Her mother wanted her to be a dentist, or a civil engineer like her father, but Barbara Kilduff "just knew I couldn't stand the sound of a dentist's drill. I couldn't deal with it." By the end of her first year in college she decided to trust her instincts--as well as the sound of her own voice.
As a teen-ager she sang around the house--Jim Croce songs, Barbra Streisand numbers--and didn't hear her first opera until one evening, at the age of 18 or 19, when she saw Beverly Sills on television as Rosina in Rossini's "The Barber of Seville."
"How embarrassing!" Kilduff says on a note of shyness.
Today, eight years after she decided to major in music and study opera singing, the coloratura soprano from Dix Hills, N.Y., has come home a winner from the prestigious Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow. She shared second prize, a silver medal and $2,800 with Ana-Felicia Filip, a Romanian mezzo-soprano.
At 27, Kilduff has master's degrees from both the University of Connecticut and the Yale University school of music and has participated in a training program at the San Francisco Opera.
Her Moscow prize, unusual for an American, comes fresh on the heels of being named a winner at the Metropolitan Opera auditions in April, and she's preparing for the Munich operatic competitions in September.
"Before I went to the (Tchaikovsky) competition, I wasn't expecting anything," said Kilduff, in a telephone interview. "But the reaction of the audience kind of gave me a hint of what might be. They just went crazy every time I sang.
"They clap, of course, when they like you, and when they really like you they scream ' Bravo! ,' and if they like you even more than that they clap in unison."
For Kilduff, who in the final round sang an aria from Rimsky-Korsakov's "Coq d'Or" and a aria from "Hamlet" by Ambroise Thomas, they clapped in unison.
With a hint of laughter, Kilduff noted that about the only singer in her family was a great grandfather, "also named Kilduff. He sang in a Gilbert and Sullivan troupe, and then ran off with the costume woman and had nine kids, and that was the end of his music."
The eldest of three children, Kilduff studied piano as a child and guessed she had a nice soprano voice. "I always thought it would be a hobby. It's not considered your safest line of employment." She spent her freshman year at the State University of New York at Stonybrook, Long Island, and then switched to another school in the system at Fredonia, N.Y., where she had taken choral lessons one summer.
When she graduated in 1981, she was advised to stay an extra semester and complete student teaching. "Forget it! I went off to graduate school. I decided if I wanted to do my music (really seriously) I had to do it now ; my voice wasn't going to wait."
"Her progress has been phenomenal," said Doris Yarick-Cross, who taught Kilduff at Connecticut and at Yale. "She started out with me as a lyric soprano, and I very quickly realized she had the potential for coloratura and beautiful, beautiful high notes. She has phenomenal high notes. In public she has sustained a high F-sharp above high C, and that is most unusual, using the same voice. . . .
"I don't think she had any idea how far she could go. (At first) she had an undeveloped but lovely voice. People have been astounded just by how exquisite it is. A lot of that comes from the musicality she has."
In Moscow, Kilduff said, she walked around with her tape recorder playing Croce and Streisand, and Simon and Garfunkel. "Those tapes kept me sane," she laughed. At the Tchaikovsky closing ceremonies, which happened to be on July 4th, "I can tell you I was really getting homesick for America."
She came home Tuesday night, she said happily, to a dinner of crab salad, potato salad, a huge glass of milk "and fruit . (There) you can get caviar and ham and a lot of other things you couldn't figure out what they were."
As for the future, she says she hopes to establish a career both in Europe and America. As yet she has no place of her own, with a base at her parents' home for a month or two at a time, and the rest of the year living out of a suitcase.
"I'd like to settle in America--or someplace," says Kilduff.