Following her recent win at the Metropolitan Opera Laffont Competition and her Carnegie Hall debut, we interviewed mezzo-soprano Natalie Lewis about her about her competition experiences, her burgeoning opera career, and her undergraduate time here at UMass.

You’ve just come off a first-place finish at the Met’s Laffont Competition and your Carnegie Hall debut, all in the same week. Has it sunk in yet?

I feel like I am finally able to start to digest it all. I still can’t quite believe that it all happened—the Met and Carnegie Hall are both places that everyone hears about. In fact, I had heard about them before I knew anything about opera, or if I could even perform as an opera singer. So performing at the Met and Carnegie were both so far out of the realm of possibility for me—I feel like I hadn’t even allowed myself to dream that big yet, which makes both experiences even more unbelievable. So I guess the best words to describe how I am feeling are happy, and thankful, and so very lucky.

Natalie Lewis performs at the Met Opera Competition
At the Met Opera Competition

What were your emotions going into the Met competition?

At the districts last fall, I was nervous, but I approached them like just another audition, one of many that I was doing at that time. Most people who advance in the competition only do so after entering multiple times, so my attitude was sort of like, “OK good, let’s get my first Met competition out of the way.” So I was overjoyed and excited when I advanced to the regionals, and then the semifinals. Then, the night before the semifinal weekend, when everything really started to hit me, I had a full-on panic attack! I had never felt like that before. But when I finally stepped out onto the stage, I felt only joyful and excited. As for the finals, it was just pure excitement for all of us who had made it that far. It was like our victory lap—we’d already done wonderful things to make it to the finals, so now we could all just have fun and sing. It was such a beautiful week, and a beautiful day. Just incredible.

And then you made your Carnegie Hall debut that same week, with the Cecilia Chorus of New York. What was going through your mind then?

There was only a week in between the Met competition and my debut, so I focused on staying healthy and focused during my preparations. What I didn’t feel was nervous—I was actually afraid that my lack of nerves would cause me to lose focus during the performance. It was also challenging, because I was so busy with the Met, and also with an opera performance at Juilliard happening at almost the same time, that I didn’t have a chance to work directly with the (Cecilia) orchestra and chorus until the day of the show! But at that point, I felt like that if I could do the Met, I could do this.  

Compared to your colleagues at Juilliard and at the Met Competition, you began to focus on opera as a career relatively recently. Has that been a positive or negative?

On the plus side, you can’t fear what you don’t know. I think that helped me in the beginning—it allowed me to be bold in the repertoire that I chose to sing and the auditions I went for. I thought, “Well, if I can sing, I can sing,” and that’s all that people would care about. I’ve since come to realize that maturity and experience do count for a lot, and that starting later made it a bit harder to catch up, but that’s OK.

Natalie Lewis sings during a performance at UMass while other musicians perform in the background
Natalie Lewis during her time at UMass

How did your training at UMass help to shape you and prepare you for success?

For one thing, getting training in other musical genres helped a lot—focusing on musical theater, which was what I thought was going to be my direction, helped me to develop my dramatic skills, and performing with [former choral activities director] Tony Thornton and the UMass Chamber Choir provided me with another musical outlet that wasn’t solo singing.

[Voice Professor] Bill Hite’s enthusiasm, patience, and excitement for classical music inspired me tremendously. Watching him perform moved me so much, and made me want to move people in the same way. Although he certainly wasn’t easy on me in terms of learning technique, he helped me to appreciate the joy and fun in making music. His mastery of song, and language, and interpretation all helped me to fall in love with opera.

I was inspired by the camaraderie amongst my fellow voice students, especially Jessica Toupin ('19), who was a huge influence on me. I heard her at a voice studio open house before I was even that interested in studying music, and she made want to sing so badly! Knowing her helped me to understand that opera could be something for me.

Most of all, going to UMass helped me to grow and develop as a performer and as a human being. Becoming a performing artist takes so much time and dedication that it can become unhealthy if that’s your sole focus. I’m really happy that I fell in love with opera at a place where it wasn’t the only thing that surrounded me. It allowed me to learn, to grow, and take chances with my singing, and I don’t think I would have had that same feeling of safety and support at a conservatory. I’m indebted to UMass for everything.

What would your advice be to students preparing to study music as an undergrad?

I would say trust yourself and your instincts. Also be curious—even if you only have a small interest in a certain genre, go for it, even if you think your focus lies elsewhere. Don’t pigeonhole yourself!

What are your thoughts as you prepare to join the Bavarian State Opera this fall?

I’m so excited to move to Germany—certainly ready to be done with school for a while, even though all of my experiences and teachers at Juilliard have been phenomenal. I’m looking forward to meeting new people—it’s one of the things I love most about this career. Maybe because my dad was in the military, and we had to move around a lot, but I love the idea of a change of scenery. Basically, I’m ready to not be a student and see what it’s like being a professional.