My mom dragged me to my first opera when I was a junior in high school. She wanted me to understand what I might be studying if I went to Northwestern. I remember sitting through Il Barbiere di Siviglia by Mozart as part of the “Live at the Met” initiative at the movie theater near my house. It would’ve cost me nothing to enjoy the experience. The singers sung flawlessly, the drive there took less than five minutes, and my mom had even bought me popcorn. Yet, as I nestled down into the seat cushion time and time again after squirming around during Act I, I felt no joy. We left at intermission. Today, I want to perform opera for a living. What happened?

I came to Northwestern to study voice and opera performance because I liked to sing. I found out that I would be studying with W. Stephen Smith for my time at NU. At the start of the year, Professor Smith gathered all his students and gave a two-hour long talk about expectations and requirements for his studio. It intimidated me. I called my mom and expressed concern about studying music. She told me to give it time before considering switching majors. Staying with voice and Professor Smith, affectionately known as “Steve,” was the best decision of my undergraduate career here at NU.

The way Steve conducted himself cracked my perception of people involved with classical music. We talked about recent events, thoughts, and emotions at the beginning of each lesson. I know that he used that time to assess the nature of my voice, but he seemed to genuinely care about my life. Succinctly put, Steve was cool. He destroyed every stereotype about opera and classical music that I had previously thought. Steve let me choose my own repertoire. Steve didn’t try to control what I did musically. He supported my musical interests outside of my classical studies with him, like singing pop music.

Steve represented the faculty well. While they all had immense knowledge of classical traditions and loved opera, they never made me think that the genre was stuffy and inflexible. My senior year, I had the good fortune to play a role in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, Ruddigore, where, at one point, I was riding a scooter around the stage while singing classically. Over four years, my colleagues and peers supported me and constantly challenged my perception of those involved with classical music.

Participating in that operetta helped me remember that I love performing, no matter the genre. Throughout the four years, I also came to terms with the reality that my voice lends itself more to classical music, and stopped focusing on pop singing. I want to change people’s attitudes, thoughts, days, and even lives through performing operas.

Before coming to Northwestern, I didn’t understand that opera was relatable, accessible, and beautiful. It’s taken four long years, but I’ve fallen in love with the music. I’ve fallen in love with the characters. I’ve fallen in love with the stories. Now, I fully realize that I’ve fallen in love with the genre that once bored my younger self in a movie theater. I’ve fallen in love with opera.

–Robby Eisentrout

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