ANNA R. LEE
By Pamela Peeters
PP: You are the founder and executive director of the Opera Singers Initiative, the premiere not-for-profit which supports classical talent by providing mentoring, business and entrepreneurial training, performance opportunities and funding for classical careers. The ten singers you support annually go on to make major national and international debuts and careers at major opera houses. Can you tell me how this all started?
AL: I am a former opera singer and artist before getting into business. I started singing main stage when I was fourteen in New Mexico, continued starring in musical theater, and then found my way to opera. I moved from New Mexico ten years ago, was an adjunct professor at New York University, and that’s where the inkling came from. My students at NYU kept asking me where to go for an internship that would help them make the transition from academia to the real world, and I had no clue. So I started to do research, and there were no such place. It didn’t exist. The Opera Singers Initiative started five years ago to address that. It offers real-world skills, like how to create budgets, how to put on an event, or what it means to be a freelance performing artist. After I left NYU, I took a job at the McKinsey & Company, one of the top consulting firms. I was fortunate as an opera singer to enter the world of business. I was always very analytical and business savvy, and I loved that I could use my creative skills. It brought the idea of Opera Singers Initiative to a different level.
PP: Can you share some highlights of your experience as an opera singer and entertainer?
AL: Sure. I did a lot of musical theater in New Mexico, everything from Brigadoon and My Name is Alice to Stop the World and Guys and Dolls. I was the witch in Hansel and Gretel and a soprano soloist in Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. I studied voice with Edith Bers at the Julliard School – one of two NYU students she accepted.
PP: Besides managing your nonprofit, you are also engaged in another career. A day in the life of Anna?
AL: It’s a bit busy, but extremely rewarding. I work in management consulting, running business operations at the TCC Group, and serve on the board of Opera Singers Initiative. I have a terrific board of directors and can count on the four staff members who help me with day-to-day operations
PP: Did you have a mentor as a young child, and how did that affect you?
AL: I think I was fortunate that I had wonderful parents. I am the oldest of six, so I am naturally very well organized and watch out for people. I always had incredible mentors. When I was a NYU, it was Martha Row. At McKinsey I met Ron Daniel. My husband, too, is a wonderful adviser, I couldn’t have done it all without his support.
PP: Your upcoming "Fall Fete Gala" this October 4th, 2012 includes opera, fashion, and food. What can people expect, and how can they be of help after the event?
AL: I think what really makes our events unique is that we offer an up close and personal experience. You’ll be in a small room at a beautiful Upper East Side townhouse with 60 people, along with opera singers right before they make their Metropolitan Opera debuts. It is a great time to be introduced to opera. First timers and the initiated alike will meet terrific people. It’s a great opportunity and will be a wonderful evening.
PP: You were host and creator of Young Opera on WNET – a series about emerging opera singers in New York. How large is this community, and what was the impact of the show?
AL: We were one of the top-rated shows on WNET, and it was pretty amazing to see it evolve from something that I created and pitched to a real show. It gave us even greater exposure. People can feel disconnected from opera, but when you go to opera, you are listening to someone’s life. A lot of life history comes out through songs. This TV show gave a more personal face to the people behind it all as well. The show made the opera more personal, through the opera singer’s struggle, friends, and more.
PP: How important can singing be to a person’s well-being? What happens to the body when one sings?
AL: It depends whether you are a professional or nonprofessional. I am quite a hybrid myself. Overall, the life of an opera singer is really hard; I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. But it is important for both kids and adults to be creative, to gain perspective. And it is important for artists today to use that creativity in their career, where the path is not often straight and narrow. The sheer act of singing makes a person happy, but a lot of the time young professional singers are too preoccupied with the logistics of it all. I think that when they let that go, they can truly enjoy singing and create a career out of the voice. It takes time to get out of your head and into your body.
PP: Stage fright not only blocks the flow of energy, but may prevent many people from becoming effective speakers. How do you overcome this?
AL: I have always been a people person and an extrovert, but I know that experience personally. Any time I get intimidated speaking, I think about the singers. I am doing it not for myself, but for them, and that takes the pressure away. I just try to remember why I am there. The mission for Opera Initiative is critical. Once I remember that, the nervousness goes away.
PP: At Sustainable Styles, we want to motivate others to adopt better lifestyle solutions, while inspiring them to think in terms of the environment and community building. Do you have any suggestions for us?
AL: I would say that the most important thing is to recognize how much each of us has to contribute to other human beings. It is great to support artists who may be less financially stable. And the people around you contribute to making your life the best.
PP: What is your wish for the future of our planet?
AL: I wish that people would continue to give selflessly to each other. Every little thing we do for others, for our neighbor, is important. We should not give up on how important people are for our planet.
More information: www.operasingersinitiative.org