SFOpera - ‘What You Have, Nobody Else Has:’ How Soprano Michelle Bradley Learned to Embrace Her Voice

‘What You Have, Nobody Else Has:’ How Soprano Michelle Bradley Learned to Embrace Her Voice

Michelle Bradley

At school, she was the girl with the crooked teeth, the one the other kids teased and taunted. To spare herself the bullying, she kept her mouth shut.

“I didn’t talk at all until I got home,” soprano Michelle Bradley explains. “I was getting picked on a lot at school. And so I just stopped talking. Until I could get braces, I just didn’t talk in public.”

But in the afternoons, before her parents returned from work, Bradley would retreat into her sanctuary: her bedroom’s walk-in closet. There, with the door closed, Bradley would sing, without fear that anyone would hear her or judge her.

One day, though, her singing would no longer be a secret. One day, it would grace stages around the world, making her one of today’s most buzzed-about up-and-coming opera stars

Growing up in Versailles, Kentucky, Bradley remembers her mother received free CDs in the mail, with songs from Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, and The Clark Sisters, a gospel group from Detroit. Bradley loved them all. But there was one singer who inspired her the most: superstar Whitney Houston.

“She was my idol. That’s who I was trying to be as a little girl,” Bradley says.

In those early years, she would tally the ways she and Houston were alike—they shared a birth month, a Zodiac sign—just to feel a little closer to the superstar. And when the movie The Bodyguard came out, with Houston in the starring role, Bradley watched it over and over.

But trying to sing big, powerful ballads like Houston did in a closet made discretion difficult. Bradley had three brothers, two older and one younger. And like many a pesky sibling, Bradley’s younger brother was all too eager to spill the beans on his sister’s secret hobby.

“Mom, Dad, Tammy likes to sing in the closet! Tammy likes to sing in the closet,” she remembers him shouting, using the name she’s called at home.

Even with her parents, Bradley only spoke when spoken to. She was shy. Her parents could hardly believe she had a secret pastime singing. They called her into the living room and asked her to perform something. Naturally, Bradley chose a Houston song: “I Love the Lord” from The Preacher’s Wife.

“After that, my parents had me up singing at church services and everything else,” Bradley says. “It just started from there.”

Bradley had shown musical talent even from a young age. At Kmart, while her mother did the shopping, an 8-year-old Bradley would park herself in the aisle with all the musical equipment: “That was back when they had all the keyboards sitting out and had them all plugged up. Ooh, that was fun!”

She had no problem finding the keys to play the theme songs for kids’ shows like Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock. “I really don’t know how I did it,” Bradley says. “I loved my little cartoons, and so I would hear that and then I could sing it or play it. I just needed to hear it, and I had it.”

Neither of Bradley’s parents had studied music, but both loved to sing. They had met during the civil rights movement in the 1960s, two of the first Black students to integrate their Kentucky high school. Bradley’s father passed her mother a note that read, “I want to be your man.” They sang together in church choirs ever since they started dating.

It was with their help that Bradley started to overcome her shyness. Her father, a police officer, was a deacon at Polk Memorial Baptist Church. Her mother continued to sing in the church choir. Bradley started by learning to play services with the church pianist. By high school, she could carry a whole service.

And when, at age 14 or 15, she started singing in public, Bradley’s parents were always there, cheering her on. “Honestly, that’s who I would focus on when I was singing. I would look at them if I got nervous. So that helped me a lot. They helped me a lot.”

Soon, Bradley had the confidence to sing at school pep rallies and Christmas parties. “When I started doing that, when I started singing at school, people stopped picking on me. I was going from, ‘Hey, a crooked-tooth girl’ to ‘Hey, can you come sing for us?’”

It was the start of something great. Bradley would go on to graduate from the Metropolitan Opera’s prestigious Lindemann Young Artist Development Program. Her voice won her awards galore—from the Leonie Rysanek Award to the grand prize at the Marilyn Horne Song Competition—and she toured Europe, performing in great opera houses from Berlin to Vienna to Paris and beyond.

Now, she’s taking the U.S. by storm. This past fall, she starred as the heroine Liù in the Metropolitan Opera’s Turandot, and in March, she makes her debut with the Lyric Opera of Chicago as the title character in Tosca. Then, she joins San Francisco Opera for its Centennial Season, making her inaugural appearance in the company’s Dialogues of the Carmelites.

In a recent interview, Bradley offers a glimpse into her process for preparing roles—and shares the advice she would give young singers today.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: I hear that you're in Houston. What takes you to there?

MICHELLE BRADLEY: My voice teacher lives here. Her name is Lois Alba. Actually, I'm preparing to sing my first Tosca at Chicago Lyric Opera in March, but rehearsals start in February. And I want to work out any kinks and just really keep it fresh.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Tosca! I mean, that’s one of the most recognizable names in theater, much less opera. So many greats have played this role. How do you keep it fresh?

BRADLEY: I don't listen to any recordings. Early on, when I began learning it a few months back, I would of course listen to Maria Callas and many other sopranos, like Magda Olivero, just to get a foundation and an idea of what nuances to do, what were the proper things.

But then I just take it and I go with the words. I go by myself. I read the translation like it's a script. I find my own voice. I play through it in my mind: How would I, Michelle Bradley, play Tosca? How would I do this part? How do I want to kill Scarpia? Or how do I want to tell Cavaradossi to paint that woman's eyes black and make her look more like me?

It's just trying to come up with my own way. And I just have to keep out of my mind that Maria Callas has sung it and Leontyne Price and Éva Marton and Deborah Voigt and Sondra Radvanovsky, all these wonderful sopranos. Not to take away from what they've done — but just in order to find my own way. I don't want to copy anyone.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Are there any things that stick out to you about the character? Anything that you find you're relating to, or that you recognize in a certain way?

BRADLEY: How passionate she is. I'm pretty passionate. Most people see me as reserved, which I am. But I think it comes out when I'm on stage performing: that I am a very passionate person, and Tosca is the most passionate character I've ever gotten to play or sing. So that actually helps me loads.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: When did you decide that music was something you were going to pursue professionally?

BRADLEY: Growing up, I knew I wanted to have music in my life. I didn't know that I could actually make a living at it, outside of doing what Whitney Houston did—and I felt, “Well, I can't do that.”

So I was thinking, at best, that I'd be a music teacher or be a choir director at a church. But not until I got to college did I know that I could not only do it professionally, but that opera was what I wanted to do.

I was about 17, 18—in my freshman year of college. And my first voice teacher, Andrew Smith, introduced me to opera and told me about pursuing it professionally. He encouraged me to. He said I had the voice for it and told me all about the lifestyle and all the singers he knew. I just fell in love with it.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Do you remember the first opera you saw or the first opera that resonated with you?

BRADLEY: So the first opera I saw was Turandot, and it was on a VHS in Mr. Smith's office. It was a video recording and it was with Éva Marton as Turandot, Plácido Domingo as Calaf, and Leona Mitchell as Liù.

I fell in love with that music right away. Back when we had Walkmans, I got a tape recording of it and walked around campus, listening to it all the time. I immediately fell in love with it.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: It’s funny that that would be your first opera, since that's the opera that you'd go on to star in at the Met.

BRADLEY: Yeah. That was like coming full circle. I thought that to myself a lot. That's the first opera I ever saw, and now I'm singing in it.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: One thing that I read about you is that Mr. Smith gave you a CD of Leontyne Price’s Prima Donna Collection and that you kept it. Can you tell me about that—what you heard and why you decided, “This isn’t going back?”

BRADLEY: It was like when I was a little girl listening to Whitney Houston, except this was an opera singer. I heard that voice and I don't know what inside me said, “That's me. I can do that.” But hearing one of the greatest voices of our time, I said, “I can do that too.” I still, to this day, don't know where that came from. Or maybe I do know where it came from. But that was really my first thought: that I can do this. I can sound like that. It's like I found a home.

Growing up in church, yes, I sang in church and I liked to sing Whitney Houston and I liked Donna Summer. I like to do that in karaoke. But I knew that that really was not where my voice fit. I’m not a pop singer and I can't dance. I know I'm not a gospel singer because of certain things that gospel singers do that I don’t.

With opera, I just knew it. [Bradley snaps her fingers.] When I heard that CD and heard the beauty in her voice, first of all, I was so intrigued with it, but I just knew that that's where my voice fit. That's what I could do. And yes, I kept the CD.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Do you still have it? I know that you move a lot as an opera singer.

BRADLEY: I think it's in my storage at home back in Kentucky. But yeah, I move a lot.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Where were you when you started to see the pandemic take hold and reshape the arts industry?

BRADLEY: I was actually in Kentucky with my family, thankfully. It was the end of February of 2020, and I had planned to go home for about a week. And then I was going to fly to Switzerland to visit another colleague. Right before I was about to go to Switzerland, my colleague called and said, “Don't come. They’re starting to shut down the borders.”

What I thought was going to be just a little week-long visit ended up being eight or nine months. It was a little tough, in that I wasn't having any work. I didn't really know always what to do with myself. I just forced myself to learn, to look at different roles, even though I knew I wasn't going to be singing them.

Later that year I was lucky enough: One of my classmates ended up becoming the music director at Kentucky State University. And so I called them and I was able to come and practice while no one was at the school. That helped me a lot. And also a local church: One of the ministers, Reverend Green, helped me. He gave me a key to the church, and when no one was there, throughout the week, I'd go in the basement and practice.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: It must be hard to practice in a house with other people.

BRADLEY: My family was understanding, but I knew I couldn't keep that up. Plus my sister-in-law was working from home, and then, by the time my brother gets home from work, he wants to wind down and watch sports. I would try to sing in the garage or sing in a bathroom, but it just wasn't working.

Like I said, with those two people that helped me, I was able to find a place to practice. And that lifted my spirits more. It gave me something to look forward to every day. Because for a while, I didn't have anything to do. I was afraid to leave the house for the first three months, because I didn't know what this thing was. I heard about the coughing and the breathing issues, and I didn’t want anything messing with my voice.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: How does that affect your state of mind? Your emotions?

BRADLEY: I was depressed. There was a time that I was depressed. I was in my pajamas all day, every day, at times. But being with my family, I actually did better with them than I would have alone. There was a lot of love, always, at my family's home. And then I have a little niece who at the time was an infant. And so I had the pleasure of taking care of her at times. So I really enjoyed that.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: I read an article about you in the San Diego Tribune. You mentioned that your nephew is a little bit of a tech whiz and he helped you set up for recordings during the pandemic in the bathroom.

BRADLEY: Off and on, especially in the spring of 2020, I started to get requests to sing and do some virtual concerts or do a song virtually. And the bathroom had the best acoustics.

The main goal was just to keep the toilet out of the shot. And so my nephew was really good at that. It was a whole thing. We'd have a ladder in there and he'd have to put the iPad on the ladder. I'd be in there all dressed up in makeup, in full regalia, standing next to a toilet and trying to keep the fact that I was in a bathroom out of the video, which was really hard to do.

I'm glad that those days are behind me, though. I appreciate my nephew making me look good. He did a wonderful job. But I'm very glad to be back singing in front of a live audience.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: I can imagine!

BRADLEY: Because I was like, “I don't know if I can do this the rest of my life.”

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: It also seems like it legitimizes the stereotype about people singing in their showers. The acoustics really are the best in there.

BRADLEY: They really are.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Was there ever like a breakthrough moment for you where you felt that you'd arrived?

BRADLEY: Ooh. Well, I never think I've arrived. It sounds too definite. I think I'm always just trying to get to the next level. But the Met this year, I must say, was a huge. It was monumental for me because that's a dream come true.

I'm still coming down off the high from that. I was called in early because the other young lady was unwell and not able to perform it. I was supposed to actually have started a week later.

After that night, when I got home, I couldn't sleep for two days. That's how much I had put in to preparing it and thinking about it and worrying about it and wanting to do well. I didn't sleep for two days after that. I just couldn't relax enough. I couldn't believe that I'd done it.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Getting called up unexpectedly too. I mean, that's gotta be nerve-wracking.

BRADLEY: It was at first. But my older brother is a kind of my go-to guy for pep talks and stuff. He talked me down, calmed me down.

Then I went to Central Park, and it was a beautiful day, a beautiful, warm day. I went and walked around a little bit and enjoyed the nature and thought through my part. I knew my music, but I just rehearsed it again as I was walking. And then I was like, “Okay, I'm ready.” And I went.

I must say, I didn't get a lot of rehearsal time, but the conductor and my cast mates were wonderful. I hadn't even been on that stage and had to go out there and perform it. James Morris was Timur, and he would help me around the stage—where to go—while I had to look like I was helping him.

And the conductor Marco Armiliato was wonderful. We didn't get time to work out what we wanted to do with each other, so he just let me do my thing. I did my best to adhere to the music, of course.

Then my cast mates were great, funny, making me laugh backstage. It was really just a dream of an experience. Everything that you want to happen as an opera singer, it happened for me. So that's been one of my best moments up till now.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: When you look at like other singers that are coming up in the industry, what advice would you share with them?

BRADLEY: Trust yourself and don't compare, whatever you do. That's the worst thing you can do. That's worse than having a critic say something awful about you or hurtful. Don't compare yourself to anybody else.

Really know that what you have, nobody else has. That is the truth. I don't care how people might think you sound like so-and-so or whatever. The voice that you have is yours and yours only. And it will fit somewhere.

Get to know opera star Michelle Bradley by checking out her website or following her on social media. Bradley stars as Madame Lidoine in Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites, coming to the San Francisco Opera stage in fall 2022.

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