir. Wanting that solo so badly and hoping to stand out, I called upon my official sponsor for this interview, Luciano Pavarotti, and just tried to sound like him as much as possible. It worked, and I got the solo! Singing out there in front of everyone activated the strongest emotional response to music I’ve ever had, and I knew then that I wanted to do this for the rest of my life. I still get that feeling when I perform, and it’s one of the strongest highs you can feel. I actually ended up running into Chris last summer, when we were both singing at the Yale School of Music’s Norfolk Festival. During a break in rehearsal, I reintroduced myself and thanked him for letting me discover my passion—then we went right back to singing, this time as colleagues. All the more proof that the classical music world is the smallest there is!
Do you have any advice for our incoming first-year singers?
Roth: Have fun, and listen to each other. A large portion of your education comes from classes and lessons, but perhaps the most valuable things you’ll learn will come from your friends and colleagues. Be easy to work with—it will pay dividends in the long run. Even that still boils down to just being receptive to the people around you. Your entire time as an undergrad is an audition for all your peers, because they’ll be the ones who will get you jobs later on. And people who are easy to work with will be easy to employ. So show up with your music memorized, do the things the conductors ask you to do, and have fun with it, because that’s why we all do it at the end of the day. Also, learn German. The Germans already know English.
Campbell: Absolutely don’t forget to learn from your peers! Be supportive of each other—don’t tear each other down! Be a good colleague. Be respectful. Be prepared. Always be on time. It will only help you in the long run to have a reputation of being respectful and dependable. And, lastly, remember why you came to Oberlin. You came here to do what you love: sing opera. You are here to do it for you, and it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks or says. Have fun with it!
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