Meet the Artist – Chanae Curtis, soprano

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

My chosen instrument is the voice, but I actually began my musical journey playing the flute. I was 14 years old when I was sitting in a corridor playing, then humming the passages back and fourth. The choir tutor heard me humming and asked me enthusiastically “why aren’t you in choir? you have a great voice!”. (At my school, you could only choose either band or choir because they clashed.) Soon after, the choir teacher created an after-school choir, and I joined. Inevitably, the choir fell apart but I continued to sing and she began to teach me privately. It was in our private lessons that she would teach me about Italian art song, folk song, lieder and eventually, opera. A few years later, I went to Cleveland Heights High School and received great guidance from my choral director. By the time I was 18, I was apart of every singing ensemble at the school, except Men’s Chorus! It was at this point that my choir director said “you were born for this” and I knew I had to become a professional singer.

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

There have been many, many influences and wonderful people in my life who’ve helped to cultivate my musical career. Early on, my high school choral director Craig Macgaughy influenced me the most. He opened my eyes to all different types of music and always encouraged me to audition for solos, to stand tall and to be proud my performance. “You must bow!” he would yell from the wings, as I leaned forward, feeling like I was going to crumble – but I never did. He didn’t allow it. Later in life, I went to the Manhattan School of Music and began to study voice with Joan Patenaude-Yarnell, whom I still study with. This is where I truly began to find my voice and my confidence as an opera singer. It was here that I learned about the bel canto technique, specifics about how the voice and breath are always connected, and how to truly breathe life into whatever I’m singing. I learned how to be a professional opera singer and I recognized I am an artist in my own right, which redirected my approach to music in its entirety.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

One of the things I find challenging is the lack of time I have to spend time with family and friends. I think in any competitive career, striking a work-life balance can be difficult. With opera, the travelling makes dates and deadlines fairly inflexible. I’ve missed a couple of weddings and baby-showers because I have a rehearsal or a performance far away. As I get older and more experienced, I am finding ways to make time for both work and my personal life, but I believe that being an artist in the professional realm requires a lot of focus and dedication. This is a small sacrifice, as the pros heavily outweigh the cons in this business. As a result, my friends have started giving me dates more than a year in advance, to ensure my attendance!

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

I’ve had the privilege of performing at Buckingham Palace singing Strauss’ Morgen with orchestra for a gala sponsored by HRH Prince Charles of Wales and The Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama (RWCMD). That performance sticks out to me because I met a lot of wonderful people, including Shirley Bassey, who enjoyed my performance and later gave me a scholarship to help with tuition while at RWCMD. I’ve also had the pleasure of singing for HRH Prince Charles of Wales at private events, singing Strauss’ Four Last Songs in St. David’s Hall in Cardiff and singing Verdi’s 4 Sacred pieces under Sir Mark Elder with the Hallé Orchestra. Favourite opera to date: definitely Falstaff as Alice Ford under Maestro Carlo Rizzi at RWCMD. She is such a fun, witty character to play!

Which particular works do you think you play best?

Generally, I enjoy to singing Opera and lieder from the romantic period. I find that the texture and colour of my voice fit the characters, and naturally pick up on the nuances of the repertoire. Composers like Puccini, Verdi, Strauss, and Donizetti really speak to me. All clearly different and distinct in their own right, but it’s something about the words. The way these composers set them to music, develop a story within a story, paint the music with the words and the vocal lines – it’s like magic to me. I recently did a performance of Strauss’ Opus. 27 and I believe this music is all encompassing. It shows, musicality, difficulty in keeping the legato line always shimmering, and all the while thoroughly expressing the meaning of the text. I get to take the audience on a journey, rather than give them a performance of songs. There are, however, many composers that I adore outside of this period, including Beethoven and my beloved Mozart, who wrote some of the most beautiful and timeless melodies I’ve ever encountered. I am also passionate about American Negro Spirituals and I enjoy singing works and arrangements by Moses Hogan, Margaret Bonds and most recently, Ricky Ian Gordan.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

Each year, I have a point where I sit down and evaluate where I am in my career and my singing. I am very aware of my constant development and of what is required to sustain and longevity in my career. I work with my teacher and my coaches to create 3 categories: Repertoire that shows what I can do now, rep that I am working on/will do in the next few years, and rep for the further future. After I’ve got my three categories, I then decide whether to accept or decline offers based on the criteria above and I do not waiver. I feel strongly that once I’ve decided a role isn’t appropriate, it is not a good idea to go for it anyway. I believe you do yourself more harm by singing a role or piece of work prematurely, rather than waiting until the time is right. I understand that sometimes exceptions must be made, and that’s OK. However, there is a difference between doing something well and doing something so well that it exceeds expectation. “Can I do this?” “Can I do this well?” “Can I knock this out of the park?” The answers to all of these questions should always be “yes” before you take the work.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

I’m not sure that I have a favourite venue to perform in because I get excited anywhere I get to sing. That being said, I love singing at St. Martin-in-the-Fields because the church is beautiful and the audience is very diverse, being right in central London. I also love singing in intimate recital venues, where I can see and interact with people in the audience. For opera, I love the big stages/opera houses like the London Coliseum at ENO and the beautiful grounds and theatre at Glyndebourne. Quite excited for The Met next season!

Who are your favourite musicians?

Whitney Houston, Leontyne Price, Renee Fleming, Luciano Pavarotti, Vladmir Horowitz, Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Enya, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gellespie – to name a few.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I did performance a long while ago at Oberlin in Italy from a scene in I Capuleti e i Montecchi and I remember finishing the performance and one of my friends who played in the orchestra was sobbing uncontrollably. When I asked him what was wrong, he said it was “the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen”. He’d never really heard opera or been a fan of the type of singing we do, but he was forever changed after that seeing that one scene. From then onward I learned just how powerful music is and how important it is for the betterment of our society.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Performing all over the world, making connections with all walks of life, moving something within someone’s soul, empowering women and men alike, inspiring those who’ll follow in my footsteps, creating a life that is filled with love, laughter, good food and beautiful music – this is what success looks like to me.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

I like to keep things simple. So:

Be prepared. Be on time. Be a good colleague. Love what you do. Even if you don’t actually love it, find something in it that excites you. Practice until you can’t get it wrong. Trust the process, but also know that it’s perfectly acceptable to go the road less travelled. Trust yourself and trust your instincts. No one knows you better than yourself. Every once in a while, Stop. Relax. Smell the flowers and experience all that life has to offer. Seems cliché but most musicians need to be reminded from time to time that we are human, and that’s OK.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

In ten years time, I hope to be doing exactly what I’m doing now: Singing at amazing opera houses and venues all over the world! I also hope to expand my efforts to help introduce classical music to children and adolescents, particularly from rough backgrounds. I want to start a foundation that serves as a gateway to the art form, and provides lessons and coaching to kids, regardless of their parents’ financial ability. Second to singing, this is a passion of mine and I am quite excited to see this through over time.

What is your most treasured possession?

It’s not particularly treasured, but one thing I travel with is place mat that I bought from Paris when I was 20 years old. It was my first time going overseas and I’ve had it with me on every trip since. Also quite handy, since I usually have an herbal tea at my bedside. I’m never ruin the antique tables, dressers etc. that I come in contact with at some of my amazing house and hotel stays. Simple but it gives me a sense of comfort, which is nice when you’re away for months on end.

What is your present state of mind?

I have this feeling of eagerness, or readiness bubbling in me. I’m excited to get my hands dirty and to delve into new projects. I am ready to take my artistic skills to the next level and I wake up every day thinking of new ways to challenge myself. I carve through my rep, paying close attention to the small details. I feel a sense of jubilation, like every day is a new adventure. I feel grateful, humble and blessed to be able to do what I love for a living. I live in a state of blessed assuredness.

Praised for her attractive singing by the New York Times, American soprano is the newest sensation on the international opera scene. Engagements this season include her debut with Welsh National Opera as Anna Gomez in The Consul, and her upcoming debut at The Metropolitan Opera as Annie in Porgy and Bess. She returns to St. David’s Church for a performance of the Mozart Requiem with Cardiff Philharmonic Choir, under Maestro Alun Guy. This season also marks the premier of Chanae’s original composition “My Words in People’s Ears” commissioned by contemporary artist, Anna Falcini in her latest exhibition, In Between the Folds are Particles.

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(Artist photo: Harlequin Agency)