Opera Star Inspires Classical Teens in Huntsville

Guitarist Travis Johnson

Travis Johnson's older brothers and sisters all play musical instruments; he chose to play guitar, just like his grandfather. From the Top hide caption

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Natalie Ballenger

Natalie Ballenger knows she wants to make singing her career. From the Top hide caption

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Carter Pelham

Carter Pelham isn't just an outstanding pianist; the recent high school grad was also captain of his school's Academic Team and also got a perfect score on the ACT. From the Top hide caption

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Travis Johnson & Angela Brown

Teen guitarist Travis Johnson accompanies renowned soprano Angela Brown in a performance of the traditional "Ev'ry Time I Feel the Spirit." From the Top hide caption

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Bassoonist Kian Anderson

Kian Andersen, 16, says she practices her bassoon three to four hours a day. From the Top hide caption

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In Huntsville, Alabama, From the Top's gifted young musicians include a bassoonist who tests the limit of her instrument, a pianist with a phenomenal memory, a 13-year-old guitarist with a work especially composed for him and a teenage soprano who uses her substantial voice for both singing and cheering. This week, the accomplished opera singer Angela Brown performs with two of the young musicians.

Sixteen-year-old Kian Andersen discovered her passion for music while indulging in another interest: competitive swimming.

"While swimming, I would listen to fast-paced rock songs, and the driving melodies would give me the burst of energy I needed," she recalls. "That's when I first discovered the power of music, and my desire to play it, and this led me to the bassoon. I fell in love with its rich and hearty tone."

Andersen practices for three to four hours a day and plays in the Huntsville Youth Orchestra as well as a woodwind chamber group. She performs music from Georg Philipp Telemann's Sonata in F Minor.

Guitarist Travis Johnson, 13, comes from a big musical family. He's the youngest of four kids, all of whom are musicians.

"My brother, Ben, plays electric and standup bass, my sister, Andrea (who was also on From the Top's radio show), plays piano, and my brother, Tanner, plays violin," he explains.

Johnson's grandfather played guitar, and Johnson decided to follow in his footsteps. The young guitarist's family has a unique way of helping him prepare for music competitions.

"Tanner, Andrea, Ben and my mom will pretend to be scary judges," says Johnson. "I'll play my piece, and they'll whisper to each other and scratch on their notepads, trying to distract me. It's helped me to learn how to be more relaxed while competing and performing."

Johnson performs "Boppin," composed for him by Bryan Johanson.

Given his musical talent, one might think Carter Pelham, 18, comes from a long line of musicians. He's actually the first member of his family to take up an instrument.

"I'm not exactly sure how I first got interested in piano," he says. "I think when I was around four, my mom enrolled me in group lessons and my interest just progressed from there." Even then, it was clear that Pelham was musically inclined.

"My parents tell me that the teacher would assign two or three songs for us to learn and I'd go home and learn the whole book," he recalls. "Practicing was never a struggle for me."

Pelham performs Franz Liszt's "Un Sospiro" from Three Concert Etudes.

Performing has always felt natural to Natalie Ballenger.

"When I was little I used to dress up and dance around the living room, putting on shows for my parents, whether they liked it or not," she says.

The 17-year-old from Santa Cruz, Calif., wants to make a career of singing. "It lets extroverts like myself do what we do best," she says.

She sings "Miranda" by Richard Hageman.

This program originally aired Nov. 15, 2006

Soprano Angela Brown's Long Journey to Stardom

Sopranos Natalie Ballenger and Angela Brown

Angela Brown (left) and Natalie Ballenger sing a duet by Mozart. From the Top hide caption

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When soprano Angela Brown made her Metropolitan Opera debut in October of 2004, she was hailed by one critic as "the future of opera," and she has continued to live up to her overwhelming critical acclaim.

Angela tells the story of how she went from winning the 1997 National Metropolitan Opera Council Auditions to singing the title role in Aida:

"I actually competed in the Met Council Auditions four times. The fourth time I said to myself, 'Well, they can't hurt my feelings by saying no anymore.' I was walking around with 'no' like he was my man. We were getting along real well... But then 'yes' came along and I threw 'no' out the window!

A lot of people think that once you win the Metropolitan Opera Council auditions that you immediately have performances on the Met stage, but that wasn't the case for me. It wasn't until 2000, when I auditioned again for the main stage, that they offered me understudy roles of Aida and Ariadne.

What happened was this: I went to the first audition and they gave me a callback. Then I went to the second callback, and I remember asking for some water and one of the adjudicators saying, 'If you keep singing like that, sister, you can have anything you want!' So then I had a third callback, and this one was with the big music coach at the Met. I sang through my pieces, and he coached me and fixed things, and then he said, 'Thank you' and started putting away his things, getting ready to go.

So I said to him, 'Excuse me. What does that mean?' in my most humble voice. He replied, 'It was fine, someone will be with you.' I was like, 'But excuse me, what does that mean — because if you hire me, I'll make you proud!' I looked up at him with puppy dog eyes, and he looked down at me and said, 'I think you just might.' And from that audition I wound up covering two seasons at the Met.

During the second season I was covering Aida for a colleague of mine, and she had gotten sick and asked me to cover the Sitzprobe for her (that's the big orchestra rehearsal you have before going into costumes and staging).

Because I was an understudy I had my own cover rehearsal later that day, so needless to say I was spent at the end of the day.

On the train, on my way home that night, something said to me, 'You didn't turn on your phone,' so I turned it on, and it started shaking and jingling, and I picked up the receiver, and all I could hear was my agent hollering, 'Angela, Angela! What did you do? The Met called and offered you two performances and twelve covers for 2004-5 season!' And I was like, 'Thank you, Jesus!' I did a good old gospel shout right there on the train!"

Brown returns to the Metropolitan Opera to sing the role of Amelia in Verdi's Un Ballo en Maschera in the 2007-08 season.

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