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Special to the Enquirer/Kristen Loken Photography, Merola Opera Program Mezzo-soprano Jesse Mashburn, center, of Hartselle performs in the Merola Opera Program's Grand Finale in San Francisco with bass-baritone Andrew Dwan and pianist Shiyu Tan.

On stage with Hartselle mezzo-soprano Jesse Mashburn

By Catherine Godbey

For the Enquirer

Under the San Francisco sun, Hartselle’s Jesse Mashburn took the stage at Golden Gate Park and, with powerful renditions of classic opera songs, commanded the audience.

In a review of the Merola Opera Program’s Grand Finale, Joshua Kosman of The San Francisco Chronicle wrote, “Mezzo-sopranos Gabrielle Beteag and Jesse Mashburn … set the pace right out of the gate … Anyone who suspected that these two artists would emerge as the stars of the afternoon did not have to wait long to see that prediction confirmed.”

For Mashburn, the seven-week Merola Opera Program, which selected 27 young artists from a pool of more than 800 applicants, serves as the next step in the up-and-coming mezzo-soprano’s journey — a journey that started in Hartselle’s schools, churches and community theater groups.

“I’ve been singing in church and school choirs since I was a really little kid. I’ve always loved to sing,” Mashburn said. “I wanted to be a Broadway belter. Then I was introduced to classical music.”

With encouragement from Michelle Reburn, Mashburn’s choir teacher at Hartselle Junior High, Eric and Nicole Mashburn introduced their daughter to singing lessons. Her teacher, Charlsa Perdew, urged the aspiring singer to explore classical music.

“Up until that point, I really had just kind of thrown my voice at music. Classical music had this very specific technique that was challenging, but it also came a little more naturally to me,” Mashburn explained. “It was super interesting to see what I could make my voice do when I applied it.”

At 13 years old, after hearing a recording of mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne and coloratura soprano Joan Sutherland perform “Mira o Norma,” Mashburn said she knew her future lay in classical music.

“I just kept thinking, ‘I have to do that. That’s what I want to do,’” she said.

For Mashburn’s parents — both musical themselves, her mother having played the flute in the band and her father performing in a bluegrass group — their daughter’s interest in classical music served as a learning opportunity.

“It’s been a learning curve for my parents. I’m from a musical family, but classical music was not what we regularly listened to,” Mashburn explained.

At 16, Mashburn attended her first opera while on a trip to Paris with her father. They saw “Siegfried” by Wagner. On average, the opera lasts five hours.

“That is a beast to start out with for your first live opera. I think we got back to our hotel about 3 a.m. We were definitely troopers,” Mashburn said. “I loved every moment. If you are a singer, you can’t sit through that without having it resonate through you. You feel the music so intensely.”

During her junior year at Hartselle High School, Mashburn applied for and was accepted into Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan. The arts boarding school and summer camp allowed her to explore classical music unapologetically.

“It was so refreshing to be around a bunch of people that wanted to do exactly what I wanted to do. I didn’t feel crazy for wanting to be a classical voice major. Being there showed me what was possible,” Mashburn said.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in vocal performance from Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio, Mashburn went on to earn a master’s classical performance from the University of Maryland in 2020 — at the onset of the pandemic.

Because of the coronavirus, the Merola Opera Program’s 2020 cohort, which included Mashburn, received an extension to 2021. A prestigious training program in classical vocal performance, the Merola Opera Program included participants from Pittsburgh, Denver, Atlanta, New York, Tampa, Canada, Russia, China, Colombia and Germany.

Participants adhered to strict COVID protocols, were tested twice a week and wore special singer masks provided by the San Francisco Opera. After the program’s first couple of weeks, the participants shed the masks, opened the windows and sang together.

“It was a little nerve-wracking to sing for people in person after a year of just being on Zoom,” Mashburn said.

The training program included sessions on mental wellness, finance, marketing and branding and yoga, along with in-person rehearsals. Mashburn learned under mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, who sang at former Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s memorial at the U.S. Capitol.

During the Merola Opera Program’s Grand Finale in late July, Mashburn performed the Witch’s aria from Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel,” “You’ve Undone Me” from Handel’s “Semele” and a duet from Rossini’s “Italian Girl in Algiers.”

Mashburn’s previous roles have included Forester’s Wife in “Cunning Little Vixen,” Polinesso in “Ariodante,” Bradamante in “Alcina,” Madame Flora in “The Medium,” Marcelina in “Le Nozze di Figaro,” Nicklausse in “Les Contes d’Hoffmann,” Madame de la Haltiere in “Cendrillon” and Bianca in “The Rape of Lucretia.”

Mashburn, who has sung in English, French, German, Italian, Russian and Spanish, is living in Hartselle and preparing for the next season of auditions.

“This is what I was born to do,” she said. “When I am on stage singing, I feel so alive. It is an amazing feeling.”

ONE-ON-ONE

WITH JESSE MASHBURN

Q: What does “mezzo-soprano” mean?

A: “Mezzo” means “middle,” so I’m a middle soprano. I’m not quite the high soprano you hear in a lot of commercials. If you know the opera “Carmen,” that would be the part I would sing.

Q: How does the audition process work?

A: Every year we make pre-screening recordings with up to four arias or songs. Based on those, it is determined whether you come in for a live audition, which usually takes place in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. After your audition, you walk out, go home, eat a lot of Chinese food and wait for a phone call.

Q: How did you find out about your review in The San Francisco Chronicle?

A: I was in Yosemite with one of my friends from undergrad, trying to see the sunrise, when I got a text from my dad that said, “Mom teared up.” I went, “About what? Is everything OK?” He said, “Your review” and I went, “What review?” We had no service, so I was desperately trying to open up the review paragraph by paragraph. It was amazing.

Q: Do you have a dream role?

A: My biggest and most immediate one I would love to do is “Isabella” from “L’italiana in Algeri” by Rossini. She is an Italian girl that has been shipwrecked in Algiers, and she is looking for her love. I love that she doesn’t take any nonsense from anyone. She is still fun and flirty even though she’s been shipwrecked in a foreign country where she doesn’t speak the language.

Q: Have you sung “Mira o Norma”?

A: I’ve sung pieces of it, but I’m still a little young to sing it. That’s a big difference between classical music and other types. You definitely have to age into some things physically. My voice is still changing.

 

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