Classical Singer Magazine: Forging Her Path to Success

Classical Singer's 2008 AudComps Winner, Katrina Thurman

February 2009
by Kay Kleinerman

If you had asked Katrina Thurman when she was in 6th grade what she wanted to be when she grew up, she would have said a country singer. It all started for her at church camp with the song “Amazing Grace.” She was singing the song for some friends who, after hearing her, encouraged her to sing more.

“About that time, when I was singing ‘Amazing Grace’ and running around camp, I decided that I would really like to be a country singer,” she recalls.

Her parents also heard something special in Thurman’s voice and urged her to get involved in her school choir. She hesitated at first, remembering the grumpy music teacher in elementary school. “I thought maybe all music teachers were like that,” she explains. But she joined the choir anyway, taking it as a yearlong elective in 7th grade. That choir made all the difference for Thurman.

“I was able to concentrate on singing and I had a wonderful junior high choir teacher who was devoted to her students,” she says. That choir teacher also ended up being Thurman’s piano teacher and the one who encouraged her to take voice lessons. Once the voice lessons started and Thurman was introduced to musical theatre and Italian art songs, the country western ambition faded, supplanted by the desire to go to college to study musical theatre and voice. Thurman says she still enjoys singing country music for fun, but the 2008 Classical Singer AudComps winner now has a thriving career that’s a far cry from her earliest ambitions.

When she spoke to CS in October of 2008, Thurman was busy rehearsing as a Young Artist with Florida Grand Opera. Her roles with the company for the 2008-2009 season include Barbarina in Le nozze di Figaro, Ellen in Lakmè, and covering Clorinda in La Cenerentola. In 2008, she graced the stage of Lyric Opera of Kansas City as Musetta in La bohème, garnering reviews that praised her appealing voice, fine acting skills, and comic timing. Thurman also sang Die Erste Dame in Die Zauberflöte and Rose in Lakmè for Tulsa Opera, and at Glimmerglass Opera as the Bianca/Lois Lane cover in Kiss Me, Kate. In May 2009, she will sing Amy in Little Women for Syracuse Opera.

Thurman’s voice has been described as having a silvery, round, elegant quality, and she is known for being a committed and convincing actress in serious as well as comic roles. This comes as no surprise to those who know her. From childhood, Thurman, a pretty, lithe blond, has loved to perform.

“I was always drawn to performing, even as a child,” she says. “I just enjoyed singing and putting on little shows for my family. I would wait for my mom to come home from work so I could tell her what I had developed that day.”

At 5 and 6 years old, Thurman would make up songs even though she couldn’t yet read or write music. Noticing her interest in singing and music, Thurman’s mother, who had been involved in drama as a high school student, started Thurman on piano lessons when she was in 2nd grade. The lessons lasted only six months because of schedule constraints, but Thurman’s passion for music and singing kept growing. She loved to sing in 5th and 6th grade music classes, though, as she says, “I was so shy. They had some state choirs for elementary school students and I never got in because when I tried out, I was so shy, I would whisper my audition.”

That shyness abated, particularly after Thurman started studying voice and got some parts in her high school musical theatre productions. After that, the decision to make performance her focus in college was an easy one.

“I enjoyed it so much I thought ‘Hey, if you can go to college for musical theatre, I’ll do that!’”

And do that she did, enrolling at Oklahoma City University as a musical theatre major, with her eyes on the Big Apple. “In high school, we had a guy who was hired to come down from New York and choreograph our musicals,” she recalls. “After meeting him, I decided that I wanted to live in New York, and pay $900 a month for a studio apartment, and survive on macaroni and cheese, and be a musical theatre person.”

This worthy ambition was soon sidetracked, however, after Thurman’s first-semester freshman juries—the voice faculty suggested that she think about switching to a classical vocal performance major. By her sophomore year, Thurman was on the classical track. Her learning curve was somewhat steep, but it wasn’t a difficult transition for her.

“I really had not sung opera—and I hadn’t seen an opera until college—but, just naturally I sang with a free vibrato, even as a young girl. I didn’t make the musical theatre sound, or the mix or belt sound at that time. When I took voice lessons in high school, my teacher encouraged my natural way of singing, and a much more free technique.”

Thurman thrived on the challenges of classical music. She found that mastering the vocal demands and developing the interpretive skills for opera required more of her.

“It was more maddening but ultimately more satisfying,” she says. “There’s nothing like folding yourself into a piece of really rich music and flowing along with it, the way we’re intended to do. It’s hard to really let go that much, but when it happens, there’s just nothing like it.”

After the nurturing environment of college, graduate school at Cincinnati Conservatory was a bit of a shock. Thurman felt honored to be accepted—then she found out, only two weeks before the start of school, that she wouldn’t be studying with the voice teacher she had requested. After talking with four different teachers she was finally accepted into a studio, but it wasn’t a match so she switched teachers. Thurman’s technique suffered and she lost some of her top notes.

Still, she landed at Aspen Music Festival singing a leading role in a newly commissioned opera. Thurman found a teacher at the festival who helped her start to regain her technique. For the next year Thurman commuted from Cincinnati to New York, working four jobs to pay for lessons and travel to study with this teacher. She finally took the leap to live there (and fulfill her time-honored dream of eating macaroni and cheese), and her step-by-step career climb started—Young Artist Programs in Des Moines and Utah, roles with Natchez Opera Festival, Opera Omaha, Oper Bonn in Germany, and Opéra nationale de Lyon in France. Of the latter Thurman says, “I was so honored. It was really amazing.”

Thurman spent the better part of a year between 2004 and 2005 singing in Europe. It was a great experience, Thurman says, but when she returned to the United States she found that she needed to regain some of the career momentum that she had before she left. So she got a manager, was hired for some guest work, and continues to do the Young Artist Programs that she feels are most beneficial to developing her career.

When asked how winning the 2008 Classical Singer AudComps has benefited her, Thurman says, “For a Young Artist, winning a monetary prize is a great boost because there are endless expenses—travel, coaching, voice lessons—that come with pursuing your career. Also, singing for the Classical Singer community, and having colleagues and prominent professionals in the business who serve as judges hear you, is a wonderful opportunity. It’s also great to have the accolades on my résumé. And the additional prizes—the role with Sacramento Opera, the headshots, a recording session—are a nice boost.”

Even before winning the AudComps, however, Thurman’s career was already progressing, and she’s wise enough not to assume that this competition will “make” her career. As Thurman makes plain, she does her work, does the best she can in auditions and roles, and if she wins a part or a competition it’s exciting. But like anything else, she says, it’s about being as centered as you can be, and being in the moment.

“I don’t always know what’s going to come, so I just do my work and move forward to see what comes next, and I’m thankful for the rewards that come my way. I know there’s no guarantee. I just have to do good work.”

A noble attitude, but sometimes hard to maintain in the singing profession. As Thurman freely admits, she has moments of doubt and frustration. Speaking specifically about forging a career as an opera singer in the States, Thurman remarks, “I applaud the person who’s in this career. When you’re singing mainstage, you’re constantly traveling and doing guest performances all over the country. I would be amazed to meet someone who didn’t doubt it every once in a while.

“I love performing dearly,” she continues. “It feeds my soul. There’s nothing like singing and getting swept away by the poetry and the storyline. But I question this career, sometimes every other day, sometimes when things don’t turn out the way I want them to. For instance, I apply for a competition and can’t even get in to be heard, even though I’ve just won the Classical Singer First Prize and Audience Choice, plus I have other nice accolades on my résumé. There are moments when I just say to myself ‘I quit!’ But it’s almost like saying that to myself is enough, and then I’m ready to start again, and go back and do it.”

The greatest challenge, says Thurman, is maintaining a sense of stability as a working singer. “How do you make it work,” she asks, “with your partner, if you’ve got children or a pet? I’ve always wanted a pet. I still don’t have one!”

Thurman spoke frankly about singers needing decent health insurance and about how important it is to build a support system of people whom you trust. For Thurman that means family for emotional support, coaches for technical advice, and her manager for career and business advice. She emphasized that singers, particularly those in the U.S. market, need to have an entrepreneurial attitude so they can take advantage of every singing opportunity, regardless of whether they have managers. Thurman is her own best advisor on this subject. She constantly scans the horizon for her next career step.

When I asked Thurman what her ambitions beyond singing might be, she seemed intrigued with the idea of being an artistic director for an opera company. “I feel that my temperament and personality would fit administrative work better than teaching, and I think I have more to offer in that area,” she says. “I have a great deal of respect for administrators and I know I would have a lot to learn, but I like that the artistic director works with the singers, and directors, and [the] production end of things. That role speaks to me.”

Thurman is realistic about the hard work that being an artistic director entails. She appreciates, for instance, the dilemma of having to choose among hundreds of eager, young singers who are all applying for six or eight spaces in a Young Artist Program. Yet, as an artistic director, Thurman feels that she would be able to capitalize on her experience in a way that would help educate and guide young singers and give them some of her hard-earned wisdom.

“The question is whether I can ever really give up singing, because I am a little bit of a ham,” says Thurman. “But I think that I would enjoy connecting with singers, specifically with young artists. I think I would have something to offer them, based on my past experiences.

“I have a perspective that I think would be helpful and an understanding based on the path that I’ve taken, which has not been a direct path to fame or the easy one. I have a lot of wonderful things that I’ve accomplished and I’ve sung in places that I know a lot of people would like to sing, but it wasn’t just handed to me.”

Nurturing young singers is many years down the road, though. As Thurman says, “Maybe someday. Right now I just want to sing, sing, sing!”