By Marissa Carney
In seventh grade, Sheriece Veazey was in a school production called The Secret Life of Girls. She remembers it being an awful show, but also that it sparked her love for the stage. She thought maybe she’d be an actress someday.
Two years later, she discovered she could sing as well as act. She thought maybe she’d make a career in musical theatre.
Then she came to Penn State Altoona and met Bonnie Cutsforth-Huber who told her she was meant to be a classical singer.
Now, Veazey sees dozens of doors in front of her, and she is excited to open all of them.
At first, Veazey says she was unnerved by the idea of singing classical music. But she put all of her trust in Cutsforth-Huber, associate professor of music, and forged ahead. “I knew I wanted to do this classical music thing, but I was also intimidated because people train for this all of their lives, and I was just starting. But Doc (Cutsforth-Huber) believed in me, so I went for it.”
She was in for a bit of surprise. Eight months into her time at Altoona, Veazey attended the Summer School for Solo Voice in Canada, and that was where she understood exactly what it was going to take to be a classical singer. “I just thought it was learning music and auditioning. But so much time and work is put into it. You’re working with an accompanist or a duet partner or in a choir, so you have to be respectful of everyone’s time. You also have to know your music because other people are affected if you don’t. I left the Summer School and realized this is the real deal, and I’m never going to get anywhere if I’m not professional about it at all times.”
Veazey worked hard, determined to meet the goals and expectations she set for herself. She received solos in Penn State Altoona’s Ivyside Pride choir performances, and she sang at Avery Fisher and Carnegie Halls under professional conductor Bruce Chamberlain. She took voice lessons and slowly started gaining confidence in her talent. Though there was never that one breakthrough moment, she says there were times when she was practicing or about to perform where she felt quite thrilled with her accomplishments. “I thought, this is what I worked so hard for, this is real. I’m being the musician I want to be. I knew how far I’d come already, and I was learning to take myself seriously as a classical singer.”
An unexpected and incredible opportunity soon presented itself to Veazey: a break into the professional world of classical singing. Cutsforth-Huber recommended her for a part in Amici Opera’s production of The Huguenots. As friends with Ralph Tudisco, director of the Philadelphia company, Cutsforth-Huber was sure he would be pleased with Veazey for the part of Valentina. “I knew Sheriece was ready to take the very big step of going from a vocal performance student to an actual production. This company expects its singers to show up with everything learned and characters deciphered because there are very few rehearsals. I knew Sheriece could handle the challenge, and I knew Ralph would not only be impressed by the beauty of Sheriece’s voice, but her intelligence, work ethic, and dedication, as well.”
Veazey was blown away by the recommendation and the offer when it came through, not to mention extremely nervous. “I couldn’t believe that Ralph went on Bonnie’s word alone. That put so much pressure on me. She’s amazing, and I wanted to live up to her expectations. I was terrified.”
Veazey received the music in November of her senior year. Performances would take place in May. “I got the score and started highlighting my parts, and it was 200 pages of music. I thought it was going to be a small part, but I was literally the lead. The music was unlike anything I’d ever done, but I refused to back down.” The cast would be singing the Italian version of the original French opera, so Veazey struggled a bit with the translation and the complicated nature of the music. She tried to learn all of it as quickly as possible, and two days after graduation, where she received a degree in integrative arts with a concentration in vocal performance, Veazey hopped in her car and drove the four hours to Philly for one of only two production rehearsals. “I had gone all of that time without meeting Ralph. I was very concerned with him not knowing who I am, my voice, what I sound like. The first time we met was nerve-wracking, and I hoped that I was what he expected.”
Veazey showed up, they started from the top with a music rehearsal, added entrances and exits, then ran the whole show. She came back a week later for the second rehearsal. She had another week to practice on her own after that, then it was show time. “I never adapted so fast. I didn’t ask for a lot of help because I thought that I needed to learn this myself. If I was lost, I tried to figure it out on my own. I was really independent and that felt good, even though I was terrified a lot of the time.”
After the final performance, Veazey asked Tudisco if he was disappointed in anything she had done. In fact, he was so pleased with Veazey that he asked her back to do a performance of King Lear in August.
Cutsforth-Huber could not be happier with Veazey. “I am so proud of what Sheriece has accomplished. Since Penn State Altoona does not have a music program, Sheriece and I had to go ‘outside of the box’ for opportunities that would help her gain experience in operatic performance. She had the courage and confidence to do that, and her first experience in doing so turned out brilliantly!”
The whirlwind six months of Veazey’s life leading up to The Huguenots and the culmination of performances taught her a lot about herself and her capabilities. She knows that she’s a talented singer with a lot of potential. “While I was doing The Huguenots, I thought it would always be like that, feeling lost and nervous all of the time. But I realized that what I did was probably the hardest thing I would ever do. I know it’s okay to be scared, that I can still perform well.” She also learned how to approach a score and her acting so she wouldn’t get so overwhelmed. Instead of just trying to pound out notes and language, she found sections of the music she really loved and worked from there to learn her part. She learned how to work through feelings of inadequacy and to persevere.
Veazey plans to move to Kansas City, Missouri, with her husband and audition for the University of Missouri’s vocal performance graduate program at the beginning of 2018. Should she be accepted for fall 2018, she will be thrilled, but she says if it doesn’t work out, she will be able to do many other things. “I could still try to perform or be a choir musician or a music aide. I also love jazz music, so I could do something with that, or I could teach voice lessons.” Veazey wants to get as much experience as possible to continue building her resume and her confidence. She’s happy with her accomplishments and work ethic, and is looking forward to whatever comes next. “I feel like this was all a bit of a test for me. Yes, I could sing arias from operas and I could do staged performances, but my experience with Philadelphia Opera has shown me that that is what I want to do. It was so hard, but so worth it. I’m just really proud of myself.”
Update April 6, 2018: Veazy was accepted into the University of Missouri’s program and will begin her graduate studies in fall 2018.