I love to sing. I have always sung and “will sing with my last breath.” In fact, I cannot remember a time when I did not sing. I sang my first solo, I Am a Beautiful Sunbeam, at the age of four to a captive audience of 300 people at church and announced afterwards that “when I grow up, I will be a singer.” But alas, what I dreamed of doing and what really happened were two very different things.
I went to college, majored in English, fell in love, got married, and became a High School English teacher. Still, I sang. I sang at church, at home, in school, at weddings, at funerals, and even in the shower. And whenever I experienced pain or disappointment, “I would remind myself that I would be okay because I had a little piece of gold in my throat.” But my inner voice kept telling me “you have to sing!” So at the age of 30, after years of trying to make teaching work, I applied to The Juilliard School, auditioned, was accepted on full scholarship, quit my teaching job, and have spent the rest of my life singing professionally the title roles in such operas as Aida, Tosca, Norma, Butterfly from The New York City Opera to the Arena of Verona to the Pyramids of Egypt.
Q: It sounds almost like a fairy tale dream come true that you went from High School English teacher to acceptance by Juilliard to world-renowned opera singer. But I’m guessing it wasn’t as easy as that. What did it take for you to make your dream come true?
Awilda Verdejo: Fairy tales are just that – fairy tales. It is interesting that in a fairy tale the princess is always waiting to be rescued by the prince. In real life, and once again we are separating that from virtual life which is what most people deal in these days, if a dream is to be realized, it requires hard, serious work. What that meant for me is that I let go of comfort, financial security and status in order to pursue my dream. I gave up a secure teaching job, took on whatever jobs I could find to support my family and my dream and went back to school starting at square one to learn what singing was all about.
Q: You mentioned your “inner voice” kept telling you that you needed to sing. I think a lot of women also hear their inner voice telling them to do something, but we tend to discount that voice or don’t bother listening to it. What was it that made you finally listen to that inner voice at the age of 30? Because it was a pretty big risk you would be taking to begin a singing career at what, in that profession, would be considered a ripe, old age?
Awilda Verdejo: I believe that our “inner voice” which knows us better than we know ourselves, is very wise and wants only what will make us the best we can be so that we can be successful and fulfilled. When we listen to it, hear it, honor it, and act on it, we get on the path that brings us completeness. Everything worth doing in life is a risk.
Q: I’ve heard you describe yourself several times during our conversation as “strong, powerful, and feminine.” Those aren’t always words people use in the same sentence to describe women. I’ve also known women who were loathe to use the adjectives “strong” or “powerful” to describe themselves. How would you respond to women like that?
Awilda Verdejo: In the West we have labels for everything. We put people in limiting boxes. Feminine is one of those words we put in a box. That box is wrapped up in paper with words like dumb blond, sex symbol, weakness. When we use the word feminine we don’t usually think of strength and power. I would argue that Marilyn Monroe used her femininity very powerfully. Gloria Steinem is a strong, powerful, feminine woman as is Angelina Jolie. Puerto Rican women are very strong, powerful, feminine women. We will not give up our tight skirts, deep décolletages, our high heels until we’re in our 80’s if then. We celebrate our vaginas! For us, everything begins and ends in the vagina, the seat of our power! That consciousness in no way diminishes our rapacious thirst for feeding and honing our intellect. I grew up in such a household. My late aunt came from Puerto Rico in the 30’s by herself, a single woman, with the purpose of finding work and earning enough money to bring the rest of her family to the States for a better life. It was a hard and lonely existence for her for many years, but she accomplished her goal as well as marrying and having a very full life. For me, femininity, power and strength are the cake that I eat.
Q: In one of the workshops you teach that is specifically designed for women, you address the relationship they have to their body and how that relationship impacts their voice. This includes examining their experiences with power and how their voice informs their sexuality and how their sexuality informs their voice. Most women I know are embarrassed to link power and sexuality together. Why are women so afraid to be both powerful and sensual?
Awilda Verdejo: Women are afraid to be powerful and sensual because it demands that one take responsibility for everything in one’s life. It demands that you use your voice to ask for what is yours without apology. A princess, who wants to be taken care of and live happily ever, has no voice. A queen, on the other hand, owns her emotions, her dreams, her mistakes—her life, and takes full responsibility for using her voice to create the life she wants. She comes into relationships with both her power and sexuality in full bloom. In her personal life, she uses her voice to call into relationship an equal partner bearing similar gifts. She understands that the quality of her life is directly connected to the way she uses her voice. Owning her voice is imperative if she wants to have a rich, full life.
I would also like to say that women like Cleopatra, Helen of Troy, Esther, Jackie O, Eva Peron, shared several common characteristics. They celebrated their bodies as well as their minds, and understood that the key to being successful in a man’s world was to be in your body. Have you ever looked at women in Academia? Many of these women have gray hair, grey suits and come across as androgynous. There is the perception in the Academy that to celebrate your body, to be in your body, diminishes or even deletes the mind. In the corporate world women have traded the gray hair and gray suit, for a black one because they see that as the symbol of power. Nothing could be further from the truth. Estee Lauder said that there isn’t a man on the planet that doesn’t love a woman in red. Red is the color of your blood, your menstrual discharge – a most powerful color, if you have the audacity to test it. Try wearing a skirt and showing off your lovely calves. On the earth plane, the body is everything. Without it nothing is possible. Most women that I know live outside their bodies. It does not matter if they are athletes, yoga teachers, singers – they are not in their bodies. How do I know this? Because in general, women don’t breathe! The breath is what brings you into your body. And since the body is where your voice resides, if you are not in your body, there’s nobody home, and consequently there is no voice.
Q: I’ve always tried to teach women the importance of having strong, positive female role models and mentors, yet many say there just aren’t very many good female role models in today’s society. And when we see media stories about Britney Spears’ latest escapades or say, the prison sentencing of Lindsay Lohan, I’d have to agree. When you look around at the world today, what females do you see who could be role models for young women?
Awilda Verdejo: It would behoove today’s younger women to understand that they are who they are because they stand on the shoulders of so many amazing women who came before them. This sense of historical awareness is lacking today in our society. In our country, women like Hillary Clinton, Madeline Albright, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Laura Bush, Michelle Obama, Meryl Streep, and these are just some of the women who are still with us, are marvelous examples of strong powerful women. Some, like Laura Bush and Michelle Obama express their femininity more unabashedly. I can’t begin to speak about the women in other cultures in other countries, for instance, like the Queen of Jordan, a beautiful, strong, powerful woman. There is so much feminine strength and power around us if we would only take stock and drink from it. The Lindsey Lohans and Britney Spears are examples of young women who have anaesthetized their bodies in order not to feel, which simply means they have left their bodies and have no voice.
Q: What’s the best advice you would give to women on how to make their dreams come true and live the kind of life they’ve always wanted?
Awilda Verdejo: Come home to your body. Own every inch of your body. Love your body, imperfections and all. Celebrate your body. That is not easy and requires tremendous discipline and hard work. The payoff is reconnecting with your voice and having a voice to create the life that you want.
Q: If a genie popped out of a bottle and could give you one wish, what would that wish be?
Awilda Verdejo: I would want to use my voice to connect with everyone in the world in their own language or dialect because every voice is unique – like a fingerprint. To experience everyone’s unique voice without the filter of translation would be heavenly for me.