When singer Alea Vernon sits down with a piece of music, she sees more than letters and notes on a page. Interwoven in the words and structure, there is an art form that she can make her own before an audience.
In the minutes leading up to taking the stage, she is more excited than nervous to share her passion.
“The hours we (singers) put in, it all culminates in a piece of art that we get to give to someone. I’ve been in an audience and have had someone give me something incredible,” explained Vernon, a 2017 Cheshire High School graduate. “If I reach just one person in a crowd, that is a win for me because that is someone who needs it.”
Vernon feels that all of her experiences from Cheshire to Europe have shaped her into the artist she is today. The coronavirus pandemic has impacted her schedule this year, but she is still working to realize her dream of becoming a professional opera singer.
“I love opera or, as we call it, ‘doing the thing,’ said Vernon. “You don’t choose it, it chooses you. It is a magnetism to the activity.”
In what she calls a life-changing experience, Vernon earned her first full opera role back in April, but due to the pandemic, she is waiting to perform it. As an undergraduate at the University of Cincinnati Conservatory of Music in Ohio, she was cast as the Queen of the Night in the German opera “Die Zauberflote.” In the production, the Queen rescues the character, Tamino, and then asks him to bring her daughter, Pamina, back from Priest Sarastro, but in the process, Tamino decides to go against his mother and helps keep Pamina safe.
“It (the Queen) is a really big role,” said Vernon. “I came into the audition with a lot of fear and conversations of if I can do this.”
Of the six pieces that she offered to the production, Vernon was asked to record three takes in a row.
“The hardest part of (recording) is that you don’t have the adrenaline of being in front of a crowd,” explained Vernon. “The best part of art is that it is flawed. You usually can’t press rewind.”
Next spring, Vernon hopes to perform her pivotal role for a live audience. In calling herself a perfectionist, she feels that she can count on one hand how many times she has left a performance satisfied with everything.
“I’m my harshest critic in the practice room. We all are, but when I get on stage, I throw all of those (negative) thoughts out,” said Vernon.
While she enjoys learning in the classroom, Vernon was happy to get an inside look at her favorite profession last year at the Brevard Music Center in North Carolina. Each summer, the center selects 30 singers to make up the Janiec Opera Company.
In a busy schedule, Vernon learned in movement and masters classes and rehearsals from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.
“You get tired,” said Vernon. “It is a lot of work, but I wouldn’t change it for anything in the world.”
Vernon loves that opera combines multiple art forms, including singing and acting. She appreciates how much work goes into creating the costumes and sets.
“We live and breathe our scores, but the conductor will know every note that the musicians have. The orchestra also plays a key role,” explained Vernon.
In another unique opportunity last year, she was invited to Miami, Florida, to attend National YoungArts Foundation Week in Miami, Florida. Vernon was slotted in the Voice/Classical/Soprano category.
“I was named a finalist, which is the highest award you can win,” said Vernon. “I got to perform before the biggest crowd I’ve seen at New World Center. It was amazing.”
While having been recognized for her voice, Vernon actually started her musical experience as a violinist at age 4.
“I loved classical music from the start,” reflected Vernon.
Her vocal talent was discovered while visiting the 2013 New York Summer Music Festival in Oneonta, New York. Vernon was looking to practice on her instrument, but after working with coaches, she was offered the opportunity to both play violin and sing opera.
“There were two professors there who found my voice. They changed my life and trajectory,” recalled Vernon.
After coming home, Vernon still took violin lessons and taught other people, but soon felt that singing was her true calling.
“I loved the music, but I didn’t want to practice. You need to spend five or six hours in a room and you only have so many hours in a day,” Vernon explained. “Looking back, playing violin gave me so much knowledge and made me the singer I am.”
Vernon started out performing the National Anthem before Cheshire Junior Football games in eighth grade.
“From the first time I sang that song, it all clicked for me,” reflected Vernon.
From there, she started working with instructor Jamilyn Manning-White for two years in New Haven.
“It was really focused training,” reflected Vernon. “I learned the basics like reading vowels and singing with words.”
Along with practicing locally, she also looked at schools in New York. Before her freshman year at CHS, she applied for the Manhattan and Juilliard pre-college programs.
“I didn’t get into Juilliard on my first try, but I was accepted at Manhattan,” said Vernon. “In my freshman year, I was going to New York every Saturday for classes.”
When she was accepted at Juilliard one year later, Vernon had to travel on Mondays and Wednesdays after school at CHS. She also kept up her Saturday program at Manhattan.
“It was a really tough schedule. At the time, I didn’t realize how hard it was because I was young and had adrenaline,” explained Vernon. “I love New York. It is my favorite city.”
She feels that her Juilliard senior recital is one of her all-time best performances.
“I had an hour-long list of songs to make my own. It was a lot of work,” recalled Vernon. “There were moments that weren’t perfect, but that experience changed me.”
Vernon loved how the pre-college programs allowed her to work with students from around the country. To this day, she believes that you learn the most by watching other people and adds that there is no prouder moment than seeing one of her friends shine.
“The people you meet in music and the arts become more than friends, they become your family,” stated Vernon.
While taking classes in New York, Vernon enjoyed showcasing her skills by singing the National Anthem at CHS football and basketball games.
“I wasn’t sure where I fit in at Cheshire because I had this niche passion and not a lot of people did what I did,” explained Vernon. “(Football) Coach (Don) Drust made sure that I was part of that team when I sang. If I had not done that, I don’t know where I would be today.”
Vernon was also grateful for the faculty and administration helping to work with her busy schedule. She participated in musicals as an underclassman, but when she decided to stop as a junior, she received support from English teacher Dawn DeMeo.
“I love Broadway and theatre, but it isn’t my passion,” said Vernon.
Like at CHS, Vernon was appreciative of how her family let follow her dream growing up. In 2017, she traveled to Italy to perform in the Casentino Festival.
“I had been abroad before that for a school trip, but that was the first time that I had gone alone,” recalled Vernon. “I give my parents all of the credit in the world. When I found my calling, they said, ‘This is your dream and how can we help?’”
In Italy, she got a lot of practice speaking Italian.
“Most people didn’t speak English and I learned so much from being in the culture,” explained Vernon. “On the weekends when we did concerts, it was something that the locals looked forward to. It was great to be somewhere where opera is appreciated.”
Being in a supportive environment is one of the reasons why Vernon chose to attend the University of Cincinnati. In 2017, she decided to graduate a semester early from CHS, so that she could enroll in her new school.
“Cincinnati has a phenomenal program,” said Vernon. “As an undergrad, it is important to work on your vocal technique. From there, you can build on expression for the rest of your life.”
Prior to the pandemic, she was doing a college or independent performance every week.
“Cincinnati has a big music community,” said Vernon. “They have an opera house.”
For months, Vernon has been working on her skills in anticipation of getting to safely audition and perform again.
“As artists, we are all thinking outside the box. Everyone is reshaping what they are doing to be ready to be back on stage,” stated Vernon.