Faith Lou Esham
Faith Esham, internationally famous lyric soprano, has enjoyed a stellar career in opera for over thirty years. She has garnered critical acclaim for outstanding performances in major opera houses and on the concert and recital stage in the U.S. and Europe.
Faith was born in Portsmouth, Ohio, and raised in Vanceburg, Kentucky, one of four children and the only daughter of Elwood and Ruth Louise Esham. She started piano lessons at age seven and then studied with Loy G. Kohler, head of the piano department at Capital University, during her high school and academy years. She attended public high school for two years and then completed her last two years at Mount Vernon Academy in Ohio, where she took voice lessons under Roger McNeily, sang in his choir, and accompanied in his voice studio.
After graduating from MVA in 1966, Faith enrolled at Columbia Union College, now Washington Adventist University, as a pre-medicine student, initially planning to be a physician like her father, then changed to a psychology major. She sang under Paul Hill in the select choir, Pro Musica, during her first year and in the CUC choir all four years.
Following graduation from CUC in 1970 she returned to Kentucky and worked for a year in a mental health facility. At the end of that year she decided to pursue a master’s degree in clinical psychology and enrolled at Eastern Kentucky University, where she completed classwork towards the degree.
Faith had started studying voice at age fourteen with Georgann McBrayer, choir director at the Baptist Church in Vanceburg. At age sixteen she successfully auditioned for voice lessons with Vasile Venettozzi, a member of the voice faculty at Morehead State University. She recently observed that “this relationship became the most important one in my musical life and continues today.”
After returning to Vanceburg following graduation from CUC, Faith traveled with Venettozzi in 1971 to Indiana University to sing in a master class under Eileen Farrell, who had just been hired by IU. She later talked about that class, her uncertainty about her goals, and subsequent events:
I enjoyed the experience with Farrell. She was encouraging and said, “If you come here, I will add you to my studio.” I kept thinking about that and then entered a Metropolitan Opera Audition competition, where I didn’t win but placed. It was enough for me to begin to think, “Maybe there is something here that I ought to pay attention to,” and I decided to apply to a music school.
I was not enjoying my graduate study in clinical psychology at that time. It was okay, but I couldn’t really see myself pursuing a career in that area. I was uncertain about what my goal for life was. I couldn’t figure out where I belonged.
The one thing in my life that had been a constant and that I and my family had taken for granted was that I was musical. I had always enjoyed music and it came naturally. Even though I had no music classes in my background, I made a radical decision to go get a music degree. I applied to three highly regarded music schools, Indiana, Curtis Institute, and the Juilliard School, thinking that a degree from any of these would give me cachet, an improved chance for a successful career.
Before I went to Indiana, I went to New York City with my youngest brother, visited Juilliard, where I took an exam, and sang for the American Opera Center the three opera arias I knew at that point in my life. I really didn’t know that much about opera, having only gone to one, Carmen, at the Carter Barron Amphitheater in Washington when I had been at CUC. I loved it! I had never been on stage, never in a play or in a musical, but thought “Wow! That looks like a lot of fun.”
I returned to Kentucky and my classes. The Curtis audition came at a time when I felt I had to cancel. I was still planning on auditioning at Indiana when I got word that I had been accepted to Juilliard. When I found I had also been accepted at Indiana, I contacted Eileen Farrell. She apologized and told me I wouldn’t be able to study with her until after my first year. I then contacted Juilliard and inquired about possible financial assistance and learned I had a full tuition scholarship.
I had reached a point in my life where I felt I was floundering and all of sudden everything I touched in music was like an open door. Even though I felt like the Lord was blessing me and guiding me, my family at that time was very much against my becoming an opera singer.
Esham took voice lessons at Juilliard with Jennie Tourel in her first and second years until Tourel died after the beginning of her second year. She then studied briefly with Giorgio Tozzi, an operatic bass at the Metropolitan Opera, before completing her voice study with Beverley Peck Johnson. Although initially her voice was classified as a lyric mezzo, it quickly became apparent that she not only had a strong low and middle range but also an equally impressive high extension. After completing a B.Mus. at Juilliard in 1976 and an M.Mus in 1978, both in opera performance, she studied voice with Adele Addison.
While studying at Juilliard, Esham was an apprentice at the Sante Fe Opera every summer, where she had opportunity to sing in a number of roles. She made her New York operatic debut in 1977, singing the role of Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro at NYC Opera and in 1980 debuted in Europe as Nedda in Nancy.
In 1978-79 she won the Young Artists Award from the National Opera Institute, and in 1980 she was one of four first-place winners in the prestigious Walter W. Naumburg Award competition. For the Naumburg each singer had to prepare two complete recitals that included demanding late 20th century serial music. In 1981 she won the Concours International de Chant in Paris and sang Cherubino at the Glyndebourne Festival in England and again in 1982 at La Scala in Milan.
In 1983 she played Micaela in a movie version of Carmen directed by Francesco Rosi with Julia Migenes and Placido Domingo playing Carmen and Don Jose, accompanied by the Orchestre National de France under the direction of Lorin Maazel. At the time of its release in 1984, the film was highly acclaimed, and it was nominated in 1985 for the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Film. Esham earned a Grammy Award in 1984 as Principal Soloist, Best Opera recording for that year.
Esham recently talked about how she came to be in the movie Carmen and how in her thinking it was confirmation of whether she should be pursuing a career in opera:
When I had been accepted at Juilliard, I decided I would go for one year and if it didn’t work out, I would return home and complete my master’s at Eastern Kentucky or pursue some other career. My mind was swirling all during this time, and I was thinking they are going to find out I’m not as talented as they thought I was and send me packing.
My successes at Juilliard and at the Santa Fe Opera had led to the support of Matthew Epstein, and after I earned my first degree at Juilliard, he arranged for me to audition for what became my New York City professional debut in the Marriage of Figaro. He was and still is an agent at Columbia Artists Management and signed me up with them.
In January 1983 I was in Paris rehearsing for a performance of Don Giovanni under Daniel Barenboim and even though I had enjoyed some successes, including winning the Naumberg award, the international competition in France, and had had the thrill of singing at La Scala, I was facing a five month period with little work. I was concerned about what I was going to do when I received a call from a Francois la Rue, who claimed to be a movie producer and invited me to audition for a role in a film version of Carmen. I didn’t recognize the name and dismissed the call as a joke, a hoax, a crank call, and said “No, thank you very much, I’m so sorry” and hung up.
The next day he called me again and said, “I’m very sincere, M’am. I really am a producer in a film company and we are doing a film version of Carmen with Lorin Maazel and Francesco Rosi . . . .” And all of a sudden when I heard those names, I listened, as he continued, “and we would like to have you audition for the role of Micaela.”
I received word that my audition would be the morning of the opening night of Don Giovanni. I called the producer and said I couldn’t jeopardize that opera by auditioning that day and could it be rescheduled. He said yes, and I auditioned for them the morning following the opening performance.
It was a thrill working on the movie. It felt like a big supportive family. Everyone was so kind and helpful, and the director was very good. In some ways, however, it was more stressful than doing it live. When a scene might require two or three takes, you had to have as much energy in the third take as the first. Although I believe the film took two months to shoot, I only had to be there for six weeks.
While we were excited about the success of the film and the award it received and the news about the Grammy, it was a bittersweet and stressful time for me and my family since my father was dying from lung cancer. When I was invited to attend the award presentation, I declined because he had just died.
In December 1986 Esham made her debt at the Metropolitan Opera as Marzelline in Fidelio. This and numerous appearances in a variety of major operatic roles in world famous venues such as the Vienna State Opera, the Geneva Opera, Glyndebourne Opera Festival in England, and others in France and Italy, including a return to La Scala, happened quickly as she established herself as a major operatic star.
She has performed a number of roles in Mozart's operas, including doing The Marriage of Figaro over one hundred times. She has observed that singing his music requires a mastery of a good legato and clean articulation of the text as well as careful observations of other musical considerations.
Esham is known for her proficiency in singing in languages associated with opera, including French, a particularly difficult one for operatic singing. She attributes her facility in that language to her study in French diction and style at Juilliard with Marguerite Meyerowitz, a superb teacher.
She particularly enjoyed doing Carlisle Floyd's Susannah, at New York City Opera. She identified with this opera set in the hills of Eastern Tennessee, it because it was in a setting and society very similar to that which she had known as a child in northern Kentucky.
A gifted and frequent recitalist, Esham enjoys meeting the challenge of singing art song from earlier eras as well as music written by mid-20th century composers such as Aaron Copland and more recent contemporary writers such as Richard Danielpour. She is noted for her musicality and the expressiveness, beauty, and clarity of her voice. She has appeared with major orchestras as a soloist in many oratorio productions and other major choral works.
The successes that Esham enjoyed on opera and concert stages and in recitals throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s have continued unabated in the first two decades of the 21st century. She recently observed, “As long as my voice is doing well, I want to get up and sing whenever I can.” Accordingly, she continues to sing on the concert stage and at recitals and will be singing in opera festivals this summer.
Like other Seventh-day Adventist singers who have pursued careers in opera, she has had to deal with the view held by some in the church that singing in opera is not compatible with being a "good" Adventist. Her loyalty to the church and its beliefs, participation in numerous church events throughout her career, and teaching as an adjunct faculty member at Atlantic Union College, however, challenge that assumption.
Esham began singing in church while still a child and has continued to do so throughout her career, singing countless solos and recitals in Adventist churches wherever she goes. From the beginning of her training at Juilliard in New York, she has also sung in services at other denominational churches.
Still active in all aspects of singing, Esham has also served as an adjunct associate professor at Westminster Choir College in New Jersey since 2000, where she teaches voice and classes in English, Italian, German, and French diction. She presently resides in New York City. She was awarded an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree by Andrews University during its spring 2013 commencement services.
Sources: Interview with Faith Esham, January 2013 by Dan Shultz; Paul Johnston, "An Interview with Operatic Soprano Faith Esham," The international Adventist Musicians Association Journal, Summer 1989, 36-41(See Following); Bruce Duffie, "A Conversation with Faith Esham, The Massenet Newsletter, July 1993; Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Opera, Nicolas Sloimisky, Editor Emeritus, Laura Kuhn, Advisory Editor, DM, 214; The Adventist Woman, Summer 2007, 13; Columbia Union Visitor, 5 October 1967, 19; 15 July 1983, 12; Westminster Choir College website (2012); Carmen (1984 Film), Wikipedia; Andrews University Focus, Spring 2013, 5.
An Interview with Operatic Soprano Faith Esham
After playing telephone tag with her in New York for a couple of weeks, I met Faith Esham in Pittsburgh. She was starring in Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann with the Pittsburgh Opera. She happens to be a fond and loyal Seventh-day Adventist. But she's well aware that church members don't assume her singing career and faith to be compatible. "I've always lived in a quandary," she laughs.
I have felt for a long time--and I still feel--that I live neither hither nor yon. How does one begin to live in my environment and have some peace in your heart? It's not easy. But I think that makes my religion very personal. I shouldn't say "personal" in the sense that nobody else can enter into it, but I mean, between me and my Maker I've always got that communication going. That's the thing that has to answer the questions for me.
In the lilt of her speech there's more than a hint of Esham's girlhood in Kentucky. She went to Mount Vernon Academy, studied psychology at Columbia Union College, and then later moved to Juilliard to continue musical training. She has been a favorite with such companies as San Diego, Santa Fe, St Louis, and the New York City Opera. She appeared as Micaela with Julia Migenes, Placido Domingo, and Ruggero Raimondi in Frencesco Rosi's film of Bizet's Carmen with Lorin Maazel conducting.
I didn't initially think that the gift of my voice was something to earn a living by. You see, I was reared in a medical family. I thought for years I was going to be a doctor. I was never told that just because I have a talent for singing, it had to be developed into a career.
A lot of my Jewish friends, a lot of my Christian friends--we've discussed what having this talent means, how one reconciles some of the conflicts that come up. My minister back in Portsmouth, Ohio, said to me, "You're doing something that's just entertainment."
And I said, "Well, it's very interesting that you see it that way, or that a lot of people in this congregation see it that way." Because the question had been brought to him, "Is Faith still interested in being a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church?"
And I said, "Yes I am. I still feel fundamentally that that is where I am. That is my home." And I said to the pastor, "It's interesting that you look upon performing as mere entertainment. Because I've had many people come to me after a performance with tears in their eyes and say, 'You moved me. You showed me something. I transcended something because of this music, because of the way it was performed, because of something you touched in my heart that lifted me, made me think of something new, brought me closer to my God.' Something was there that was a profound experience. It was not only amusement."
So the pastor and I of course got into this sort of metaphysical discussion. I said, "For me, it's not a moment of merely trying to make someone laugh, or to be something where they fritter away their evening and get gussied up for it and come out and leave and go home and forget it. I hope to move them in a significant way. Now it doesn't always happen. But that is my goal."
Jerry Hadley, the tenor, once told me, "You know, Faith, maybe you can be a witness to Adventists."
Let's talk about your appearance here in Pittsburgh. You're doing all three female roles in the Tales of Hoffmann. Give me nutshell portraits of your characters.
Olympia is the love object of Monsieur Hoffmann. She is in fact a doll, created by a man, made to entice someone, and she does entice Hoffmann into falling in love with her. And through the work of a very ominous character, somber character, sometimes represented as the Devil, she is even given some life-likeness. And Hoffmann perceives her - because of glasses, because of the spell this ominous character can cast upon him - he perceives her as someone worthy of love.
The second character is Giulietta, a courtesan. But even worse than being a courtesan, in my opinion - because there are courtesans who have hearts of gold, who give vast amounts of money to help the right to be done - Giulietta is a very evil woman. She is a usurer, she is totally self-seeking, she has no real feelings other than for herself and her own aggrandizement.
The last character is a very pure one. Antonia is truly in love with her art. She is a singer. She is the daughter of a singer. And as she sings, she is dying of consumption. The singing itself causes her to die. The story implies that, because of the ominous character's presence - he forces her to sing, but also because of his force taking from her - more and more life is ebbing away. But she has a pure love for Hoffmann. She is a pure character. Their love is almost platonic. In fact, it is represented as platonic in this production.
They're quite diverse women.
They are. And putting aside the physical demands, isn't there psychological stress? How do you absorb character? How do you keep from going schizophrenic doing these three parts?
I don't try to be detached, because then I wouldn't bring any real soul to it - any sense of my own soul. But I have an ability to focus on one thing at a time. As I'm doing that character, I just do it, and I don't think ahead.
You ignore the context for awhile.
Well, I remember in ear training class at Juilliard I'd make a mistake, and I'd start fussing and doing all these things that, number one, take energy, and number two, distract you mentally from going ahead and grasping the next task, which is reading the next interval, which is saying the next word, which is conveying the next idea. One of the things I've had to learn is the strict discipline of not letting yourself think ahead or behind - just to be in the moment. It's tough.
So it's one character at a time.
It's one character at a time. And when I've done Olympia, I immediately assume the body, the mental set perhaps, the . . . I don't know if I would say evilness of Giulietta . . . but I would say that I certainly begin to think of exhibiting myself, because I think that is what Giulietta lives her life for - to exhibit herself.
Speak as an actress now. Do you work from the outside in, or from the inside out, or . . .
There's so many ways of working. Of course I have to read the background material, whatever that may be. But, oh, I have done that so much, and found that to be a bit, ummm, misleading. Because, in fact, I have to represent what is in the music. You see? I mean, the music will give me the drama. It won't hurt to study the literature. But, I must always look at the music. Because, for instance, composers will alter a drama.
Your interest is in portraying the composer's representation of the character as opposed to whatever the literary inspiration may have been before . . .
Well, that's all the audience is going to see. They're not going to see what Shakespeare thought about Desdemona. They're only going to see what Verdi thought. You see what I mean? So I only have the moment that Verdi allows me to sing "O Salce! Salce!"
But I do first read the words - of course. And begin to say, all right, let me think about this now, what is she saying here, what are her goals as a character, what is she wanting for herself? But then I look at the musical demands. It's a multi-layered thing.
Do you always empathize with your character?
No. Oh no. No I don't. And often I have found that the ones I empathize least with I do the best at. [Laughs heartily.]
For example . . .
When I did Manon here, I didn't like her. I didn't like her goals. She's a very self-centered girl. I couldn't understand why she would not love this wonderful young man. I just didn't agree with her philosophically. Why is she doing this? It was very difficult for me.
One of the things I finally had to say was, "Quit the battle." 'Cause probably the truth is that all of us, somewhere in our heart of hearts, have these problems we have to deal with. And because of culture, philosophy or religion, whatever we may be influenced by, we try to weed out that which we don't like. We try to bring out only the best in ourselves, because we believe we're being led to someplace else.
But we all have times when we're self-centered, when we're looking out for our own interests. Sometimes that's healthy. Sometimes it is not healthy. So what I had to stop was the war. I had to say, "All right, let me be at peace with this."
This being the character of Manon?
Yes . . . and let me just play her. And let me trust the director here. Even though I don't like Manon's choices, it all resolves itself in the end. The opera shows that her ways do not lead her to happiness, do not lead her to be at peace with herself or with her beloved one; she dies at the end a wrecked woman, totally devoid of ever reaching any sense of honest happiness. All she knew was the glitz and the glamour and the big high life. She never knew real peace of mind.
I have to trust the audience, that they will be able to put the picture together.
Where do you feel more obligated - toward the composer and his intentions, or toward your audience?
Hmmm. Well, I'm dealing with another factor there. I'm dealing with a director. It is not just Faith Esham who gets up there and presents the composer. I have a director who imposes his or her structuring of the drama and his or her philosophy of how they see this. And so, then, my job is to follow that director, whose job was to do his or her homework, understand, make sense of it all, and come up with an approach to the piece. Sometimes that may be avant-garde. Sometimes it may be traditional. Sometimes it may be muddy. Then I have to come up with something - try to make sense of something that is not sensible.
One time I had to play Marguerite in Faust being in a psychiatric ward, and it was all flashbacks. Fascinating. Absolutely fascinating. This production here in Pittsburgh is not new, but I think it is more in depth. I'm glad [director] Tito Capoblanco has taken a more traditional approach for my first essay into the realm of Hoffmann.
I'm very concerned with representing the composer's intent for the music. This music of Offenbach is so descriptive, it's almost pictorial. You can hear every turn, almost every moment of laughter that he wants. In the Giulietta scene where we laugh, the horns go bum bum bum bummm, and we're all going "Ha ha ha ha!" at the same time. It seems so obvious. But it takes a lot of time. You have to sit and think about what's going on in that score to get the colors of the drama.
I don't want to leave out the audience. In acting, I used to think I had to underline everything. But my job is to make the character clear. If I think she's really being evil, then by golly, be evil! If she doesn't have one iota of love for Hoffmann, play that.
When you do Manon, Giulietta, anyone - it's not Carol Neblett doing the part. At what point does Faith Esham's own character, if anywhere, come through even the most nasty characters you may play?
I've done Cherubino in Marriage of Figaro probably seventy times. Now, where does Faith Esham come in? I'm not a boy. I'm not fourteen years old anymore. Where do you bring my personality into that? It's the world of imagination, after all. A lot of people in my business have gotten confused about that.
The stage persona versus offstage?
Over what is real life. The only way one ever has that sense is to know yourself.
The confusion isn't an inherent danger in your profession?
It's a danger anywhere. You have to ask, "Who am I?" One has to be a clear person. I don't try to suppress my personality and experience.
Is there, then, a tendency for you to try to clean up a character - a villain?
I think this is what I was trying to do with Manon. I was trying to make her too good. I didn't like her choices of going off to sleep with anybody. But my job in that particular
opera was to represent how low a human being could go. It wasn't to say, "Hey folks -this is what you're supposed to become."
Are there any roles you would turn down?
There aren't many in my vocal category. By virtue of the fact that I'm a soprano, most of the characters I will be asked to sing are the good girls. The sweet little victims, mangled by fate.
You'll do an unsavory role if the outcome of the drama, morally, is best served by your accurate portrayal. But would you play even a good girl in an opera where the bad guys win?
I might. I don't know. I might. Sometimes I think it's important for us to look at the fact that the good guys don't always win.
I have a philosophy that says I believe there's a life after this world. I also believe that this world is going to get worse and worse and worse. That means the bad guys are going to win. Seemingly.
I've found myself sometimes trying to make limits, but I can't. I'm not that kind of person.
Nor is it that kind of world.
[Sigh.] It isn't for me. It isn't for me.
You're not in favor of art being something that will prettify reality.
I want art to be something that makes people think, to be moved, to grapple with issues, that makes people maybe even to then have moments of release from those questions. I wouldn't want it to be one little thing.
From the Summer 1989 issue of The International Adventist Musicians Association Journal