illustration by Steve Brodner

The Real Sopranos of Fort Worth (Opera)

These artists can't help but be dramatic. A new reality show hopes to exploit that.

The squat, sand-colored brick house doesn’t exactly look like the garret in Puccini’s La Bohéme, but it is no less a setting for a dramatic story about struggling young artists. Tucked away in a nondescript subdivision on the outskirts of Fort Worth—the sort of half-built development that makes the B-reel of news reports on foreclosures—the house is shared by three opera singers in the Fort Worth Opera’s Young Artist Program. They also star in a new reality TV show concept called Lone Star Opera. The show is the brainchild of Dallas-based Abernethy Media Professionals. Producers had the idea for the show after they bumped into a few opera singers in an airport bar and were surprised how fun and energetic (rather than proper and stuffy) they were. Their idea won first place at a television show pitch contest in Las Vegas, and an industry agent is now shopping the show to interested networks. 

It is not your typical subject or setting for the next reality TV hit. The home looks decidedly more Wife Swap than MTV’s The Real World: Fort Worth Opera. Inside the house there are stacks of DVDs, a bowl near the kitchen sink with remnants of popcorn, and a half-eaten batch of cookies still on the baking sheet. Shoes and flip-flops are scattered about the living room floor. Mezzo-soprano Ashley Kerr, who is in her second year with the Young Artist Program, admits that the dirty pot in the sink is bothering her. Her roommate, soprano Courtney Ross, left it there.

A few small indicators, however, point to something else going on here: a piano in the otherwise empty front room, walls bare save for three posters from the Fort Worth Opera’s upcoming festival season: Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love, and Jorge Martin’s Before Night Falls. Kerr has just arrived home after a morning rehearsing the role of Zerlina in Don Giovanni. It is the kind of opportunity that drove her to the Young Artist Program—a role in a production that will see her onstage with singers such as Michael Todd Simpson, Tom Corbeil, David Portillo, and Donna Anna, artists who have performed at the Metropolitan Opera, the San Francisco Opera, and the Lyric Opera of Chicago. But there is also something a little bittersweet about the part. After singing Zerlina, Kerr’s two-year contract with the Fort Worth Opera is up. In June, she’ll set out without a job or agent, off to navigate the competitive world of professional opera.

And here’s why the reality TV show Lone Star Opera has so much promise. Opera singers, like most aspiring theatrical artists, are dynamic, gregarious, and hardworking. Kerr admits to the diva reputation. “We don’t know where the stage fantasy ends and real life begins,” she says. The life of an opera singer is also one that is lived on the road, with singers rarely staying in one place for more than a month. It is a competitive world, and if there’s an environment that reality TV thrives in, it is a pressure cooker. 

“Show-mances happen all the time,” Kerr says. “People get lonely on the road. You’re away from your family. You are always meeting new people, and they are always fascinating. You are doing these passionate performances, and you have a hard time being like, ‘No, this person is not in love with me in real life, and I’m not really in love with them.’”

And drama doesn’t just follow singers offstage. “We will create drama just for the sake of entertainment,” Kerr says. “Like, I am single, and there is this trainer at the gym that I have a crush on. We went out for drinks and I met his friend and I ended up dating his friend. And I’m like, ‘Why am I doing this?’ So we can have this huge fight, and they can fight over me, and they won’t be friends anymore, and someone will die.”

Young artist programs also represent a crucial moment in the dramatic arc of young singers’ careers. If they have success in a program, they have the chance to be noticed, find an agent, and take the next big step into professional opera. If that story line doesn’t play out, it’s on to plan B.

Kerr doesn’t like to talk about plan B (if the singing doesn’t work out, she may pursue a career in vocal therapy). Some singers, she says, give themselves an age deadline after which they will give up the dream. Kerr is taking a different approach. At 28, she’s switching from mezzo-soprano to soprano, on the advice of several, including a judge at a recent Metropolitan Opera vocal competition. After Fort Worth, Kerr will spend a summer at Fort Worth Opera general director Darren Woods’ Seagle Music Colony in Upstate New York, working on the vocal transition. Then she will move to New York City with her housemate Jonathan Blalock. 

“I’m taking a huge chance with this,” she says. “It could work perfectly, and I can get noticed, and I could be huge. Or it could be the end of my career.”

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