"It's a very unique thing to be an opera singer," Ariana Wehr points out, "because that means I am a musician and I am a singer."
She is up from Tallahassee, Florida, where her boyfriend also resides, for a summer visit with her parents, Matt and Dee Wehr, Lake Santee and Fort Myers, Florida. "This feels like home, where my parents are." And it's easier to hop on flights here to auditions and competitions.
Born in Brazil and raised in Batesville, the soprano is constantly adding dates to her calendar, according to www.arianawehrsoprano.com. She will participate in the 52nd International Vocal Competition in 'S-Hertogenbosch, The Netherlands, Sept. 7-15, then make her house and role debut as Despina in Opera in the Heights' production of Mozart's "Cosi fan Tutte" in Houston Nov. 9-17. The singer will return to Opera Louisiane, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to perform Micaëla in "Carmen" April 26-28, 2019.
Is this a glamorous life? "Ha," Wehr scoffs. "It looks that way and should look that way to the audience. There's always so much that goes into it. Some things are really fun – getting to play dress up. Sometimes you get really beautiful costumes and the wig and makeup people can make you feel really great. A lot of times traditional costumes are really heavy ... it's like you're wearing a 30-pound weight. Sometimes your shoe falls off or you can't hear your monitor. There are a lot of moving parts.
"It's still work. Great work, but still work – the biggest team sport you could possibly do."
"There are just so many different people that make opera happen. It's not just the singers, but amazing directors and choreographers and conductors and brilliant orchestras and dancers and stage managers and designers and costumers and hair and makeup ... that use all of their talents."
The greatest challenge of this career is the lifestyle. "I do enjoy travel and I've gotten to go to a lot of places. I've been lucky." On the other hand, "a lot of times you're alone and your family's not there. You have to miss things – weddings, funerals, babies being born. That can be hard. It looks glamorous, but you're really just inside your hotel room trying not to get sick. We aren't just paid to sing, but to be away from our family and friends and miss things. Everything is a tradeoff."
When she's not working, Wehr relishes reading, cooking and spoiling her French bulldog, Napoleon.
Her career can be very rewarding. "There are certain performances where it just feels everything is right, everything is going so well. You're in good voice, your colleagues are doing great, the orchestra sounds awesome ... everything is coming together in the most perfect way. Audiences can sense that ... 'Tonight is really special.' It's indescribable what that's like. It's kind of like this high and you keep chasing that. You just want that level of collaboration."
Her favorite role so far is Gretel in "Hansel and Gretel." The 2007 Batesville High School graduate says, "It's so fun .... I'd be happy to do a Gretel every single year. It's very physical. I don't eat a lot of candy after the show" because she's around so much onstage.
Wehr has participated in five competitions so far this year. "Hopefully there's monetary value to that if you place. But there's also exposure that's really great." Getting a role after singing well at a competition "does happen a lot." Resumes of most opera singers have sections for competitions and awards. She reflects, "I'd rather be performing and doing the actual work, but for other people those (competitions) are indicators of the way your career is going ... It signals to people in the industry this is somebody's name I keep seeing."
To keep her skills up, "I try to practice every day. Now that it's summer, I'm a little more relaxed. The voice is basically like a muscle. You need to be working on your voice regularly."
Practice comes in other forms besides singing. "There's a lot of history and research involved" in her career. To prepare for a specific opera, "you can study a time period or culture that helps your art in the end." She has sought out art from a certain time period, read a book on which an opera is based and even visited places referred to in an opera. "You're supposed to be describing what life would be like then."
The singer also must take care of her body physically. "You can't sing all day every day, but you can be working mentally and physically in other ways. Any thing you can do to keep your mind sharp is great. You are memorizing hundreds of pages of music."
She arrived at Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, "to figure out if opera was a thing I wanted to do" and met the first of two wonderful private teachers, Patricia O’Neill, "who helped me in a lot of ways vocally. She's very zen and calm and I think lots of musicians have really bad perfectionist streaks. You just can't do your best work if you're being critical about everything you do." O'Neill taught Wehr "a really good technique. I was able to learn so much at LSU about acting and musicianship and performing." The singer also had her first crack at roles she has since done professionally.
To be able to sing a variety of roles, she studied French, German and Italian while earning a Bachelor of Music degree in vocal performance in 2011 and a Master of Music degree in the same specialty in 2013.
The 29-year-old points out, "In addition to that, you learn the international phonetic alphabet. I'm not fluent in Russian, but I can sing in Russian. In a perfect world, you'd be fluent in everything."
Singing in another language is a painstaking process. "You need to translate word for word into English so you know exactly everything you're saying and then hopefully you can find a coach" who speaks the language to mentor Wehr through the music so emotionally she can give a better performance.
"I just really loved my time in south Louisiana. The people are so warm. They love food, their families, football. It's just a really convivial place to live."
After graduation, the former BHS Batesville Singers member became fluent in Italian with private lessons in Washington, D.C., where she spent two years in training at the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program with Washington National Opera, and also went to Italy.
While many Supreme Court justices saw Wehr's D.C. performances, she has a special affinity for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was a narrator when Wehr sang in "Justice at the Opera," a concert of operatic scenes dealing with legal issues.
There were other starry nights there. "When you're part of the program in D.C., you get to perform for different galas and awards dinners. I had the honor of being able to perform at the Freedom and Justice for All Awards." With former President Lyndon Johnson's daughters watching, Attorney General Eric Holder presented a Lifetime Achievement Award to Rep. John Lewis. "I got to meet him, which was just incredible .... You're surrounded by just amazing people. Lots of embassies open up so you can give recitals there and perform for certain dinners. You get to meet a lot of ambassadors ... that I never would be able to meet otherwise."
Now she studies with William Stone in Philadelphia. "His thing is to teach you to teach yourself." When she has a specific problem or a question about a new role, Stone is who she calls. He was able to provide her feedback after watching Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions April 22 in New York City, where she was a semifinalist.
She finds opera to be a very competitive career. "I think a lot of mid-sized companies that would employ younger singers have folded since the recession. There are fewer opportunities for people, and just as many people coming out of school."
Wehr admits, "It hasn't always been easy." A teacher in college advised her, "'There are many paths up the mountain.'" The singer realizes some go straight up and others take switchbacks. "It's always hard to hear no, but more often that not, no can mean not now. Each audition is not a wasted opportunity" as she is introduced to many opera directors. "I have been surprised how closely certain decision makers in opera track people. Large opera companies plan three to five years out. Smaller companies don't have that luxury because they have to wait and look at their budgets."
While Wehr does travels a lot for auditions, she also makes a point of being in NYC between the middle of November and December, when leaders of many opera companies are there for audition season. "It is easier during that time period to get a lot of auditions" close together.
Wehr could see herself performing in a musical as "kind of a one-off thing ... There are certain shows I would love to do," such as "West Side Story" and "Sweeney Todd." She did perform in "Pirates of Penzance" at the Pensacola Opera four years ago. That was an operetta (sort of like if an opera and musical had a baby). "There are people that are so good at it. That's not where my training is."
Ten years from now, "I would still like to be singing. I would probably be moving to a larger repertoire, certain Puccini or Wagner" operas. "For women, your voice isn't fully mature until your mid 30s. My voice could still grow and change in some ways."
Or she could switch from singing to becoming an arts administrator and eventually running an opera company. "I think the more diversity in any field, the better. We're getting more viewpoints. I still go to different companies now and take note of things they're doing that are really cool ... ideas of how to move opera forward in a way that treats all singers with respect and also make their boards feel they are collaborative partners."
Before leaving, she talks about Batesville. "I feel very lucky to have grown up in this community. We have a lot of things that a lot of towns don't have as far as access to the arts, and means for kids and young adults to participate. That's just hugely important." She credits Rural Alliance for the Arts and several Hillenbrand foundations with funding arts experiences. "A lot of opportunities I was given at BHS or through various RAA programs gave me the confidence" to major in music in college.
Wehr loves the city's new Craft Your Life slogan. "There's such potential here for this to become a small Asheville (North Carolina) of sorts, a community supporting arts and artists. It's a fun time to be here and see all these things," from the "Star-Spangled Symphony" concert by the Indianapolis orchestra to Amack's Well Coffee House, that add value to people's lives.
This is one of her happy places. "I just know so many people have supported me 100 percent and I still feel that now."
Debbie Blank can be contacted at email@example.com or 812-934-4343, Ext. 113.