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Alumni Profiles

Erica Miller
Written by Kristina Jacinth, March 1, 2010

The talented young opera star and recent Thornton Opera Program alumna Erica Miller talks about her career and her time at the USC Thornton School.

(The following was taken from an email interview with Erica on March 1, 2010)

Erica, when and what was your last involvement with the USC Thornton Opera Program?

Powder Her Face in fall of 2006, with Thomas Adès conducting and Ken Cazan directing.

Who did you study with while at the Thornton School and what performances were you involved with?

I was a student of Cynthia Munzer for all 5½ years I was there. I sang Papagena in The Magic Flute, Madame Silberklang in The Impresario, Despina in Così fan tutte, Poppea in Agrippina, Elettra in Idomeneo, and the Maid in Powder Her Face.

Where are you living now and what have you done since leaving the Thornton School?

I am currently living in New Jersey and am actively looking for a house with my fiancé, also in NJ. When I graduated USC with my DMA in December 2007, I went back to my parents’ house in NJ and began teaching lessons and doing auditions. In March, I sang for the American-Berlin Opera Foundation Competition, in the which winner is granted a one-year position with the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, Germany. I received a call the day after I sang inviting me to come to Berlin for the 2008-2009 season, and I of course accepted. In the summer before I left for Berlin, I was invited to sing Annina in La Traviata with the Green Mountain Opera Festival in Vermont, and to Opera North in New Hampshire to sing Queen of the Night. I was also given 16 roles to learn for Deutsche Opera, so my life went from a very light schedule to incredibly busy very quickly. In my year in Berlin, I sang 12 roles, the biggest of which were Queen of the Night and Frasquita. I also covered some biggies, like Zerbinetta and Clorinda, both of which I sang a number of rehearsals for, and Sophie, for which I was the cover when we took Der Rosenkalier to Beijing, China. The most fun I had was actually singing the White Rabbit in a high-energy children’s production of Alice in Wonderland, which was mostly a dancing and speaking role. I was petrified of the dancing, but after a LOT of lessons, I felt so comfortable and just loved my role and the way the kids looked at me in my big bunny feet and floppy ears. They would run after me when the performance was over and try to grab them! Near the end of my stay in Berlin, I was invited to Almansa, Spain for two weeks to sing Queen of the Night there, and those four performances were the most rewarding and exciting of my life. The audience there was not very familiar with opera, so it was pretty cool singing Der Hölle Rache to people hearing it for the first time. I have never felt like such a star before, with the roaring applause and the parties afterwards where locals would come up to me telling me they had tears streaming down their faces while I was singing. It was really incredible.

I came back to the US in July and headed out a couple days later to Santa Fe for the rest of the summer, where my then-boyfriend was singing in Don Giovanni with the Santa Fe Opera. I arrived on a Friday, and on Monday, he proposed! We’re getting married in May, and the preparations (plus the house hunting) have been keeping me pretty busy in between auditions.

After Santa Fe, I came back to NJ and sang for an agent, Kathy Olsen, who seemed really excited to add me to her roster. There weren’t too many auditions this year, but I’m also new to the US main stage scene, so I’m hoping that next audition season will have more to hold.

Is there anything upcoming you would like the readers of this article to know about?

A company in Houston, TX called Opera in the Heights has promised me my first Lucia in fall of 2011, and Gilda and Blonchen in later seasons. I’m still waiting to hear from a few auditions that I recently did for productions this summer and fall. Just playing the waiting game, and as soon as I find anything out, I’ll have in up on my website right away.

How did you transition from your involvement at USC to what you are doing now? Was it an easy transition or a difficult one?

The transition from USC to the professional world of singing was fairly quick and painless for me. I was only “unemployed” from January after graduation until I left for Green Mountain in June, then pretty much went straight to Opera North, and then to Berlin. What’s been difficult for me is transitioning back to the US after coming home from a year in Germany. I’m trying to introduce myself to the American scene, but with opera companies hitting hard times, and so many sopranos out there already working, it’s hard to get in. While my résumé is full of experience, I don’t have much in the way of big roles besides the Queen. I also have a voice type that needs to be in leading roles, there aren’t many comprimario roles that need a coloratura. I don’t have many of the roles I’m auditioning for (like Lucia, Gilda, Zerbinetta, Marie, to name a few) on my résumé except as covers in some cases, so a company hiring would have to take a chance on me never having performed the role before. Even if they like me as a singer, there might be another singer who auditions who already has sung the role before, and that can make her more attractive than I am. The only role I feel like I could really be hired in right away is Queen of the Night, having sung it in the second largest house in Germany, and also in the US and Spain. Unfortunately, no houses this year were auditioning for The Magic Flute!

What did you gain from your time at USC?

Stage experience and voice instruction. I needed a teacher who was going to help put the finishing touches on my voice, and after two wonderful years with Cynthia, I knew I would have to stay at USC longer, thus the DMA. I also needed experience on stage, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without working with different directors and conductors like I did in my 5½ years. I learned how to be comfortable on stage doing things I never dreamed I’d do in front of an audience (think: Powder Her Face), and having multiple conductors over the years gave me experience in being flexible, changing tempi, and learning to read different patterns, sometimes at the last minute (again, think: Powder Her Face). I felt ready for anything when I arrived in Berlin, and although it was certainly nerve-wracking, I felt confident when I only had one or two rehearsals before performing a new role, thanks to the wonderful attention and direction I received in my years at USC, especially from Ken Cazan, who I credit with really getting me out of my shell and learning how to act.

What do you now know/understand about the opera world that you wish you had known earlier?

Even when you get more experience, it never seems like enough. I mistakenly thought that after singing in a major house in Germany, I would be very attractive to other houses, and that my international experience would make companies in the States get excited about me, but with the climate the way it is, it is still really tough to get a job. I am so happy that Maestro Bill Weibel of Opera in the Heights is taking a chance on me and letting me sing my first Lucia, Gilda, and Blonchen. I feel like once my résumé shows some of these bigger roles, I will be much more attractive to other companies. It also always seems like it’s the people who aren’t in hiring position who love working with me. I will continue to always be prepared, always be receptive at coachings, always get along with the makeup, costume, and backstage crew, always be ready for whatever directors and conductors want to throw at me, but in reality, those people are not hiring. They just make your life easier once you are hired. No matter how grand it all seems, opera is still a business.

What is there about the opera world you still wish you knew/understood better?

Well, this is going to sound selfish no matter what, but I will never understand how companies really cast singers. I know so many outstanding singers out there who aren’t working, and so many mediocre ones who are and who continue to get hired, and it just baffles me. I also don’t understand why the US is so concerned with age, and I think that the obsession with young singers is hurting the business, and hurting those singers by giving them big roles in big houses when they’re not fully ready. When I was in Germany, I felt young at 28. I was surrounded by singers who really knew what they were doing, and were vocally ready for the roles they were cast in. Here, I feel like I am somehow competing against singers who are in their early twenties, and that shouldn’t be the case. I don’t really believe in casting and competition based on potential, and I will never understand why a complete artist/musician doesn’t always look better than a 21 year old who may or may not be really good in 5-10 years. If the cake’s not done, don’t take it out of the oven.

What’s your opinion about the current state of the opera world?

I think that it’s beginning to fall apart, at least in the US. Until opera houses can start generating some interest in younger crowds, they will continue to lose money. When I went to operas in Germany, there were as many young people in the audience as old people, and everything in between. I went to a party thrown by a friend who works for the American Embassy, filled with 20-somethings, and two of them had been at a performance I was in the night before. Most of young America does not appreciate art and classical music, so it’s hard to tell how long opera will last in this country with audiences slowly getting smaller.

Who, from your time at USC, do you keep touch with?

I run into Angela Meade occasionally in NY, and keep in contact fairly regularly with Hannah Waldman, Cale Olsen, Josh Hong, Leanna Primiani from the composing department, the accompanist Tali Tadmor, and my old housemate, oboist Kate Green. In Germany, I met up with Randy Bills a few times, and saw Meredith Nicoll often. I ran intoCarin Gilfry at Santa Fe last summer.

What do you like to do that is not opera career related?

I play tennis when there’s not 24 inches of snow on the ground, I go the gym every other day when I can, and I love to cook. I recently discovered the “Best Recipe” cookbooks that are based on America’s Test Kitchen, and every recipe I’ve tried so far has lived up to the hype. I can’t wait to see what I’ll cook next!

Finally, what advice or comments can you offer young opera singers?

Only pursue this career if you can’t imagine doing anything else. It’s not easy, and it takes a ton of work, perseverance, and positive energy. If you’re the kind of person who is easily offended, or cries after a bad audition, and gets depressed if you don’t get the job, this is not a good career path for you.

Be ready for anything, always be on time, always be courteous to everyone, stay away from negative people who trash talk, always be willing to try something even if you know it’s not going to work, and please, don’t be a diva.

Thanks, Erica, for your candid and insightful responses. We are all very proud of you here at the Thornton School and wish you all the best, both personally and professionally.

Erica Miller as Königin der Nacht

Erica Miller as Königin der Nacht in the
Oper's production of
Das Märchen von der Zauberf

Related Links:

Erica Miller

Erica Miller
Jule DeMarre - Photographer

Erica Miller as Poppea in the USC Thornton Opera's production of Agrippina

Erica Miller as Poppea in the USC Thornton Opera's production of Agrippina


Erica Miller as Königin der Nacht in the Festival Internacional de Musica de Almansa

Erica Miller as Königin der Nacht in the Festival Internacional de Musica de Almansa's production of Mozart's Die Zauberflöte