Sitting on the papier-mâché rock in the Tusten Theatre in December of 1990, all I could think was, “Did I have to go?” Uh-oh, I was pretty sure I did. So, I got off my rock, set aside my crutch and walked down the fire escape to use the bathroom one last time. Then I resumed my place on my rock with my flute as the music started for my first opera role, the crippled Amahl in “Amahl and the Night Visitors” by Gian Carlo Menotti for the Delaware Valley Opera (DVO). Two decades later, that very first lesson stays with me—always go one last time before you take the stage.
My name is Melanie Henley Heyn and I grew up in Abrahamsville, PA right across the river from Callicoon, NY. My sister, Emma, and I had our first stage experiences with the Peacemaker Players, a community theater group who performed new musicals at the Hortonville Presbyterian Church and Sullivan County Community College. Having seen the annual DVO production of Amahl at Christmas a few years running, I remember eagerly practicing his solo in the kitchen with the help of my mother and an LP. After auditioning for the mildly scary Gloria Krause, I got to rehearse with the great Carol Castel (former and now current director of the DVO). She would pound on the stage and say, “Feet here, don’t move, Melanie.” The DVO felt like home to me and I went on to sing a spirit in “The Magic Flute,” a courtesan in “The Merry Widow” and a lounge singer in “Trouble in Tahiti.” I still think of her when I am standing onstage in Vienna during someone else’s aria. My big moment came when I got a call from Carol to sing Rose in Kurt Weill’s “Street Scene.” To this day, it is my favorite of almost 30 productions I have sung.
After six years of training at the Prep. Division of the Manhattan School of Music in New York, I entered the University of Southern California, traveling 3,000 miles away from home. My experience at the DVO with Carol and conductor Scott Jackson Wiley got me into the opera my sophomore year. My new teacher, Shigemi Matsumoto, taught me not only singing but also how to look, smell and taste like an opera singer.
For the past four years my husband, baritone Gabriel Wyner, and I have been living in Vienna, Austria studying in the Master’s Program at the Konservatorium Wien. I have been unbelievably fortunate to find a great vocal teacher, Frau Uta Schwabe. She is hard-core and generous, and she has helped me to free my voice so that I can communicate with my entire body and being. After receiving a 2 (American B) my first semester, I called her to ask her what I could do to deserve a 1. With no hesitation, she said, “Sie sind ein 3, aber Sie arbeiten viel.” (“You are really a 3, but you work hard.”) Last year, she came up to me at the end of the semester and whispered, “I gave you a 1, a real 1.” If there were ever an argument against today’s fear of Bs and Cs on report cards, this is it. I knew how much work I needed to do and, when I received the top mark, I knew it was the result of effort and not just talent.
This Friday, July 8 at 7 p.m., I will be returning to the Tusten Theater in Narrowsburg to sing a recital. I’ll sing a dramatic aria by Wagner, a tragic aria by Puccini and a sexy Viennese waltz by Robert Stolz. There will be a set of American songs by Samuel Barber, and my husband will sing a cycle of French songs by Gabriel Fauré. Closest to my heart are the songs in the second half, by composers who fled Europe on the eve of World War II. This section will feature propaganda artist Hanns Eisler, forgotten master Ernst Toch, and movie wunderkind Erich Korngold. We will be accompanied by Violetta Zabirchenko on the piano.
All proceeds will go towards my coming audition trips though Europe. The suggested donation is $15; students are admitted free.