Sailing the high C's

Sunday, July 15, 2007
Cape Girardeau native Donna Smith, 34, performed July 7 as Venus in New York opera company Glimmerglass Opera's 2007 production of "Orpheus in the Underworld." (George Mott ~ Glimmerglass Opera.)
Cape Girardeau native Donna Smith, 34, performed as Venus in New York opera company Glimmerglass Opera's 2007 production of Jacques Offenbach's "Orpheus in the Underworld" on opening night July 7. The opera runs through Aug. 26. (George Mott ~ Glimmerglass Opera)

Donna Smith had never seen an opera until college, and even then it was only a videotaped version of "Carmen."

Now, the Cape Girardeau native makes a living on the stage, sending her powerful soprano voice over the orchestra to audience members in opera houses in Milwaukee, St. Louis, Europe and now Cooperstown, N.Y.

Smith is playing Venus in the Glimmerglass Opera production of Jacques Offenbach's "Orpheus in the Underworld," a comedic take on the myth of Orpheus, the ancient poet and musician.

The show started July 7 and runs through Aug. 26.

Smith said she used to spend hours as a child listening to, analyzing and mimicking Whitney Houston.

For the past few months, Smith, now 34, has spent hours learning lines, studying songs and practicing how to be a drunken goddess for "Orpheus."

Smith was born and raised in Cape Girardeau, but is studying opera at Glimmerglass Opera's Young American Artist program for the summer. She attended Southeast Missouri State University after high school. She was a fashion major, a psychology major and then finally changed her major to music a few years into her time at Southeast.

"I knew that that was really what I wanted to do," Smith said from her new home in Cooperstown. "I just didn't know what type of music I wanted to do."

Smith grew up listening to southern gospel, bluegrass and rock. She said she enjoyed singing all the genres, but never thought to make a career out of it.

"Who ever really thinks or believes that they're going to grow up and make a career out of singing and especially singing opera?" she said.

Smith sang in school choirs and took music courses, but she was not sure what area was right for her until a teacher at Southeast asked her to sing an opera aria.

"That's when I knew that that was what I should be singing," she said. "It just seemed like an organic fit."

Smith applied for and was accepted to a summer program in Rome in 1993.

"I said to myself, 'I'll go there this summer and see how it goes and I may come back and switch my career path.' And that's what happened," she said.

Smith spent that summer -- and the following two -- studying opera in Italy. She saw her first live opera at the Caracalla Theatre in Rome.

"It was unbelievable. It was pretty life-changing," Smith said. She returned to Cape Girardeau and told her parents she wanted to be an opera singer.

"We were blown away," said Alice Smith, Donna's mother,.

The Smiths had lived in Southeast Missouri all their lives, and Donna was born and raised in Cape Girardeau. She stopped attending Southeast and went to the New England Conservatory in Boston and then transferred to the Manhattan School of Music in New York.

"We miss her awful," Alice Smith said. "But in the career she's in, that's where she needs to be."

Smith has been away since 1995. In 2003, she was a semifinalist in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, where she got the opportunity to sing in the Metropolitan Opera House at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. She has spent several summers with different opera companies participating in their young artist programs.

Because of the opera, Smith knows bits and pieces of several languages. She has sung in French, German, Italian, etc. When learning a role, singers translate the text of the entire opera.

"Opera is not just about learning your role. It's about learning the entire opera," Smith said. "How can you react to someone when you don't know what they're saying to you?"

Smith has followed the "usual path" of an opera singer: school, conservatory and youth development programs that help the singer develop vocally, performance wise and to gain experience onstage.

She said her next move is to get an agent and get on stage.

"I feel like I'm at that phase now to do more main stage singing," Smith said.

Her resume says soprano, but Smith is classified as a lyric coloratura soprano, meaning she can hit higher notes with quick, light movement.

"Coloratura is a little harder to come by," Smith said. "If you have the high stuff, if you have the extension, you should use it while you have it."

With age and wear and tear on the voice, the sound tends to round out and become heavier and fuller as the years pass, so Smith may lose some of the higher extensions and end her career as a lyric soprano.

The thought of ending her career is a distant one. According to Smith, her opera career is just beginning. She referred to Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo, who are 71 and 66 respectively, and said she has a long way to go.

"If you're careful and you know how to sing in a healthy manner and know how to pace yourself and to just sit and be and have a normal life," Smith said, "then I think your career can last."

Smith said her role as Venus in the Glimmerglass production has been challenging because it is a comedic role. The goddess of love and beauty is portrayed as a party girl out to have a good time.

"I'm pretty much drunk the whole opera, which is a lot of fun and really exhausting the whole time," she said. "Vocally I don't feel like this role is very taxing, but physically it's exhausting."

While she has enjoyed playing a drunken Venus, Smith said her ultimate role would be Violetta from "La Traviata," the lead female role in an opera about the fall from grace.

"It's sort of one of those lifelong goals for a soprano," she said. "Violetta is one of those roles that will take several years for you not only to learn, but to really get it into your body," Smith said. "Maybe in a few more years I'll be ready, perhaps, to take on my first Violetta."

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