Our voice and piano teacher Celeste has enjoyed an illustrious music career–becoming the National Winner of the Metropolitan Opera auditions, singing in wide variety of soundtracks, including Disney’s The Land Before Time, performing with elite opera companies around the country, and also doing pop and jazz tunes. Check out these beautiful recordings. The first is a duet between Celeste and her friend Everett Ryan called “One Last Bell,” and the second is a song written and recorded by one of Celeste’s students. Finally, enjoy reading her incredible story.
"One Last Bell"
"In My Head"
Q & A with Celeste
CT: I began piano lessons first at the age of 10 along with my brother and sister. I wanted to be a ballerina, but because of a head injury I couldn’t move for a year so I began to sing with my father who had a beautiful voice and loved to sing, so we would sing songs together. I was about 11 or 12 years old.
MM: Who has inspired you musically?
CT: My father loved to sing and he was my first inspiration and always encouraged me to sing and play piano. We always had music playing in the house and listened to all kinds of music, from pop to Jazz to classical. My dad thought it was important for us to go to concerts, so we would see jazz pianist Bill Evens, Singers, Orchestras, Musicals. I was inspired by the artistry of Karen Carpenter, Barbara Streisand, and Vick Carr.
MM: Tell us about your vocal background and what types of music you’ve worked and trained in.
CT: I started out in a pop band in Junior High, and high school, I originally wanted to pursue a career as a pop singer, that’s why I took voice lessons but my teacher introduced me to classical music because it helped my voice in a different way than just singing pop, and I really enjoyed it, I discovered that I was developing a strong voice and I was able to sing very high notes. My poor family would leave the house when I practiced and the poor dog would audibly cry because the sound was too loud and high for him. My folks were not sure about this new kind of music, but they supported me even though they didn’t understand it. My voice teacher encouraged me to work hard and audition for everything that came along and it paid off. In High School I auditioned for the Opera Director at Long Beach State and got the role of Susanna in “The Marriage of Figaro,” after that I sang in two other operas with them. At that point I was attending Long Beach State as a voice major. The Met auditions came up and I wanted to audition but my teacher didn’t think I was ready. So I signed up and went to the audition anyway. Thank God I wore a long dress I was so nervous that I forgot my shoes, and didn’t realize it until I was walking on stage. The long and short of it was that I won a scholarship and switched schools, the next semester I went to Cal State Fullerton.
MM: What’s your favorite genre (or genres) to sing in, and why?
CT: I love the old classic pop music, love Ella Fitzgerald, jazz music, of course I love opera but I don’t listen to it as much as I used to. Right now, I’m listening to choral and chant music. I find it uplifting and calming.
MM: What are your current musical projects? I’d love to hear more about this recording you shared.
CT: Everett and I have been talking for a while now about singing together, he has a twitter account and a YouTube channel that he regularly presents songs, so we thought it would be fun to do some duets together. We started with “One Less Bell to Answer,” and we are working on a video to put with it and then present it on his channel and twitter account so we will see how it goes. Getting all this done seems to take a long time but it’s a lot of fun.
I am also preparing the role of the mother in “Amahl and the Night Visitors, which will be presented in early January for a small company in Riverside.
MM: How do you practice, and how do you balance music with some of your other life goals? How do you help your students practice?
CT: Good Question, it’s hard to balance everything, home, music, students, and life issues. My time to practice is only in the morning. Growing up my parents would have to push me to practice piano. I didn’t like it at all but I did it anyway and it’s been one of the best gifts my parents ever gave me. When I have a chance to play or practice the piano it’s the most satisfying and therapeutic thing I can do for myself, I just love it and it wouldn’t have happened unless my parents pushed me to do it. When I see students struggling with practicing piano or voice, I like to look over their schedule with them to find some times during the week that they can focus on their music. It’s so satisfying for them and me when they are prepared for their lesson, they feel better and are ready to take the next step, its just not easy to find the time in this busy world to practice.
When I seriously started to practice singing, I would run home from school to practice, that part was easy, exploring what the voice can do has always been so fascinating to me because we are the instrument, it involves our emotions, physical strength, personal tone and sound in a way that playing an instrument does not tap into. When it’s hard to practice, I think of a song I really like to sing or play and it gets me into the mood to practice and before I know it, it’s been an hour or two.
MM: Tell us about the song your student wrote! It’s beautiful!
CT: David Stewart is a wonderful songwriter, he has a degree in music but he runs his own business as a carpenter and does his music on the side. I love his songs and he has many songs that he has written. He is so talented, I really enjoy working with him. He studies voice with me because he wants to feel more comfortable with his voice, so we have been working together on his overall vocal health and high notes.
MM: What are your top music goals?
CT: Over time, I have come to realize that life presents you with so many events that it changes who you are. I love what I do, I love everything about music and I love to teach, sing, play piano. I really hope I am making a positive difference in the lives of my students and I hope they find their music joyful and therapeutic. I’ve been lucky I guess, I’ve lived and sung in Europe, traveled across the US on tour, had the opportunity to sing with orchestras. I would like to be in a Musical, I think that would be a lot of fun, I’d like to perform more oratorio music and sing more pop songs and jazz with friends in a band.
MM: I know you were the National Winner of the Metropolitan Opera Auditions. Tell me about that experience! How did you prepare? What was the experience like?
CT: I auditioned 4 times for the Met, and each time I got a little further. My opera friends were very important to me because we really supported each other, and they helped me through this process. I found a teacher who really helped me find the line of my voice, and I worked very hard to feel really free when I sang. I was very careful about my choices of music, I didn’t want to sing what everyone else was singing but also needed some pieces that were familiar. You have to have 5 arias ready to perform and it’s a very long process. I won in LA with a friend of mine but he stayed back another year to prepare. New York was exciting and the other singers were wonderful and we were treated like royalty at the Met. We worked with a coach every day until the concert. The Opera house is huge and intimidating and you wonder if you can fill it, but the acoustics are fantastic, and it wasn’t as hard to fill the hall as I thought it would be. In the end there were 10 winners and we had the opportunity to sing on the radio and give interviews. We were allowed to watch rehearsals of other operas. I watched Madame Butterfly, it was so moving and beautiful that it made me cry. We got advice on all aspects of performing. They wanted us to be as professional as possible. We even had a workshop on how to walk, dress and pick gowns for the concert and auditions. In the end I chose Anne’s Aria from “The Rake’s Progress.” We had a chance to work with the orchestra and they really liked my piece because it wasn’t usually done. The music is difficult and I really had to watch the conductor for my entrances, but when it came to the performance, my mouth was dry and I was so nervous that I couldn’t hear the orchestra, so I thought well I’ll just follow the conductor. I really didn’t know how it turned out but the audience loved it and I could be heard easily, I was able to listen to the recording after the concert and it was really helpful. My voice teacher told me not to push on the high notes. I did anyway and it made my voice sound a little smaller because it closed the throat a little, that’s how I learned to project with a very relaxed jaw and tongue and I learned that the voice opens up better that way. As a finalist you win a nice amount of money, so I bought lots of opera scores and took more lessons. The advice I can give to young singers on this path is to stay in New York, audition for many agents, talk to experienced professionals and work with coaches, they know what’s going on and can give you good advice. This is a helpful win so use it to your advantage. Sing for as many companies as you can. It’s a costly endeavor, so finding a sponsor is not a bad idea.
MM: You have a pretty extensive opera career! Tell us about touring with New York City Opera and San Francisco Opera!
CT: I was a part of the Merola program first. You have to audition to get in. Once you are a part of the program, you are groomed be an opera singer/performer. You have classes in Italian, you have coaching sessions every day, acting lessons, movement, you perform almost everyday, it’s an exhausting schedule of rehearsals not for only one show but for many and you also prepare for the final opera and concert. I was preparing the role of Gilda in Rigoletto The Opera Guild is also there to help you. Once you finish with the program you go on tour. We were on tour with Carmen. I played the roles of Frasquita & Micaela. You are on a bus almost every day and perform every night. You have to be prepared physically and mentally. In this situation you really need to focus on your health and rest as much as you can. It was a lot of fun to travel across the US and see many different places. I went to New York to audition for The Marriage of Figaro.
On tour with New York City Opera, I had two auditions, both in the theater which is really beautiful. At the second audition there were many people watching me and walking around. I didn’t expect that and I was surprised when my agent called me and told me I got the part of Susanna, I was so excited. The opera was in Italian and I studied like crazy. When I got to the first rehearsal, I still hadn’t finished learning the end of the forth Act and the director wanted to start in the forth Act, the Countess and I looked at each other because we still had music to learn, but in the end it was really fun and exciting. It was a lot of work, rehearse all day and study at night. The opera is four hours long and I was in almost all the scenes. Our first performance was in New York and I was so nervous, by the time the second act was over I didn’t think I could make it through the rest of the show, but somehow I did, and I learned how to relax and be centered, the houses across the US are very big and you have to stay on your game. By the middle of the tour I was strong and when I finished a performance I felt like I could start all over again. It was really fun and I learned so much about people, performing and traveling.
MM: You were a recording artist too! Tell us about some of those credits! Did you have a favorite? What was the experience like? How did you prepare?
CT: I’ve always liked recording, I think you learn so much about yourself when you record. My bother writes for television and movies, so he has invited me to sing for various recording projects so that’s really my first experience with recording. Session musicians are expected to be able to sight read and record pretty much in one take. Professional recording sessions are really expensive and you have to go in prepared to perform, No rehearsing. When I made the recordings for Yamaha, I spent serious time preparing because I had a whole album to sing, pretty much in one day and I did three albums for them. Of course each album was spaced out over a period of months. I also did an album of praise music and when it came time to record I was sick, but I went anyway, after hours of equipment failure and my voice not working, I was ready to give up, but my brother wouldn’t let me quit so at 12:00 midnight the real recording started and we finished at 12:00 noon the next day without stopping. We were really excited because we finally finished it. With “There Thought and Back” again, we had been performing it for a while, so going into the studio and singing the music wasn’t so difficult.
MM: If you were stranded on an island and could only have one album to listen to, what would it be?
CT: Sacred choral music and chants, because it’s uplifting and calming and beautiful.