KINGSPORT — Tatum Spears came a step closer to achieving her dream when she earned the Frances Shafter Recognition Award earlier this month from the Metropolitan Opera National Council’s North Carolina district.
Spears, who is a senior majoring in classical music at East Tennessee State University, was one of only four people to receive the recognition for 2013.
At 22, Spears — a lyric soprano — was one of the youngest of the 36 singers who participated in the Jan. 11 auditions in Charlotte, N.C. Three winners were chosen to go on to the regional level, with finalists trying out for a chance to join the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.
The MONC began holding the annual events in 1952 with the goal of discovering aspiring opera singers from around the U.S.
The Weber City native, who has only been studying and performing opera for the past four years, described the recognition as a huge honor.
“I am honestly in shock,” Spears said. “I was the second-youngest singer in this competition, and after hearing all of the amazing talent, I thought I would walk away empty-handed. I feel so honored and blessed to be chosen for this award.”
Spears performed two pieces for the trio of judges, which included MONC Executive Director Gayletha Nichols and Metropolitan Opera Tenor Anthony Dean Griffey.
In addition to validating her progress, Spears said the experience gave her the chance to learn from professionals what they look for in a lyric soprano.
“The feedback I got from the judges was invaluable,” Spears said. “They told me important things about career longevity and vocal longevity and keeping yourself healthy, being comfortable in your own body and not being afraid to put it all out there and be vulnerable and genuinely feel what you’re singing.”
Spears’ path to the audition began at ETSU, where she has studied for the past two years under Dr. Sun-Joo Oh. While in college, Spears performed as a section leader of ETSU’s Chorale and has participated in the ETSU Opera Workshop.
“The classical music sound just drew me in,” Spears said. “Whenever I began studying it I was really drawn to Mozart and his music, ... and I started listening to his operas and said to myself that seems like a lot of fun, I really want to do that.”
It was with the Opera Workshop, which is headed by Karen Smith, that Spears had her first performance in November 2011, playing the role of La Ciesca in Giacomo Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi.”
“It was a lot of fun to sort of get my feet wet because opera isn’t just music, there’s theater involved and acting, and costumes, and it was just a magical process” Spears said. “As soon as we did that opera, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
From there, she played the role of Adina in ETSU’s February 2013 production of “The Elixir of Love” by Gaetano Donizetti before moving on to serve as a member of the chorus in Asheville Lyric Opera’s rendition of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s “I Pagliacci.”
Spears’ fourth opera, an ETSU production of Gian Carlo Menotti’s “The Old Maid and the Thief,” is slated for April.
Spears credited the work of both Oh and Smith in her development as a singer and performer.
"I’ve been studying with her for half of my undergrad career and she is my music mom,” Spears said of Oh. “She’s so influential and I credit her for believing in myself and taking my technique and expanding on my knowledge. She has really taught me everything I need to know and at this point in my career I owe it all to her.
“I also have to give credit to Karen Smith. Working with her has really taken my acting abilities to a level I had no idea I was capable of doing.”
Having never performed opera prior to enrolling at ETSU, Spears said her talent as a singer began to take shape when she transferred to Volunteer High School to play softball before quitting to perform in the school’s choir her junior and senior years.
A lifetime lover of music, Spears said her friends from high school and Scott County were somewhat surprised when she decided to begin seriously pursuing a career in opera.
“I grew up listening to country music, but I couldn’t sing that to save my life,” Spears said. “I wanted to be original and stand out in a good way, and around here opera is about as far away from normal as one can get. So that played a factor in why I chose it, but now I do it for the love of the art and what people think about it really doesn’t sway my decisions anymore.”
Although her friends may have been skeptical initially, Spears said she has had nothing but support from those around her — including her boyfriend Sean Johnson and parents Charlie and Judy Spears — since she began her studies.
“Sean and I have been together over three years, and he’s my number one fan, my support system and he really believes in me,” Spears said. “He went to Charlotte with me, along with my parents, and having that unconditional support system is the main reason I feel comfortable doing what I’m doing and being from Weber City.”
With graduation coming this spring, Spears said she plans to continue working on her craft by moving to the New York area and learning from professionals there.
The ultimate goal, Spears said, is to one day become a professional singer, and maybe even a member of the Met.
“I’ve taken all of (the feedback from the judges) into consideration and I will try to live by that and I plan on auditioning for a district next year,” Spears said. “The age limit is 30, so I have seven more tries and I’ll keep auditioning until I win, hopefully. ”
Spears said she also plans to participate in the Music Teachers National Association Young Artist Voice Division Competition later this month in Louisville, Ky.