Canto: Chance Favors the Prepared Voice

by Hannah De Priest
Published September 25, 2023

I’m sitting at my gate in Cleveland, flying back to Boston during a month of whirlwind singing and travel. Exhausted and still reeling from food poisoning, I feel my phone buzz. It’s an email from the Boston Early Music Festival stage manager: “Karina’s out for a few more days. Can you sing Circé at tomorrow’s room run?” Suddenly wide awake, I dash off, “Yes of course, see you then.” As I hit send, I’m already reaching for my score of the BEMF centerpiece opera, Henry Desmarest’s 1694 Circé…and an Alka-Seltzer.

Cupid snaps a selfie, backstage at the Boston Early Music Festival

Karina is Karina Gauvin. She’s singing Circé, the powerful, lovelorn sorceress, and I’m her cover. Both of us are jump-ins, the industry term for a person who’s agreed last-minute to do a role because of an unanticipated shake-up. In this case, everything was arranged just two weeks before the start of rehearsals — but I’ve come prepared.

When Karina said yes to doing the title role, I was asked to learn the part in addition to my other festival assignments — Cupid in Circé, an ensemble role in Francesca Caccini’s Alcina, solos on opening night, and a Les Délices concert — so that Circé rehearsals could continue when Karina needed to dip out for prior commitments. That’s why I’d sung the first week of Circé staging rehearsals, and then a few more, before I flew to Cleveland. I also ended up singing Circé for the first three room runs. Even though the public never heard me perform it, singing the full role in front of my castmates, the continuo team, orchestra, and BEMF leadership was among the most exhilarating experiences of my career.

Real talk: It’s hard to be an “emerging artist.” Even though I’m working more each season, my calendar is a patchwork of jobs I’m constantly worrying over. For now, I don’t have an agent lobbying on my behalf, arranging auditions, negotiating fees. The upshot of being young and ambitious is that my schedule is more flexible than established artists, or performers with kids, so when last-minute opportunities come up, I can often say yes. Still, it’s hard to know what work to accept.

When BEMF called, I’d already said yes before the reality of what I’d agreed to sank in. As a cover, I knew I would get few opportunities to sing the part with the music directors; no one was going to hold my hand while I learned the role. I needed to get the notes in my head quickly and trust that I could pick everything else up by observing. 

It was my years of early-music training that made learning Circé under such extreme circumstances possible. My specialized education and my previous experience as a BEMF Young Artist armed me with an understanding of the style and ornaments of French Baroque music. But there was another reason the part fell easily into my voice: I spent the bulk of the pandemic re-working my singing and playing with Strauss, Puccini, even Verdi. When I picked up Circé, that time spent on heavier rep and bel canto technique paid off big time. Singing more efficiently than ever, I wasn’t fatigued by the length of the part or strained by the low tessitura. I never would have made those technical strides if I’d stuck to what people asked or expected me to sing. After two wildly stressful weeks spent drilling the music on a strict, self-imposed schedule, I knew the part. By the time I landed in Boston, I’d pushed through the panic and feelings of inadequacy and come out the other side: I was ready

My current vantage point in this industry is more muddle than mountaintop, existing in that sour-sweet stage where nothing and everything seems possible. Young artists are often encouraged to say yes to absolutely every offer and to be as visible as possible. But it’s those invisible aspects, the hours of curiosity-driven practice, that have made me the musician I am today. I can’t predict what the shape of my career will be; I don’t know whether my phone will buzz next with a career-altering job offer or a GAP ad. But amidst the caprices of the industry and all my uncertainty I will hold fast to my love of process and trust it to ready me for those unpredictable jump-ins and sustain me in the inevitable fallow periods, too. 

Soprano Hannah De Priest’s recent debuts include engagements at the Kennedy Center, the Boston Early Music Festival, Innsbruck Early Music Festival, Chicago Opera Theater, and Haymarket Opera, among others. In addition to maintaining a full performance schedule, she works as communications manager for Les Délices.

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