By: Victoria Fennell
I play a game with myself while waiting at the table in Starbucks, I would try and guess who Julianne Casey was before meeting her for our interview. Would an opera singer have a look? Was there any way to tell that within her lay a voice capable of incredible pitch and strength? As it turns out there is and it was the air of confidence and maturity that Julianne radiates as she walks towards me looking stage ready with an iced coffee in hand.
Can you give me a little of your background?
I'm from a little town called Tyler, Texas. I graduated from Tyler Junior College with my associates in music and transferred half of that degree here in 2016.
How did you get into opera? Was it something you always enjoyed?
I was raised around it. My grandmother and my mom were really interested in opera so I heard it a lot growing up. I never took voice lessons until I went to college so I always sang Whitney Houston and Aretha Franklin, things like that. Once I really started listening to opera when I got into school is when I fell in love with it. That was at my junior college; I really grew to love it and now I can't imagine singing or setting anything else.
I always thought if you were going to be an opera major you’d have to do it your entire life.
Sometimes I feel like I'm out of the loop a little bit because I wasn't totally into it my entire life but I think it gives me a better appreciation for it. I do have new eyes and ears to it I guess.
So singing is a natural talent for you?
I always sang, I always knew that it was my way of expression and it was like a relief for me in a way. So singing was always a part of my life. I never had technique and I hardly had technique vocally until I moved here and had Bonnie Hamilton as my voice teacher.
Can you tell me a bit about your time here at Purchase?
It was really difficult at first being from Texas. I mean, it's totally different here and it was
difficult at first to get used to but I’ve grown to love it. I lived in the Olde for the first two years and now I live in Port Chester. Being at Purchase was my first real sense of being in a college environment because I lived here, I didn't live on campus at my former college.
Can you tell me a bit about your senior project?
We put on a 50-minute recital, we have to perform in four different languages English, Italian, German, and French. We take three years of language, one year of German, one year of French and one year of Italian and that's [for] vocal diction or lyric diction, as well as grammar, which is really hard to do. It's a huge project and it takes months, as it does for anyone’s senior project, but that will be April 15. It’s about then we also have the opera and I feel like that's also my senior project course.
What are some of the challenges you faced so far?
I think the biggest challenge is definitely learning how to manage your time. There's probably 15 art songs and arias in my recital and then there's the opera, which has 3 acts. So there's just so much music all the time. I think you really have to divide up your time every day to each section and if I don't do that, then nothing will get done. So it's really about multitasking and being very, very detailed and working piece by piece every day.
How do you feel about this being your last semester?
I can't believe it. I really never thought that I was good enough or smart enough to have a degree. My parents went to college but they never graduated and my sister went to school but didn't graduate. It's pretty amazing that this is happening because I'll get to be the first one. I've been working at this for six years, I won't believe it until it happens.
That was going to be my next question, what are your plans after graduation?
Hopefully, Yale because they have the fellowship scholarship which is full paid tuition and then a stipend for each singer. They only take in maybe 15 students and they only take singers if they need your voice type. So I'm a full lyric soprano, spinto soprano also, so hopefully they'll need my voice type. Mannes takes in a few more students, but the scholarship isn't quite as large.
How has moving classes online impacted your conservatory experience?
Moving classes online has impacted my conservatory experience in a really interesting way. For four years my classmates and I were given what seems like hundreds of tools to use in order to create a truly meaningful performance that will grasp our audience and make us stand out from the rest. We are finding how difficult communicating this via Zoom can be in our weekly performance class called Opera Literature, taught by Hugh Murphy. In this class, we choose and perform aria's each week. In our performance, we are required to treat it as an actual performance in an opera and/or as an audition for a professional operatic role. Between the choppy internet, the delay of sound, and the inability to use accompaniment creates a lot of difficulty as performers. Which has me thinking... everyday I'm constantly watching performances or listening to recordings of arias and operas. In this digital world we live in, this is now what is required of a performer. We have to learn to create and connect with an audience digitally or we will never be able to carry our art forms into the future. The artists I often watch have the help of costumes, staging, props, and instrumentation, but the basis of an incredible performance is what you're putting into your practice before you ever arrive to the stage. I practice all of my music a cappella. Performing on Zoom for my teacher and classmates a cappella forces me to create a more musical version of singing, and which is probably the way I should have always thought of singing. I find that to be very positive in my growth.
Was your show canceled completely or will it be performed without an audience? Are you disappointed with the way things have turned out?
On March 16, we had a meeting with our Director Jacque Trussel, Assistant Director Margaret Vignola, and Conductor Hugh Murphy. At that day and exact time, we were still on for the opera. Following the meeting, we had a rehearsal in which we staged the entire opera at the Performing Arts Center, within 5 hours - a process that typically takes approximately 10 days or more. On Tuesday, March 17, we all got ready at home to perform our opera. The opera would not have orchestra, costumes, props, complete staging, and would be without any stage crew other than our Stage Manager, Anthony Rigaglia, and his team Arcadio Lozano, Sydney Leffler, and Tiffanie Lane. Just three hours before the performance, our opera was cancelled by the Interim President.
As extremely disappointed as I was, I almost felt the slightest bit of relief when I was given the news. We had worked so hard on this production. It was a huge project that took well over 100 people to create. The thought of performing it totally stripped of the majority of the artists involved in the process felt quite bleak. My leading role was taken from me - the very last performance I would give for my incredible teachers, to prove I had learned something these last four years, was ripped from me within seconds. But it wasn't only me... it was a sum of over 100 people who called this show their beloved, just like me. This opera is only made possible through a giant team of people, and we all had our hearts broken that day.
I know you had your audition for Yale, how did it go?
I did not get into Yale, as there was only one soprano position available. However, I am accepted to Mannes School of Music and received a $25,000 per year scholarship to attend. I plan to move to NYC in August and attend Mannes as a student in the Master of Music program.
Is there anything else you want to talk about that I haven’t covered?
Purchase has taught me so much, not only about music, technique, my voice and acting but college is about growing as an entire person, as a whole person. I’ve certainly done that in my time here and I'm so thankful to have such amazing teachers and vocal coaches who have brought me to this point. You're never a self-made person, I would not be here if it weren't for I feel like hundreds of people who have helped me get to this point. I never thought 10 years ago I would be here today and I'm so thankful that I've been given this opportunity.
The cancellation of commencement was really difficult for me to accept and the opera was hard to take, but I knew that I would revisit the opera again in the future. Commencement will never happen again. What I know now, having processed it, is that the Westchester County Center will be used to save people, rather than "glorify" accomplishments of young people. It's still hard to accept, but I know the center will be used for something entirely bigger than our four-year degree Instagram photo party.