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From Budding Violinist to Operatic Diva : American Soprano Carol Neblett Sings Her First Aida Tonight

January 29, 1988|DANIEL CARIAGA | Times Music Writer

Carol Neblett, who will sing the first Aida of her career tonight--with Opera Pacific at the Orange County Performing Arts Center--acknowledges, "Of course I have nerves. Anyone who doesn't have nerves is a fool."

The blonde soprano--a veteran of many international operatic performances as Tosca, Minnie, Elettra and Donna Anna--considers Aida one of the toughest challenges for a singer.

"It's one whole step above the other Verdi roles I've sung, like Amelia in 'Ballo in Maschera,' Leonora in 'Forza del Destino,' or Violetta in 'Traviata.' One level higher in difficulty." So, coming to it in mid-career, Neblett believes, is fortunate.

"Ten years ago, I was scheduled to sing my first Aida, in Houston. One day, Matthew Epstein, my manager at that time, called and said, 'I don't want you to do it.' He thought the conditions around that production were wrong for me, and I should wait. So I canceled."

Now, having waited this long for the right circumstances, and on the eve of her 42nd birthday next week, Neblett thinks, "It's time."

For one thing, the California-born soprano, who since her operatic debut in 1969 has sung in most major operatic centers in Europe, South America and the United States, considers herself to be in the prime period of her career--a place she has reached only in the past two years.

"I was not singing well for a long time, and of course I wasn't happy about it," Neblett relates. "It was at the time of the Met centennial gala, in 1983. I had gotten into some bad vocal habits. Also I saw myself on television and didn't like the way I looked while singing.

"Then, after the birth of my second daughter, I decided I had either to fix the problems or quit singing altogether. It was time for me to start enjoying singing again."

The decision was a family one--Neblett's family consists of her husband, cardiologist Philip Akre; her 13-year old son, Stefan Schermerhorn (his father is Kenneth Schermerhorn, music director of orchestras in Nashville and Hong Kong); and her daughters, Marianne, 5, and Adrienne, 2 1/2. They live in San Diego.

At about that time, Neblett found, through a mutual friend who is a vocal coach, a new voice teacher, Jane Randolph, who teaches privately in San Diego.

"I have a theory that the people you need in your life suddenly appear just when you need them. Jane and I clicked immediately. She was exactly the person I needed at that moment."

The problems of Aida, Neblett says, are that it is "above all, exposed and relentless. While the singer is on stage, there is very little time to rest. The music keeps coming at you.

"Then, too, Verdi presents the soprano with a very fine line to sing on. It's easy to overshoot, all the time. Some other roles I sing--Tosca, for instance--can tolerate an occasional ugly tone. This role has to sound beautiful, every moment. "

Though relatively young, Neblett as a musician has been busy for four decades. She took up the violin at the age of 2, she says, with the encouragement of her mother and father (piano technician Norman Neblett) and her grandmother, a violin teacher.

"I got to be quite good, before I quit, at the age of 15. You see, I never loved it."

Advised by grandmother and father, Neblett at 14 attended master classes given by the late operatic coach, Wolfgang Martin, at UCLA. Then, while still in high school, Neblett received a vocal scholarship at USC and began studies with the late William Vennard.

Shortly after Neblett's 19th birthday, while she was attending simultaneously both USC and El Camino College, she sang in a duet at a junior college choral festival held in Long Beach. Roger Wagner was the adjudicator, heard her and recruited her as soloist in his Roger Wagner Chorale, with which she toured for the next four years. During those years she joined the roster of the late S. Hurok, who one day dutifully sent her to audition for Julius Rudel, then head of New York City Opera.

"I think Hurok was surprised when Julius hired me," the soprano recalls.

The surprise, Neblett says as she looks back on that time, "was that I liked opera. I wasn't sure I would. I was no actress, not then. I was an oratorio singer. The funny thing was, everybody else had predicted where I would end up."

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