As she weaves her way through the labyrinth of backstage corridors at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, Emily Mwila contemplates her surroundings: those huge portraits of Pavarotti, of Callas – the big names with the big voices she has listened to over the years.
“It’s like, wow! I’m really here, ”she says.
She’s here night after night, singing in George Gershwin’s choir Porgy and Bess to the public (finally an audience!), with artists and spectators grateful to be back in the theater.
This is the 30-year-old’s first professional concert – not bad for someone just graduating from New York’s Mannes School of Music, where she’s been studying for a few years.
* Dr Alexandra Gillespie – a powerful human being
* Yulia, the non-popera star who will only sing for love
* Play until his 70s – it would do opera singer James Ioelu good
It’s a far cry from his hometown of Wellington and those windy street days.
The people of Wellington may remember the soprano singing in the train station, on Cuba Street or in the city center.
It was a lesson in the art of performance, she reflected now. The unpredictability of the street performance was a great education, she says.
Speaking about her digs in Queens, Mwila says she had no idea what she was going to do after recently graduating from Mannes with a master’s degree in music and a professional studies degree.
As it turns out, while she was busy thinking about her “what’s next?” She received an email from the Metropolitan Opera asking her to send an audition tape.
“I thought it was a scam. I thought, why is the Metropolitan Opera contacting me? “
It turns out that one of her teachers came up with her name and, realizing that it was a legitimate invitation, Mwila couldn’t pull her CV down quickly enough.
A week later, he was offered a role in the choir of Porgy and Bess, which runs until December 12.
It’s his first professional performance, and it doesn’t get much bigger than the Met.
“I realize more and more as I play how important it is, the opportunities it gives me, the doors it opens. ”
The chance to play with such a reputable company is already paying dividends, she says.
Many other American opera companies come to the Met looking for singers to audition.
“You got the chance to audition because you’re already at the Met, so they know you have a certain level, you have the musicianship, and they have confidence in that.”
Like most people who worked in the arts, she had done things doggedly.
The pandemic brought her career to a standstill just as she was about to take off.
She had spent much of the past 18 months learning at home.
It started out as a small one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan, the size of a few closets, with three roommates.
This is New York that lives for you: astronomical rents for tiny digs, living side by side with others trying to make it in the Big Apple.
She then moved to a larger one-bed apartment in Queens. Palatial compared to that Manhattan closet.
In New York, the reality of Covid-19 was stark: huge number of cases, high death toll, long blockages.
Mwila didn’t feel like singing. It was hard to stay motivated without knowing what was to come next, she said.
She went to live with a friend in Indiana, where she felt like singing again, free space to enter her online schooling.
“After overcoming the fear and shock of Covid, I tried to use the time to think and work on my technique …
“It ended up being a constructive time. At school in New York, the pace of life was very, very fast. I didn’t have a lot of time to think about my career or improve my technique. I was just learning the music, doing the next one [school] show, trying to accomplish the next mission.
“During the pandemic, I had time to really sing and think: what do I want my career to look like after this?
From the Met stage, it’s looking pretty good.
There is also a movie on his CV now. She scored a gig playing herself in the recent Fall for Figaro, A romantic comedy about an opera singer, starring Joanna Lumley.
She flew to Scotland to film her scene just before Covid closed the world.
It was a bit of a part, she said, but a part nonetheless. “I’m on for a good 30 seconds. They actually say my name.
Granted, getting the kind of exposure that a star-studded romcom like this can provide is a big deal.
“I just feel very blessed,” she said.
“Much of the industry is not just about hard work, because a lot of people work hard. A lot of it is about the people you meet, the connections you make. “
His years of playing on the streets led to a very important connection which allowed him to study abroad.
Performing in Queenstown, she was spotted by an Australian opera fan on vacation, who recognized her talent. He was to become her benefactor, paying a large part of his studies at Mannes.
“It’s not inevitable,” she said. “There are so many people who deserve this good fortune. It certainly gives me the motivation to work hard knowing that someone has so much good faith in me to support me to that extent.
“It was a blessing.”
She uses that word a lot. Her faith is important to her. This is what guided his whole life.
Mwila was born in Morrinsville to a Kiwi mother and a Zambian father, and she spent her first five years living in the Zambian capital, Lusaka.
The eldest of five children, she is the only singer in the family.
Music was, however, part of family life.
Her mother always played some kind of instrument – a whistle, a recorder. She grew up listening to her father’s mix of Motown, Whitney and jazz.
She remembers being drawn to the opera of Kathleen Battle, the African-American soprano of the 80s and 90s.
Mwila’s mom noticed her daughter had great blowjobs on her before she hit double digits. She joined the local choir and when the family moved to Tawa, a Wellington suburb with a rich musical history. She has participated in community music festivals with music educator Shona Murray.
Tawa College has been a fundamental part of his singing development. She began her classical training there singing in German and Italian.
She played Rizzo in the school production of Fat, and realized that she liked to play solo.
Despite her obvious talents, Mwila never imagined that she would have a career doing this thing she loved.
“I just liked to sing. I just continued in that direction. I never imagined I could become a world famous singer. I wasn’t sure I could stand out among the other great people around.
Straight out of high school, she studied massage therapy. But she continued her singing lessons, learning privately with teacher Flora Edwards.
She then studied at Victoria University of Wellington – Te Herenga Waka and obtained a BA in Modern Languages and Asian Studies.
During her university studies, she often joined her aunt and her cohort of street musicians in Wellington.
They were good concerts. Money was OK too.
There were times when she moved on, when it was said that her singing distracted people in their afternoon meetings. There have been times when the wind has gone with his desk, his money, his patience.
But it was a great training ground, she says.
“It gave me the chance to train with an audience. Sometimes I really needed the money, so no matter how I felt – and sometimes I didn’t feel like singing – I knew I had to go out there and do it.
During her studies, she performed roles in Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro with Wellington’s Eternity Opera. She tried her hand at K-pop, reaching the final stages of an international competition. Twice, she qualified for the semi-finals of the prestigious Lexus Song Quest.
After college, she visited a few schools in the United States and ended up in Mannes, where she spent the last four years.
She’s coming home for Christmas, having been lucky (blessed, she might suggest) with an MIQ room.
But with a green card obtained in the annual lottery, she would have to be based in the United States for a while.
Even during his season in Porgy and Bess, she’s busy auditioning for the next role.
She thinks she might have something, but won’t say anything until the contract is signed.
Whether it’s luck, blessings, or just a simple transplant, it looks like Emily Mwila is on a roll.