University of Houston first-year graduate student Kanisha Feliciano had to prepare for more than one challenge at the 2018 Mondavi Center Young Artists Competition. She had to perfect four American art songs, fly to Los Angeles and perform before a group of unreadable judges. One would imagine singing was the most challenging aspect of this experience, but Feliciano, one of only eight finalists selected to advance to the final round, says that finances have been the biggest hurdle.
“I think an obstacle a lot of singers face is money,” Feliciano says. “Being able to pay for lessons, applying for programs, schooling and voice lessons is really expensive.”
Feliciano, who majors in vocal performance at the Moores School of Music (MSM), learned about the Mondavi competition through her mentor Melanie Sonnenberg, a critically acclaimed opera singer and UH professor of voice who prepares students for national contests.
Sonnenberg sends information about contests and grants to her students, but the rest is up to them. Feliciano was excited to apply and, even though she knew it wouldn’t be easy, she was determined.
“I just always found a way to make it work, and I’ve been lucky,” Feliciano says, recalling the part-time retail jobs, her work in churches and freelance gigs over the years. “Anything I can get my hands on to become a singer.”
Sonnenberg expresses a similar sentiment while describing the lengths students must go to if they wish to participate in a singing contest. “When you’re competing, you have to pay an application fee and travel to the competition at your own cost,” she explains. “Sometimes, you have to pay for a pianist, too, and it can become costly. There are very few students flush with extra money.”
Still, getting there is just the first step. Successful opera singers need what Sonnenberg calls “the full package.”
“It takes more than a voice, more than a look,” Sonnenberg says. “Whether it’s classical singing or musical theatre, we define ‘the package’ by asking: Do they have a unique sound? Skillful musicianship and acting? Do they possess the drive, determination and persistence needed to excel?”
Sonnenberg says Feliciano has it: a unique voice, accelerated growth and stage personality. Nonetheless, Feliciano admits that if Christian McGee, a UH pianist who agreed to come to L.A. and perform with her at the semi-finals, was not available, she wouldn’t have been able to do the audition in the first place.
Luckily, UH provides financial aid resources to students through scholarships and employment prospects. MSM routinely considers auditioning students for scholarship funds, pending met requirements, and offers a number of scholarships, fellowships and other related opportunities, which gives students the chance to go after their dreams and succeed.
Feliciano says, “If music is what you want to do for the rest of your life, pursue it relentlessly.”