We met Courtney Cintron through one of our favorite venues Gallery Bar Chicago which is a local hotspot for emerging talent. After an event we struck up a conversation about astrology leading into a conversation about passion and creativity. This is when she alerted us to her singing talents, future company and what it’s like to be a talented opera singer. Let’s get into the goodness as she sings her story of passion in this interview.
Courtney Cintron: A Song of Passion
CC: Outside of the shower, my first experiences singing were in choirs or school shows in grade school. It started off as a pretty tame interest but by the time I was 12, which is when a female’s voice begins to mature, I realized that I had some singing abilities that set me apart from my peers. When I entered 7th grade I joined the beauty shop quartet. My choir teacher was so impressed with my singing abilities, that she suggested I try out for our school musical, and they ended up giving me the female lead in ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ I fell in love with the stage experience, and when I entered high school I auditioned for as much as possible. I ended up performing in all eight musical productions, a couple of jazz ensembles, choirs, and I acted in regular plays as well.
CHM: When did you realize you had a gift for singing opera?
perceived possibilities until I was about 17. At the time, I was studying voice privately with a teacher through my high school. She gave me my first operatic arias to sing. I was a bit on the young side to be singing that kind of repertoire, but she took a chance, and it just clicked. My voice seemed well suited for a classical/operatic training. However, nobody really just wakes up singing opera. It takes a lot of training and a lot of tenacity. My teacher herself was not an opera singer so my training could only go so far. I would have to go to a conservatory if I was going to get serious about my training. So I did.
CHM: Where did you study music?
CC: I studied voice at the Boston Conservatory under the tutelage of Dr. Rebecca Folsom. It was a four-year intensive program. I learned everything from acting, piano, music theory, history, and performance techniques to Alexander and Link. As well as techniques, poetry, and philosophy. We were given many tools to work with and kept very busy. Private voice lessons were once a week for an hour. So, we were expected to practice every day during that time. It was an extremely fulfilling experience.
After receiving my Bachelor’s I began applying to various Masters programs for voice and opera. I returned to Chicago to attend Roosevelt University’s Chicago College of Performing Arts. I was very excited to start a professional network in Chicago as well as sharpen my skills. While at Roosevelt, I studied with opera singer Cynthia Clarey and was able to gain a decent amount of performing experience.
My most memorable role was Cio-Cio-San in the wedding scene from Puccini’s Madamma Butterfly. I performed the role during Opera Fest, which is a sampling of various operas performed in English. Puccini wrote extremely well for the soprano voice. It was a pleasure to learn the music.
CHM: Did you grow up in a musical family? Does anyone else in your family perform?
CC: I did not grow up in a musical family; however, my family has been extremely supportive of my career. Also, my hometown of Oak Park is an arts community. They really encourage their youth to get involved in music and other arts related fields. Because of this, I also had a lot of friends that were into theater, singing, and playing various instruments.
CHM: Who is your biggest musical influence?
CC: My biggest musical influence would have to be Leontyne Price. Price was one of the first African American opera singer’s to perform at the Metropolitan Opera. Her performances as Ada, are divine. Ada is the story of forbidden love between the Egyptian leader Radames and the beautiful Ethiopian princess Ada. Price’s rendition of ‘O patria mia’ has few other contenders, if any. Other current day influences and favorites include: Joyce Didonato, Renee Fleming, Anna Netrebko, Ana Maria Martinez, Diana Damarau, and Karen Slack.
My other musical influences include the many music teachers and musical colleagues I’ve had throughout the years. Many of my teachers and colleagues have shown me great discipline, compassion, and tenacity. Learning how to sing also involves believing in your self. If you don’t have the right people by your side you aren’t doing yourself any favors. A good support system will aid in success.
CHM: If you could sing with any famous opera singer (living or deceased), who would it be?
CC: This would make me extremely nervous, but it would have to be Juan Diego Florez or Jonas Kaufman. They are both amazing tenors, and they are both very handsome… I definitely wouldn’t mind singing a duet with either one of them.
CHM: What is your biggest accomplishment to date?
CC: I am very excited about the opera collaboration, Chicago Opera Initiative, which I have pioneered along with two other singers, Jenny Schuler and Kira Dills- Desura. There are a few smaller opera companies in Chicago that tend to feature the same few singers for the majority of their productions. However, COI focuses on opera scenes, which allows the many talented opera singers of Chicago an opportunity to present their skills as well. I am a true believer that there is a place for everyone, and opportunity provides us with a vessel to explore where that place is.
COI’s first production “Opera en el Barrio, A Night of American Opera Scenes,” is taking place on November 1st and 2nd at Calles y Suenos in Pilsen. It will be a sampling of many of the classics of American Opera. We are performing in a very intimate space, which will allow the audience to engage with the performers. I am looking forward to the production, and I consider it a great accomplishment, for not only myself, but for many opera singers in the Chicago area.
I am also quite pleased to be heading to China on Nov. 3rd with Redmoon Theater. Hermes has asked Redmoon to perform a momentary opera for their new store opening.
CHM: Where is your favorite place you have performed and why? ?
CC: Performing in Italy was a very memorable experience. Many of my favorite opera composers are natives of Italy, such as Verdi, Puccini, Donizetti, and Bellini. Their composition styles were influenced by their surroundings and their culture. This notion, of being surrounded by the culture of genius operatic composers, gave me a feeling of nostalgia and awe. Our group had the opportunity to perform in a small opera house in the town of Fidenza. I performed the role of the Countess from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, which we performed in Italian. The whole experience was very surreal.
CHM: What is your favorite opera?
CC: My two favorites are Ada and La Traviata, both composed by Giuseppi Verdi. The staging for Ada is usually a spectacular depiction of Ancient Egypt. The story involves a love triangle set against the backdrop of an empire at war. At the end of the opera two doomed lovers are imprisoned together, the “tomb scene.” The duet they share is one of the most musically and theatrically moving moments in the history of opera. La Traviata is another tragic romance, but it the composer deals with a contemporary setting. The opera’s subjects include courtesans, gambling, and the extravagance of Paris at that time. The sometimes decadent music seems to capture these Parisian themes, which all the more emphasizes the musical contrast in the more tragic and intimate moments of the opera.
CHM: Is there a location where you would like to perform?
CC: I would be more than happy to perform anywhere in the world. That’s one of the many reasons that opera is so appealing. There is the possibility that you may in fact travel the world. I think that most opera singers have the urge to travel and explore. Performing is a type of exploration and travel builds upon that exploration.
CHM: Would you say singing opera is as much about performing/acting as it is about singing?
CC: The very nature of opera is dramatic and theatrical. However, in the early stages of development, the voice must be the first concern. Much of the drama is carried by the voice. When someone is upset or happy you hear it in their voice. In the same way, opera singers innately know how to emote with their voices. The acting/drama is paramount, but you cannot have it without the singing in opera. Singers spend as much time as any other actor would preparing a character and doing research on the libretto. We also use many of the same acting techniques such as View Points and Meisner Technique. However, singers must learn what their emotional limits are because we cannot cry, laugh, or scream while singing. We learn how to embody those qualities with our voices. We convey emotions with our physical bodies, staging, and music.
CHM: Can you explain the general audition process?
CC: In order to be competitive most singers that are auditioning will have at least a Bachelor’s of Music in Voice and in most cases they will also have a Master’s of Music in Voice as well. Opera requires a lot of training, and it is not common to have the appropriate technique without going through the conservatory system.
Singers have various audition options. One common route is auditioning for young artist programs. YAP’s are intensive training programs for young singers usually between the ages of 22 and 32. The programs are usually associated with a larger organization or opera company. Singer’s in the young artist programs often cover the roles of seasoned singers that are part of the opera company proper. They may also simultaneously be performing smaller secondary roles, singing in the chorus, and participating in outreach performances. Some of these programs pay their singers stipends or small salaries. Singers audition for these programs in hopes of eventually getting hired on by the larger opera company. Singers also audition for competitions. Many singers may actually fund their audition season by participating in competitions for cash prizes. Auditions are very expensive. They involve taking monthly lessons, vocal coachings, application fees, recording fees, flights, audition clothes, etc. Another option is auditioning for local or nearby main stage productions. This is a little less demanding, and many singers are able to balance an additional job when taking this route. It is also a good option to do main stage productions while you are auditioning for YAPs. It shows that you are taking the initiative and that you are in control of your own career.
CHM: What types of music do you like to listen to besides opera?
CC: I have pretty eclectic tastes. I listen to a lot of jazz, world music, disco, funk, rock, indie, blues, Motown, electronica, salsa etc. There are many sources of inspiration. Some of my favorite artists and groups in stream of conscious order are: Ella Fitzgerald, Roberta Flack, Nat King Cole, Jimi Hendrix, Michael Jackson, Billie Holiday, Etta James, Dinah Washington, Alice Russel, Miles Davis, Betty Carter, Erykah Badu, Lauren Hill, Prince, Stevie Wonder, The Beatles Led Zeplin, Saul Williams, Quantic, Janelle Monae, Donny Hathaway, LCD Sound System, Little Dragon, Nina Simone, Frank Sinatra, Gwen Stefani, Black Keys, Fiona Apple, Edith Piaf, Minnie Riperton, James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, Muddy Waters, Jose Jose, Celia Cruz, Tito Puente, Buena Vista Social Club, Hector Lavoe, Willie Colonﾅand I have to stop somewhere!
CHM: What is involved in being a professional opera singer? How often do you practice? How do you care for your voice on a daily basis?
CC: Being a professional opera singer involves a lot of mental strength. I like to practice at least 4-5 days a week depending on what’s going on. If I’m already singing or rehearsing most of the week, I have to make sure that I don’t overdo it. The voice is unlike any instrument in that you can’t practice for as long as you want to. Two to three hours of singing throughout the day is plenty. It is also important for singers to take care of their health as well. Sometimes with heavy rehearsal loads and work we can fall into the trap of not getting enough sleep or getting stressed and those factors can contribute to getting sick. I try to drink a lot of water, use a humidifier in the winter, and I avoid spicy foods, sauces, and alcohol before singing. Alcohol is drying for the vocal cords and spicy food/sauce may cause reflux.
Being a professional also requires a lot of preparation. When learning a role or an aria there are several steps involved. Some of these include translating the text into English, learning all of the notes including any special markings involving tempo or style, working hard passages over and over again, doing research on the character and opera, understanding the character’s journey in a given song or scene, and correct pronunciation of a given language. After musical preparation you must also make sure you have headshots, resumes, recordings, letters of recommendation, a repertoire binder, and a nice smile on your face as you walk across the stage to begin your 5 minute audition. That’s right. Auditions are usually only 5 minutes long. You will pick your first song and the listener/s will pick the second piece. However, you must have 5+ arias fully prepared for each audition.
CHM: How as a creative entrepreneur with amazing talent do you define hustle?
Hustle is wanting something enough that you begin to create your own opportunities. It’s easy to convince yourself that you’re not perfect enough for a given industry. It’s a lot harder to take a look at the cards you’ve been dealt and figure out how to make your hand work. Everyone has it in them to make something happen. Even if it isn’t what you initially intended, something will come of your determination to create and make movement.-Courtney Cintron
Find Her here: https://www.facebook.com/ChicagoOperaInitiative
Written by Jordhan Briggs
Photography by Mother Diablo