Hitting the Highest Note

by Bob Keyes, Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram

The phone call caught Ashley Emerson by surprise. The metropolitan Opera wanted to hear her sing. Could she be in New York on May 14? Certainly, Emerson said, but she had to attend to one important detail before leaving Portland, namely her graduation form the University of Southern Maine.

Ashley EmersonEmerson got her diploma on the morning of May 13, then boarded a plane for New York the same afternoon. The next day, she auditioned for James Levine, the Met's music director. And the day after that, the Met called back. Emerson had passed the audition and won an invitation to join the Met's prestigious Lindemann Young Artist Development program.

The 22-year-old from Bangor is amoung 12 vocalists in America who will be part of the Lindemann program, which targets promising young opera singers and trains them to perform on world stages. "I am really forunate," said Emerson. "There are so many young singers who would love to be in my position. I am so very, very lucky."

And talented. Emerson, a soprano, had the voice of a singer far more mature than her years, said Ellen Chickreing, one of her instructors at USM. "Her voice is a very beautiful, warm sound. It has what we call color in it. It's a voice you would expect in a production of Mozart's "L'Ica dek Cairo."

Maine audience will have a chance to hear Eerson sing before she leaves for New York. She appears with six other young singers in the relatively little-known Mozart opera, which opens Friday with a performance at hte POrtland Museum of Art. "L'Oca del Cairo" - translated as "The Goose of Cairo" - is part of PORTopera's Maine Emerging Artists Program, which supports PORTopera's mission of bringing opera to maine communities and fostering local talent.

Emerson, who graduated from Bangor High School in 2002, has been singing for as long as she can remember. She sang in high school muscials and discovered her proclivity for opera when she won a role in the chours for PORTopera's production of "Lucia di Lammermoor" in July 2003, between her freshman and sophomore years at USM.

It was her first opera experience. "I was in an opera before I saw one," said Emerson. "But I knew opera was right because it was extremely visceral and spiritual. It showed me a part of myself I didn't know was there. It's such a grand combination of orchestra music, of singing and of theater. And it's big. It's a huge culmination of all art forms."

Emerson won the Lindemann audition after Lenore Rosenberg, director of the Lindemann program, heard her sing at the Palm Beach Opera Company's annual vocal competition in Florida in April. Emerson won the competition, and the next day Rosenburg inquired about Emerson with her colleague Dona D. Vaughn, aritistic diretor of PORTopera. Vaughn, who lives in New York and also works as stage director and acting coach for Lindemann program, told Rosenberg that Emerson had sung in the PORTopera chorus and would be cast this summer as an understudy to one of the leads in "Don Giovanni". Based in part on Vaughn's recommendation but mostly on her performance in Flordia, Emerson was asked ot audition for the Met.

Before she gets to New York, Emerson's two productions in Maine will keep her busy. "L'Oca del Cairo", a light comedy about an old aristocrat and his crazy marriage schemes, opens in Portland on Friday, then moves to Augusta on June 25, Harrison on July 9 and Old Orchard Beach on July 16. After that, is the main stage production of "Don Giovanni" the last week of July at the Merrill Auditorium.

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