Opera buffs love to “discover” a new talent or be “in the house” when an exciting new star emerges. Patrons will have that opportunity when soprano Michelle Johnson, a fourth-year student at Philadelphia’s world-renowned Academy of Vocal Arts (AVA) makes her Opera Company of Philadelphia (OCP) debut in the title role of Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut,” playing at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Sts., April 20 — 29.
Johnson replaces Ermonela Jaho, who was forced to withdraw for medical reasons and said in a statement “The Opera Company of Philadelphia holds a special place for me, having performed Puccini roles at the Academy of Music since the start of my career, and I have long been looking forward to making my role debut in ‘Manon Lescaut’ for the appreciative audiences there. I am deeply saddened not to be coming there this spring, but I am not well and have to take a month off. I will be fine, but I must take care of my health right now. I hope that in the future I will be invited back to share more special performances, and I send my warmest wishes to my friends at the Opera Company, to my colleagues on stage, and to the wonderful audiences who have always been so supportive of my work.”
With Jaho’s services no longer available, OCP sought to enlist the considerable talents of Texas native Johnson, the 2011 Grand Prize Winner of the prestigious Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.
“I actually was in Houston singing ‘Il Trovatore’ with Opera in the Heights, and I received a phone call — a ‘215’ number, and I was like, ‘Oh my goodness! Someone’s calling me from Philly!’” Johnson explained recently during a rehearsal break. “So I answered, and they were like, ‘Hi! This is Opera Company of Philadelphia. The soprano that was supposed to sing ‘Manon Lescaut’ has become ill, and we were wondering if you would like to take on the challenge of this role.’ I was so stunned, I literally didn’t say anything for about two minutes, because I’m a fourth-year student at AVA (Academy of Vocal Arts) and I am ready to get out and about. I hear stories about how people get their big chance by someone else’s illness or their cancellation, and I really never thought it could happen to me, but it happens. So I said, ‘Can I have a day ... a full 24 hours to think about it? Because I have a big role coming up this summer.’ I’m doing ‘Aida’ with Glimmerglass Opera, so I was going to use this time once I returned to Philadelphia to start preparing more diligently on the ‘Aida,’ but this opportunity came and I just couldn’t pass it up.”
However, before ultimately making a decision about starring in the production, which will be directed by Michael Cavanagh and conducted by Corrado Rovaris, Johnson discussed the matter with her “go-to people” — her voice teacher, William “Bill” Stone and her internationally-acclaimed vocal coach, David Lofton, as well as Maestro Christofer Macatsoris, music director at the Academy of Vocal Arts. “I was very confident after speaking with them to accept, and of course I talked to The Big Guy Upstairs,” she added. “I said a good old prayer, and was like, ‘If this is for me ... you wouldn’t have given it to me if I couldn’t do it!’”
Once Johnson, who will sing Manon opposite tenor Thiago Arancam’s Des Grieux, decided to seize the opportunity, she fully embraced it. “[‘Manon Lescaut’] is not performed that often, so I was like, ‘This is it! If I’m going to make a big impression in the field, I can’t shy away from big opportunities or challenging opportunities. I have to go in there and go in there smart!’”
Even so, Johnson acknowledges that the role of Manon does have its challenges, both dramatically and vocally.
“Dramatically, it is very challenging because she is a very young person at the beginning with no cares in the world, then through the story line, she begins to grow more mature and older at such a fast pace,” Johnson explained. “That’s one of the challenges — that you have to portray someone so quickly, in such a small amount of time. Vocally, I think [the challenge] is stamina. Once she steps on the stage, she’s on the stage for the entire show.”
While preparing for her OCP debut has been “a whirlwind,” Johnson has high praise for the company saying, “Opera Company of Philadelphia, they were so warm and so welcoming ... and excited. They made me feel confident in myself because of how much faith they had in me to even think of me ... as a student, still.”
A student, yes ... technically, but as the 2011 Grand Prize Winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, Johnson’s name already carries a certain cachet. “I just think that people know who I am,” she said. “My name is on the radar, I guess you could say. I walk into auditions or competitions, and I kind of feel a little pressure because people are like, ‘Oh! It’s the girl who won last year at the MET.’ I just feel like my name is out there, which is awesome.”
As her Opening Night at the historic Academy of Music approaches, the charming and talented Johnson has a message for her prospective audience saying, “I want people to know how honored and grateful I am for this opportunity, because it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You can only make one debut, and to make a debut in such a powerful role with such a great company, I really am happy and grateful!” And who knows? One of those memorable moments that opera lovers covet just might materialize.
Performances of “Manon Lescaut,” performed in Italian with English translations, take place Friday, April 20 at 8 p.m.; Sunday, April 22 at 2:30 p.m.; Wednesday, April 25 at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, April 27 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, April 29 at 2:30 p.m. For tickets and information call Ticket Philadelphia at (215) 893-1018 or visit www.operaphila.org.