Growing Up Backstage: Part One

Sitting backstage in the dressing room during an evening performance, you will often hear the mothers in our chorus talking with their children via Skype or Facetime or just on a phone call telling their children good night or reminding their child of things they need to do to get ready for school the next day. My fellow choristers and myself often hear the perspective of the parents on the challenges of this career and having a family.  However, what we don’t readily hear are thoughts from their children about what it is like growing up with an opera singer as a parent. I spoke with a few of these children who are now grown to find out what the pros and cons are of having a parent working in the theater.  Believe me, they have a lot to say. This article will be focusing on the thoughts of Elizabeth Taylor’s two daughters Hannah, currently living in Illinois, and Catherine, currently living in Germany.

Since their father passed away unexpectedly at an early age, the girls grew up with Liz being a single parent for most of their lives and both remarked that during the opera season there were many days that they only time they would see their mom would be in the morning for breakfast. However, since her schedule resembles that of a school teacher, they always got to spend the entire summer with her. Because Liz had to work late nights due to performances and rehearsals, the girls would leave their homework on the dining room table at night for her to look over when she got home. They would stay with family or friends of the family on weekends when Liz had a busy weekend full of rehearsals and performances. Both girls commented that as they didn’t really have anything else to compare this schedule to, this was normal for them. There are pros and cons to this schedule and this life, but Hannah remarks that the pros far outweigh the cons. She states “I have grown up to appreciate and love opera. I have had the opportunity to see some of the greatest names of my lifetime perform live and meet them.  My personal favorite being Samuel Ramey.”  She also mentions that, as a nine-year old, her friends knew her as “the kid with the mom who sings opera. Fun fact, opera is not as cool to other 9-year olds!” She talked about how awesome it was when her mom would call her on her birthday and the entire Lyric Opera Chorus would sing “Happy Birthday!” There are not many people that get that wonderful experience. However, the con here is that often Liz had to work on their birthdays and they would have to save their celebration for another time.

The girls both went with Liz to her voice lessons and coachings and mentioned that they had a great time playing with her teacher’s collies while their mom was singing. Hannah was in one production at Lyric at age 7 and Catherine has been in 4 productions. They were both together in the “The Magic Flute” as townschildren and little Papagenas. The opera remains Hannah’s favorite opera. She recalls that she felt very important getting to work together with her mom and being onstage.  She “loved being able to see all the staging up close and see the stage hands move everything around during the performances.” She also mentions, “I have always cherished my memories from being a part of that opera and it is one of my favorite ‘fun facts’ to tell people about myself.”

Catherine realized at age 15 that she wanted to be an opera singer like her mom. She was in “Lucia di Lammermoor” with Natalie Dessay, who was performing the role of Lucia.  She recalls it was an honor just to sit and watch her sing and work onstage. She also had the opportunity to work with Renata Scotto when she was our stage director for “Un Ballo in Maschera.” It was not quite the experience she had hoped for, as she ended up playing the part of a boy. During casting, Ms. Scotto said that because Catherine was very thin and didn’t have a lot of curves, she wanted her to be cast as a boy.

Catherine also mentions what she has learned from being backstage… “how much work goes into putting on an opera/performance. It’s hard to understand that from the audience. You can’t see how many people it takes to put on an opera, or how many hours of rehearsal, practice and staging it takes to make it come together. I am still surprised at how friendly and funny soloists, choristers and conductors have been to me backstage and how willing they are to talk to me about music, careers and life in general.”

Sometimes the girls were allowed to skip school to see operas that their mom thought they would really love. Their neighbors would take them to see the shows.  When Hannah was too young to read the subtitles, the neighbor would read the synopsis so she would know what was going on in the show. They were often able to go backstage and look at their mom’s costumes and meet the principal artists. Hannah loved getting to see her mom onstage. She says she never had any problems picking her mom out during the crowd scenes, because of the way she walks and the way that she carries herself.  Hannah still loves seeing her mom perform and enjoys finding her onstage. As the girls have gotten older, their mom still sends them photos of her in costume as a way to stay connected.

I asked the two girls if growing up backstage and being around music has shaped their futures in any way. Catherine’s response is, “I would say yes. I hope to study music here (Germany) and both sing in choirs and as a soloist. In the future, when I have kids, I want them to learn to play the piano, like I did, and sing. Luckily there are a lot of choirs here in Germany for people of all ages. I plan on taking them to see operas and classical concerts of all kinds. Hannah mentions, “While my own career interests are outside of the musical sphere, I have had the opportunity to work for a major music production company. I believe my background, experience, and love of music helped me land the job–besides my other qualifications, of course. I still love going to see operas and always encourage my friends to see them.”