Soprano Lauren Michelle did not have an easy road to success. In fact, for many years she struggled to even be heard. But out of all the things this California native has proven, it’s that she’s a hard worker. And her perseverance has finally paid off. She’s not only sung on domestic stages in St. Louis and Washington, D.C., but has traveled all over the world — from Italy to Austria to Wales — singing for the some of the top names in the business.
Her triumphs have now led her to LA Opera, where she is currently covering Leïla in Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers. For the inaugural post for our Cover Story series, which features profiles on the principal covers (or understudies) for our mainstage productions, Michelle had a chance to sit down with the company to discuss the long, winding road that has landed her back on her home turf, and how Maestro Plácido Domingo proved to be her biggest advocate.
“It was a combination of my singing, my conviction, what I had learned from my training, and choosing to perform what I sing best and what represents me an artist,” said Michelle regarding her ardor for this career. “With all these elements, I thought, ‘Eventually, someone has to listen.’”
The Calabasas native began her musical training young, before she even reached her teenage years. Knowing early on she wanted a career as an opera singer, she in due course relocated to Massachusetts as a high school sophomore to attend the Walnut Hill School for the Arts, which proved to be the right move. Though the transition from Southern California to the East Coast would be nerve wracking for any 14-year-old, Michelle claims it was beneficial to start so young.
“It was hard! I was literally a teenager when I left home,” said Michelle. “Twelve-hour days like that in high school — with rehearsals and coachings and costumes fittings — will definitely get you ready for this career.”
After high school, she matriculated to The Juilliard School for college, which eventually led her to Europe after receiving her undergraduate degree. Michelle explains that the consecutive years of conservatory-style training was wearing, especially with added summers at programs such as the Tanglewood Institute and Chautauqua Institution. She took matters into her own hands, and fundraised the money herself to allow her to live in Italy for the summer.
“I had just done back-to-back conservatory programs straight for about six years, so I was like ‘Cut! Time out!’” explained Michelle. “So, I decided to go to Italy.”
One summer in Florence eventually turned into a few years. It was while Michelle was in Florence that she recognized her improving technique. She studied Italian during the day and practiced singing in the evenings. However, with all her studying, she soon realized she had no place to perform the music she dedicated herself to.
“I had no place to really perform. I had all these songs ready, but nowhere to sing them. So I started singing in piazzas.”
Michelle added: “I remember there was this guy who played the flute that was a street performer. I went up to him after he had performed one of his songs and asked, ‘How do you do this? How do you just perform on the street?’ And he was confused. He asked, ‘What do you mean?’ We had this really interesting conversation between two performers — one who performs on stage and another who performs on the street — and eventually he had me sing for him, on the street in front of a bunch of people. When I was done, I heard applause from all around me. And he said, ‘That’s how you sing on the street!’”
She credits being able to survive financially in Italy through her performances in the piazzas. However, she soon found her way back into the theater. She organized a recital in an Italian jazz club, hiring her own pianist who was impressed by her talent and eventually led her to audition for a master’s program in Florence. She auditioned for a panel in the theater, and by the next day, she had an ID for the opera house and began her studies at Teatro Comunale di Firenze.
After a few years in Europe, Michelle eventually returned to Los Angeles to help aid her sick grandmother. Though caring for her grandma required an exponential amount of work, she had time on her hands to keep singing, which led to her apply to UCLA for another master’s degree. Under the tutelage of Vladimir Chernov, she spent two years at UCLA refining her craft as a performer, which she now calls “one of the most amazing experiences.” She still studies under Chernov today.
Though many opportunities fell into her lap, she still struggled to find her footing in the industry. She explained, “This was probably the hardest time, after I graduated UCLA. That’s when my parents were anxious, because they knew what a young artist is supposed to do. Since I had already finished two masters, they figured I should have already been in a young artist program by that point.”
At their recommendation, she returned to New York City for a few years to continue auditioning. Michelle recalls these years as “some of the hardest times” of her career.
“It was a good, but hard, hard couple of years. And I’m talking hard,” explained Michelle. “The first few years no one would hear me. I didn’t get a single audition in those two years.”
Finally, people began to listen. She started entering competitions — not necessarily in hopes of winning, but to study her successful colleagues and how competitions work. She realized that through competitions, she would gain the exposure she needed to succeed.
“If you’re not letting me into the house for auditions, then the only other way is through competitions.”
In her last year of struggling, she entered a competition which she says she, in her own words, “tanked.” But perhaps her choice of words were a tad premature. From that same competition, she was asked to audition for another gig. Michelle, however, was already jaded from the previous experience, so she played by her own rules at the audition.
“I had been beat down so many times, that I just decided to sing whatever I wanted. I sang Britten,” said Michelle. “On the spot, they offered me a gig at Carnegie Hall.”
She continued: “I had an entire year where I had one gig. It was better than the last year when I had no gigs, but still — one gig!”
That “one gig,” however, proved to be the start of something wonderful, and things slowly started to fall into place. The next year, she placed first in the Lotte Lenya Competition through the Kurt Weill Foundation. The following year, on a whim, she applied to BBC’s Cardiff Singer of the World Competition. She advanced to the final round, and received a prize from the panel.
She believes the competition structure worked to her advantage, saying, “In Cardiff, it really has nothing to do with who you know or what your resume looks like. It’s about that that moment on stage, and how you’re singing in that moment.”
Because Michelle didn’t have an agent, she strategically sang for competitions whose panels consisted of managers and general directors of various houses across the globe. Michelle spent a year in Vienna with the Vienna State Opera, where she had a chance encounter with Maestro Domingo. She ended up auditioning for him the following morning, and, impressed by her talent, he decided to mentor her moving forward.
However, a family tragedy forced Michelle to withdraw from the stage and return home to LA for sometime. She got back in touch with Maestro Domingo and explained her situation, which led him to invite Michelle and her mother to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on a regular basis for rehearsals for The Tales of Hoffmann. Soon, Maestro Domingo hired Michelle to sing alongside him and soprano Sondra Radvanovsky last season during the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program 10th Anniversary Gala. He then contracted Michelle to cover Leïla in The Pearl Fishers, which also meant she would have more time to spend with her family.
“He really helped me and my mom during this time,” she said. “We really needed that lift.”
From New York to Italy to Vienna and back to LA, Michelle has had her fair share of ups-and-downs while trying to cultivate her career as an artist. Though she’s happy to have finally achieved success, she notes she isn’t the only one who has struggled to find her footing, and that she won’t be the last. She hopes that her story will allow other singers to be more candid about their own battles to stardom.
“That’s the arc of being a singer. Those years of struggle were horrible, but no one really talks about that. They never talk about how difficult it is when you don’t have work. Everyone gets excited when you have work, but when you don’t have work, that’s when it gets real. It gets really real.”
The Pearl Fishers closes Saturday, Oct. 28.LA Opera is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to the greater good.