Wednesday, April 2, 2014

An Operatic Cinderella Story: An interview With Dramatic Soprano Othalie Graham

Once upon a time in a far away land lived a budding Dramatic Soprano with heart, guts, tenacity and a dream. But just like every other fairy tale princess, she has an obstacle to overcome before she can reach her happily ever after. 

When a person is crushed by a traumatic event, their life changes forever. For Othalie Graham, the loss of her father to cancer, at the age of 25 was the end of an important chapter. Her childhood prince charming and love of her life was taken from her and her mother, leaving her with a “hardened heart” and with a new perspective on life.  

“I was ridiculously in love my father. I mean, I was over the top madly in love with him. His passing was the absolute end of my innocence.  It changed me so profoundly, and things after that were so unbelievably difficult.”

Having immigrated from Jamaica to Canada, Othalie’s father learned of the hardships that come with being an immigrant in a new country. His was an “assertive, courageous, strong” personality that worked hard and fought for his dreams. He was a mentor that instilled drive, survival and ambition into Othalie as a child.

“My whole life was and is still guided by my father. I am so unbelievably determined to make sure that his legacy lives on through my success. This drives me every single waking second of my life. Not having him is the most horrific thing of my life, but having that inner fortitude that was instilled in me from him and then, from not having him, motivates me to do things that some other people won't do. “

With a strong determination, a broken heart, and no money to speak of, Othalie set out to audition for schools in America. She had been taking voice lessons in the basement of her teacher’s house, and had no formal education. She had nothing of note on her resume and had never auditioned before. “I was so hell bent on doing this, I was an immigrant to the US, so I had to fight to make this happen.” She sought out the Curtis Institute of Music, knowing that the Canadian government would aid in her funding at this particular school.

“I remember running across the street and seeing my name on this list for the finals.  At the audition they said to me ‘You know, we think AVA would be a better school for you’ So I ran around the corner and asked to audition, and I was accepted! I didn’t realize back then what a miracle that was. I was so blissfully unaware of the significance. My last show there got me noticed and I landed my first gig and launched my career.”

Every singer truly does have their own path, don’t they? It is remarkable how life can mold a path for you through your experiences. Othalie’s journey had only just begun. Not only was 2004 the year that Othalie began her professional career, but it was the year that she began to realize the business required something more than just a beautiful voice:

“Singing is not the only important aspect to this career. It is now the whole package: the physical, the mental. Everything counts more so than ever. And you can complain about how hard it is, but while you are complaining, someone else is working their butt off on the elliptical machine and ultimately landing a job. There are people out there that are doing whatever it takes. I would do whatever it takes.”

And so she did. An incredible loss of 140 pounds through a low-carb diet offered her career more opportunity and longevity. “I was not going to allow what I put in my mouth to determine whether or not I was going to have a career.” Othalie realized that the demands are changing, and you have to look the part, as much as you are actually able to perform it.

“When I was almost 400 pounds I had great knees and I could do all that was asked of  me, but no one cares if you can. They care that you look capable.”

After struggling with the death of her father, pushing through financial difficulties, losing almost half of her body weight, as well as launching a career, our Cinderella story brings us to 2007. A happy ending to the struggles and happy new beginning for this diva as she finally meets her adulthood prince charming. They were married just a few months after they met.

“After kissing many a frog, I had figured out exactly what I wanted. He was exactly it and I knew it at first sight. He was strong enough to handle me and the demands of my career.”

Proudly, the couple celebrated their 7th anniversary last month, in the midst of her busiest year to date. But Othalie does not complain a bit, explaining that she always focuses on the goal at hand: singing opera.

“I am so fortunate that this season is so booked. It is so busy! When I was singing at the Kennedy Center I was re-memorizing Fanciulla and working on the War Requiem, and I had to fit in all my coachings while I was at home. It is amazing but it can be very lonely.  I do parent teacher conferences and homework over the phone, and we Skype and Facetime to keep connected. But the reward of bringing a character to life and walking out for your curtain call and the audience jumping to their feet...there is nothing better than that. Nothing.”

With a schedule jam packed with gigs, Othalie Graham is hitting the ground running in 2014. Her demanding year includes thirteen performances of six different shows and concerts within a four month time span, bringing her to Washington, Indianapolis, Milan, Ohio, Michigan and finally New Jersey.

It is happily ever after for this Canadian princess, who has had a truly special and unique journey that can only inspire and teach us all a thing or two about drive and tenacity. Brava Othalie, and welcome to the Sexi Soprano family!