Lyric Soprano, Kristen Donovan, is a performing artist active in the Washington, D.C. area. She began her musical journey in Virginia Beach where she learned to read music and gave her first public performance for an audience of over five hundred at the age of nine. While remaining extremely active in her church and school music programs, Kristen performed with the Virginia All State Chorus, the Virginia Senior Honors Choir, performed as a soloist for Beach Street USA and toured the midwest as a soloist for the Young Razzcals Jazz Project.
Upon Kristen’s move to Washington, D.C., she discovered opera and fell in love. She began to appear in numerous opera productions including L’Elisir d’Amore (Giannetta), Suor Angelica (Suor Genovieffa), Die Zauberflöte (Erste Dame), Le Nozze di Figaro (Barbarina),The Impresario (Mademoiselle Silberklang) and The Gondoliers (Gianetta). Kristen has performed in premieres of new works including The Furies by Andrew Earle Simpson at Catholic University and The Crossroad by Roc Lee at The Kennedy Center’s Page to Stage Festival. In Philadelphia, Kristen sang Barbarina and covered Susanna in Miran Vaupotich’s production of Le Nozze di Figaro with the Atlantic Coast Opera Festival. Most recently, Kristen sang Nanette in Mlle Modiste with the Victorian Lyric Opera Company and Rosita in Zarzuela Di Si’s production of Luisa Fernanda . Kristen also enjoys bringing opera to those unable to get to the opera themselves. She has performed vocal solos and duets for the Georgetown Senior Center and performed in Monkey See, Monkey Do, a one act children’s opera for school children with the Opera Guild of Northern Virginia.
Kristen was gracious enough to take a few moments to talk about her passion for performing arts, supporting children in their pursuit of performance through art as well as being recognized as a healer for those who witness her performances.
I. Your inspiration for pursuing your dreams came at a welcome address given to parents of incoming students at The Boston Conservatory on September 1, 2004, by Dr. Karl Paulnack, director of the Music Division. In his address, he made the following statement:
“You’re not here to become an entertainer, and you don’t have to sell yourself. The truth is you don’t have to anything to sell; being a musician isn’t about dispensing a product, like selling used cars. I’m not an entertainer; I’m closer to a paramedic, a firefighter, a rescue worker. You’re here to become a sort of therapist for the human soul. a spiritual version of a chiropractor, physical therapist, someone who works with our insides to see if they get things to line up, to see if we can come into harmony with ourselves and be healthy and happy and well”
What does that statement mean to you?
I have felt this way about music for quite some time. I am not the best at expressing this sort of thing into words, so I was so happy to find Dr. Karl Paulnack’s explanation of it. For me, it means that even though my work is not widely recognized via television or radio like many popular artists, my work is very important and actually crucial to human healing and wellness. After I sing at a funeral for example, I am flooded with praise and love from the family and friends of the deceased. This praise is much different than the praise given to an entertainer after a concert. The family and friends don’t recognize me as an entertainer. They recognize me as a healer, as someone who helped them grieve and find peace. I am often called “the voice” or “the angel”; they typically invite me back into their homes. It is such an honor to aid people in releasing, working through and expressing their often deeply buried emotions. God gave me this voice, so I will continue to do this work as long as He wants me to do it.
II. At the age of nine (9), you performed in front of 500 people. What memories do you have of that day and the performance itself?
My elementary school announced a contest for a new school song. I wrote a song and submitted it; I was in the third grade. I was actually a new student; I had just moved to the area from New Jersey. Some time passed after the submission and one day I was pulled out of my classroom very early in the morning. I was a very well behaved child, so I had never been pulled out for any reason. I was nervous and tried to remember if I had done anything wrong as I walked into the hall. The PE teacher met me there. He told me that I didn’t win the contest but that the panel loved my song and they wanted it to be the official school poem. They wanted me to sing it at the assembly at noon that day. The assembly included the entire student body, faculty and staff. I said of course because I knew I couldn’t turn down the opportunity even though my stomach was starting to do somersaults! I didn’t have it memorized, so I sang it with my writing of the lyrics in my hand. I was incredibly nervous and my hands were shaking but I made it through without a mistake! At the end of the day when I was boarding my school bus, kids recognized me and said things like, “Hey! You’re that girl!! You were shaking but you were good!”. The winner of the contest was actually an entire 5th grade class. With the guidance of their teacher, they wrote lyrics and used the melody from the popular cartoon, “The Flintstones”. The song began, “Trantwood, go to Trantwood, It’s the greatest elementary. From the homes of Great Neck, etc.” (Trantwood was the name of our school and it was located in the Great Neck neighborhood of Virginia Beach.) I never sang my song again although I did see it printed several times in school materials as “The School Poem”.
III. A life of musical performance can lead to sacrifices in your personal life. Some performers give up a lot to pursue their dreams. What’s been the biggest sacrifice for you thus far?
My social life has definitely been negatively effected as I often have to leave social functions early or not show up entirely due to my performing and auditioning schedules. However, the biggest sacrifice thus far has been my finances. I am extremely frugal and my parents have assisted me. I also have continuously kept day jobs to support myself. So I have made it through without any debt aside from student loans which I have paid down significantly. If I wasn’t a musician though, I could fully commit to my day job for instance. That would allow me to purchase a home and possibly start a family. These things have been put on hold for now because I am not financially able to do so. I recognize this sacrifice but I also remember all of the loving family, friends and employers that I’ve had that have done things for me, both small and large, to help me along the way. I am blessed to have music, food and shelter. I am blessed to even have work! I realize that others have much less than I do. I keep it in perspective and donate/volunteer whenever I can.
IV. Recently, I had a conversation about “the arts”. The conversation was about the disconnect among middle-class and lower middle-class Americans and performing arts. For those who are not connected to the performing arts world, what would be your pitch to them for getting involved with and attending performing arts events?
It is a shame that some view the arts only as something for people with extra time and money. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. I would encourage all people, regardless of your background, age, income, schedule and struggles to explore and discover the performing arts. Once you find the genre that speaks to you, you will be pleasantly surprised. Loneliness, despair, depression, boredom, anger, hopelessness and lack of purpose can all be relieved through the arts. Whether it be attending an event, performing in one or volunteering behind the scenes, the arts can dramatically change your life for the better. Just take a look at prominent men and women’s remarks regarding the arts throughout history. Einstein revealed that his discovery of his theory of relativity was the result of musical perception and he also said that imagination was more important than knowledge. When Steve Jobs introduced the iPad 2 in 2011, he said that technology was not enough for Apple, Inc. He stated that technology married with the liberal arts and humanities is what yields them results. Famous philosopher, Nietzsche, believed that life would be a mistake without music. For more of these examples, visit: http://www.performingartsconvention.org/advocacy/id=28. Prisoners of the Terezin camp during the Holocaust, earnestly waited for their next musical rehearsal with the same urgency and intensity as they waited for their next piece of bread. They credited music to keeping them alive, for feeding their soul, while their physical bodies received no nourishment, the ultimate abuse and endured unspeakable horrors. To learn more about their story, visit: http://www.defiantrequiem.org. The performing arts are for everyone. I encourage all to explore and to discover what they’ve been missing.
V. While you are a performer, this is also a business. Many performers dig into their craft and neglect the business aspect. Has this balance been a challenge for you?
Absolutely. This is still an issue for me. There are services out there that help to connect musicians with their clients. Social networking is also a helpful tool for the business aspect. I hope to improve on this balance in the near future.
VI. Dr. Paulnack’s welcome address was catered to parents. Your profession began as a child. What advice would you give to parents who are gauging their child’s interest in performing arts?
I think it is great to encourage your children to try different things, whether it be a sport, playing an instrument, taking a pottery class, etc. A little push to explore something new is okay too. The problem arises when parents push their child into something that they do not – or no longer – enjoy. The child will later resent their parent for this. When your child expresses disinterest, I believe it’s best to take that seriously and to follow their lead. For more on this topic, I would recommend reading Mara Wilson’s article on child stars (http://www.cracked.com/blog/7-reasons-child-stars-go-crazy-an-insiders-perspective/). It is quite eye opening.
VII. You’ve performed in Hungary, Italy and other historic venues within the states. What’s next?
I plan to continue singing at the Cathedral of Saint Matthew in Washington, DC regularly which brings me great joy. The Cathedral is the head of the archdiocese, so I am able to enjoy special occasions, such as the annual red mass which members of Congress, Supreme Court Justices and sometimes the president attend. The Cathedral is also a parish, so I am also able to take part in special services for the community, such as baptism and marriage. I plan to continue my studies with my current teacher, Cate Frazier-Neely, and to audition for other opportunities. Although I’m not sure of what exactly lies ahead, I look forward to the future and I know I will be singing, so I will be happy.
VIII. Any advice for students who are trying to convince their parents and family that their passion for performing arts is worth pursuing?
Passion is what gives meaning to one’s life. Without your passion, your life will be meaningless and you will be unhappy. That is not to say that you cannot pursue your passion and have other practical sources of income as well. It’s common to have more than one passion also. Several of my friends teach music in addition to performing. Some have started their own small theater companies. I actually work for a real estate settlement company in DC. After working there less than a year, they hired a temp to fill in while I was out for a month to perform an opera in Philadelphia. The options are out there and giving up your passion should not be one of them! In addition to this explanation, you can give your parents Dr. Karl Paulnack’s speech that was mentioned earlier. These discussions are useful but as they say, actions speak louder than words. Make sure to be performing regularly if you want to pursue performing. Invite your parents to your performances so they can see your skill and your passion for themselves. If you’re not performing, seek opportunities and start. If you find yourself making excuses, your parents may be right. Make sure you’re not only following your passion but your effort. What are you putting your effort into? Explore that. I was constantly performing and my parents attended, so I never had to have any discussion about what I would be pursuing in life. It was understood that I would be performing and my parents knew that I needed to perform in order to be happy. Parents just want the best for you, so they will usually support your decisions if you have good reason – and your happiness is a very good reason.