Singer Carmella Jones Went From The Delivery Room To The Operatic Stage.
By Margaret Regan
CARMELLA JONES LOOKS every inch the opera star. She sweeps into the Arizona Opera offices, a brilliant smile on her face, her 6-foot frame made even taller by high heels and even more dramatic by a flaming red pants outfit and big silver jewelry. And when she opens her mouth to speak, the words come out in the honeyed tones of the trained singer.
As a matter of fact, in this weekend's production of Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos, a seriocomic 1912 opera spiced up with boisterous commedia dell'arte, mezzo-soprano Jones sings the title role, alternating the part with Caroline Whisnant. But up until just four months ago, Jones was working full time as a nurse at a Los Angeles Hospital.
"I did labor and delivery," she says in that melodious voice, then launches into a fair imitation of a woman in the throes of labor: " 'Pull it out, honey! I can't take it anymore!' For seven years, I did high-risk labor and delivery, where there are complications in the mother or baby, and you need long-term monitoring."
How is it then, that Jones has tallied up engagements with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Music Center Opera, and after singing with Arizona Opera, she'll be off to Minnesota to sing the lead role in Carmen, and after that, to sing Lady MacBeth? Her past double life as a nurse and singer doesn't seem all that strange to Jones herself, perhaps because she doesn't see a dichotomy between singing and nursing.
"I was a nurse for 12 years, and it feels the same in a strange way: what happens on a stage when you give to the audience, what the audience gives back to you."
It was nursing that gave her the financial wherewithal to pursue a childhood dream. Jones loved to sing as a child, spending hours listening to her mother's collection of Broadway show tunes and then performing the songs in front of the mirror. She was educated in religious schools, though, that stressed serious service work over the arts, so she didn't really think of music as a profession. Nevertheless, after she started working as a nurse, she began studying in her off hours with a voice teacher. Somehow word about the promising student got out. One day three years ago a "miracle" happened.
"I got a call one afternoon from the L.A. Philharmonic, saying, 'We'd like to hear you sing.' I was dumbfounded."
Another singer had been released from a contract and Jones was asked to audition in her place. She had only seven days to learn the piece, "Seven Popular Songs" by Manuel de Falla, so she called in sick at the hospital, confiding the truth to her supervisor, and stayed home and practiced. She got the part, and more parts after that, juggling nursing and singing and lessons and auditions until September of last year. But, she says, nursing is physically exhausting, particularly in the delivery room, where she sometimes had to hold onto a laboring woman's bent legs for hours on end. Occasionally she was so tired she couldn't sing when she was supposed to. One sleepless night, she finally decided to resign the hospital job in favor of an uncertain life in the arts.
"It was really difficult! Working as a nurse is so secure. I had a lot of seniority, and expertise in a specialized body of nursing. And giving up the (health) insurance!"
The same day she quit, a wealthy friend lent her some money, and shortly after she got three lucrative singing jobs. The money allowed her to travel to the auditions that resulted in this winter's busy season of engagements. A devout Christian, she sees this as a sign that God answered her prayers. "It is so profound. It is something I asked God for."
Interestingly, for a person who has nourished two distinct talents, Jones finds that the Strauss opera she'll be singing this weekend "shows two parts of ourselves: the part that wants to die (Ariadne) and the past that says, oh well, life goes on (Zerbinetta)...The opera helps us realize how to live in between."
In her own case, Jones is relishing the risky path she has taken, though, as she says, "I miss the babies!
"Opportunity only comes because you're ready. I feel I haven't even begun yet. I'm very thrilled and excited. I'm in a very good place."
Arizona Opera presents Ariadne auf Naxos at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, January 16 and 17, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, January 19, at the TCC Music Hall, 260 S. Church Ave. Carmella Jones will sing the role of Prima Donna/Ariadne at the Thursday and Sunday performances; Caroline Whisnant will sing the part on Friday. The Phoenix Symphony accompanies the cast of 17 principals. Kenneth Ryan gives a lecture free to ticket holders one hour before the concerts. Tickets, priced from $14 to $56, are available at Dillard's (1-800-638-4253), the TCC box office (791-4836) and at Centennial Hall. For more information call 622-8904.
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