Every once in a while, the opportunity presents itself to speak with someone truly extraordinary. When that person has not only accomplished great things in their lifetime but has managed to maintain a down to earth and likeable character, the experience is even more so a priceless one.
Melanie Holliday, an internationally acclaimed soprano, recently graced the residents of Huntsville with a benefit performance, donating all proceeds to the Rita B. Huff Animal Shelter out of the kindness of her heart and because of her love for animals. I got the chance to sit down with Ms. Holliday a few days after the concert to find out how she thought the event went.
“I don’t just think it was a success, I know it was a success. We got $9,000 for the shelter, which was one success. I had a standing ovation at intermission, which was another success, and I enjoyed myself, which was a third success,” she said. “Huntsville’s never seen something like this before.”
Ms. Holliday made the decision to donate the proceeds to the animal shelter because of her deep love for animals. In the program, for the evening, she explained why her caring for animals is so deep.
“Animals are very dear to my heart and always have been,” she said. “I wanted to give this concert to return some of the love I’ve received over the years from animals.”
The program for the evening ranged from pieces sung in Italian and French to Americanized classics, like the audience favorite according to Ms. Holliday, “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina,” from “Evita.” Ms. Holliday went to the extent of learning some of her most beautiful operettas in English so that they could be appreciated fully, but her favorite piece of the event was “Serenade,” a French lullaby.
“It’s so easy to sing, it really sings itself,” she said of the piece. “I was hoping it wouldn’t put the audience to sleep.”
During the performance, Ms. Holliday not only astounded the audience with her vocal capabilities but also managed to make them laugh, with an interesting beginning to the second half of the show.
“The second half of the show was fun. I came in with a glass of water and apple juice that was supposed to look like champagne and performed a ‘Tipsy Song.’ The audience laughed so hard,” she said. “I had to sing a formal song right after that to make sure that the audience knew I wasn’t actually tipsy.”
Another special part of the evening was a song Ms. Holliday performed written by Dr. Foster, a Sam Houston State University vocal professor who taught her when she was a student here before graduating from college in Indiana. The song was called “Love Came My Way” and was written in honor of his wife, Jerry Lynn Foster, who accompanied Ms. Holliday on the piano for her performance.
“Dr. Foster was the man who knew all I needed to know, and he had the ability and patience to work with me. I was too young to see that when I was here for the first time. Now, I come to town about once a year, and he has kept my voice healthy. He has been a mentor, a father and a friend, all at the same time,” she said. “I chose to perform the song because Dr. Foster has influenced my life more than anyone besides me dear mother. He helped me when I had a vocal crisis. He’s a genius and a sweet man.”
The song was not only performed in honor of Dr. Foster, but also for Jerry Lynn Foster, who became a dear friend of Ms. Holliday’s over the years, from the time when she first met her as the young wife of her wise professor.
“I used to call her Mrs. Foster when we first met but over the years we became dear friends,” Ms. Holliday said. “Dr. Foster adores his wife, and I sang the song to speak about that and get her in the lime light. The audience really enjoyed the song.”
Ms. Holliday’s path toward becoming such an amazing soprano was not a simple one. For fourteen years of her pre-collegiate life, Ms. Holliday had studied ballet but changed paths to singing opera after a horseback riding accident. Luckily, ballet had taught her the rhythm of music, and her mother showed her the value of classical music by playing piano music in the house.
“After falling off of a horse, I was in a brace for five months, but I had a talent for singing that I got from my mother. She had a beautiful voice, but she ruined it cheerleading,” she said. “I started out doing small pieces at the Houston Music Center, then came to Sam and worked with Dr. Foster. At the time, I was thinking about bigger and better schools, so I transferred to Indiana.”
It was during this point in her life that Ms. Holliday met her first husband, Thomas Holliday. He attained his doctorate in Opera and “geared her to it,” so when the two moved to Europe together, she began her career in that field. There were years when she did not dance at all, performing in pieces like “Fidelio” and “Elixir of Love.” Then, someone in Vienna saw her and encouraged her to audition for “Candide.”
“I auditioned and got cast, and the composer, Leonard Burnstein actually asked me, ‘Where were you when I did this on Broadway?'” she said. “After that, I was encouraged to audition to be a house singer for the Vienna Volksopera, where I stayed for 15 years.”
Ms. Holliday said that she found her niche in operettas, that she enjoyed performing in them but had never heard of them before that point. During her time in the Vienna Volksopera, she played many exotic roles that she still pleasantly recalls.
“I have played the lead in ‘The Mary Widow’ several times. It’s a love story, and it takes three acts for the characters to get together,” she said. “It’s my favorite part to play. I’m dressed all in black, dripping in diamonds and I get to sing the Mary Widow waltz.”
The Vienna Volksopera made habit of using Ms. Holliday’s dancing abilities for the time that she was with them. When she played the second lead in “The Mary Widow,” they made a special addition to the character she played to really bring it to life.
“When I played the second lead, she has a Can-Can that they put in just for me. After that I became quite famous,” she said.
Another role Ms. Holliday enjoys is the part of Olympia in “The Tales of Hoffmann.” Her character is a mechanical doll performed on point, which is something people rarely see. In this role, Ms. Holliday’s duality as a soprano and a dancer is definitely appreciated.
“During one performance, I went offstage and the director asked me who was going to sing the part if I was dancing. He couldn’t believe that I was doing both,” she said. “Luckily, I’m someone who can do both, which is amazing to everybody.”
Ms. Holliday not only holds the ability to dance and sing in a single show, but she has also learned to speak many different languages. As she lives in Vienna, she performs most often in German but that is only one of the languages she speaks fluently and one of the many that she performs in.
“I learned German by practicing, which is the only way to do it,” she said. “I also speak English and Italian fluently, and I speak some French and Japanese.”
After performing in locations all around the world, Ms. Holliday believes that the audiences in Japan that she has performed for are the most responsive, and also finds the concert halls there to be beautiful. Regardless of where she performs, she is no stranger to singing for large numbers of people.
“I perform for audiences of between 1,500 and 3,000 members, but I also do smaller shows for 200 to 1,000 people. When I was in the Vienna Volksopera, it held 1,800 people,” she said. “The biggest audience I’ve ever had was in Barcelona, where I performed for 10,500 people.”
One of the most admirable things about Ms. Holliday is that whether she is performing for an audience of a few hundred or for thousands of listeners, she consistently gives everything she has to the people who came to see her.
“I love what I do. I sang for a good cause for 350 people and didn’t give them any less than I do for 3,000 people in Japan. Everyone in the audience felt that, saw that and heard that,” she said. “You want to do your best for the people who are there and that’s what I do. I think that’s because I love to sing and try to do my best.”
All in all, Ms. Holliday has built herself an amazing and admirable life. Through hard work and luck; she has had the chance to live the ideal of making a career through personal talent. She is humble, kind and a true pleasure to talk to and she seems very grateful for all she has experienced.
“God knew what he was doing when he made me fall off that horse. I got off the ballet track to singing, and God changed my life in having me have that accident,” she said. “People always ask me how I stay so beautiful. Staying slim is something I accomplish with dancing or aerobics. The other way I stay beautiful is through music because loving what I do keeps me healthy and happy.”