Natalie Lewis, BHS Class of 2017, competed in and won the 35th annual Eleanor McCollum Competition for Young Singers at the Houston Grand Opera (HGO) Concert of Arias on Friday, Jan. 27.
The annual competition, at one of the top opera houses in the country, draws applications from around the world. From the more than 900 applicants, 14 semifinalists were invited to Houston for further auditions, which judges narrowed down to eight artists who prepared intensely for the competition program. Each finalist, ranging from a bass from Armenia to a soprano from Cincinnati, performed two arias during the concert.
Lewis, a mezzo-soprano, performed Benjamin Britten’s “Give Him This Orchid” from The Rape of Lucretia, and Gaetano Donizetti’s “Fia dunque vero…O mio Fernando” from La favorita, in front of an audience at the Houston Wortham Center. The performance was also live streamed and can be watched on YouTube (Lewis performs around 1 hour and 10 minutes and 1 hour and 32 minutes into the program.)
Lewis’s performance not only won the Online Viewer Choice award by the live stream audience, but the panel of professional judges named her the 2023 Concert of Arias first place winner. With the honor comes a $10,000 cash prize. Singers are vying not only for the opportunity to win the competition, but also to be considered for the HGO young artist training program, a prestigious year long program that includes coaching, lessons in movement and acting, mentorship, support, and the opportunity to perform on the main stage with the world renowned opera house.
Lewis grew up a military kid moving frequently around the country, but spent her last two years of high school at Bedford High School when her father was stationed with the Coast Guard at Hanscom. (The Bedford Citizen wrote about Natalie and her sister Tracie in 2016.)
Lewis said after moving around so much, she was always able to find friends by being involved in music and performing arts.
“Meeting people and collaborating” is one of her favorite parts of studying and practicing music. “To be a part of a group of many different people working towards a common goal is really fulfilling,” she said.
In her first year in Bedford, Lewis played the role of Fairy Godmother in the BHS Spring Musical production of Cinderella. She said it was the first role that she sang classically as opposed to purely musical theater. The teachers in the high school took note.
Katrina Faulstich, BHS Choral and Theater teacher, said “Natalie immediately made an impression on us with her incredible voice, ability to sing different genres of music, and her passion for all things performing arts. She was in jazz band, marching band, and theater in addition to choir class and a cappella groups.”
Lewis said that Faulstich, Evan Grunwald, Brianna Creamer, Jim Felker, and Katherine Parker really started encouraging her. They told her that she “had a voice for singing.” She started to believe it. She said, “I know that I wouldn’t be as into music or gotten as far as I am without them telling me I could do it.”
During her senior year at BHS, Natalie started taking music seriously and began taking voice lessons for the first time. Through lessons with Parker, Lewis started exploring more styles of music, including opera, and began to think about and prepare for auditions for post secondary programs in music.
Lewis received her bachelor’s degree in music with a concentration in vocal performance from UMass Amherst in 2021. In her sophomore year at UMass she performed in a cappella groups, in the UMass opera, and spent that summer in Gatz, Austria for an intensive opera training program with AIMS (American Institute of Musical Studies), before the pandemic added restrictions to a good portion of her college music experience.
Still, she was able to remotely audition for graduate programs with a house cat skittering around in the background of zoom and is now in her final semester of a two-year master’s degree program in music at The Julliard School in New York City. Much of her time at Julliard is spent meeting coursework requirements, rehearsing, being coached for gigs, auditions, and competitions, and in general putting in the hard work required to pursue a professional music career. In her free time, the 24-year-old goes out with friends, walks in nearby Central Park, and attends performances of all kinds around NYC and at Julliard.
Natalie participated in the Young Artists Vocal Academy at the Houston Grand Opera in the Summer of 2021. She learned a lot of things and was “forced to really up [her] game, focus, and take it even more seriously.” She said that it was one of her “greatest musical experiences.” The Houston opera scene felt good and left such an impact that returning to Houston has become a goal and a place where she hopes to see herself pursuing opera further.
She committed to that goal, and has worked extremely hard with daily rehearsals, coaching, and preparation with Julliard faculty. It’s not easy “to pursue an art form that is vulnerable,” and try to balance “being in the moment” and staying true to herself as an artist, while also trying to perform with excellence at a professional level. “You never know what the judges will be looking for or will see.”
She’s found her acting for singers class helpful, empowering, and challenging as she learns to push past her comfort zone and vulnerabilities and figure out what internal factors are creating the boundaries of that comfort zone.
“Learning to be vulnerable on stage, digging deep to think and be with those thoughts in order to appreciate the music,” is Lewis’s other favorite part of being in music. She is taking the skills practiced in class and trying to make them lessons learned to express herself with her music. She often reminds herself that to be fulfilling and fun, “it doesn’t necessarily have to be perfect.”
Faulstich said of Natalie’s time in high school, “She was humble and a joy to work with because of her personality and her work ethic.” This still holds true, because when it came time for the Concert of Arias competition, Lewis said she was surprised when they announced her name.
Faulstich added, “We knew she had something special going on with her music abilities in high school, but since then I have witnessed her get better and better. Winning first prize in the Houston Grand Opera Concert of Arias is truly a big deal and an important reflection of all the hard work she has put into honing her craft.”
Natalie Lewis posts her upcoming performances on her Instagram account and Facebook page and will have a website coming this spring.
Wonderful story! Glad she had the same kind of support from Bedford High music teachers that many of us did decades ago!