A Look Inside the Life of a Classical Singer

By Cynthia Garcia

Peruvian-American mezzo-soprano Kelly Newberry was 14 years old when she found her vocal gift. She walked into high school in Simi Valley and signed up for choir since she needed an elective and all her friends were doing it. The teacher gave her a solo and that marked the beginning of her music career.

Newberry remembers when an opera singer from Austria came into her high school class offering voice lessons and sang the Habanera from Carmen. Newberry signed up and during her first lesson the instructor stared at her and told her she had an amazing voice for opera.

“I fell in love with it because of how emotional and raw opera can be and it’s so unabashedly emotional,” Newberry recalls. 

Newberry, front left, performing Higglety Pigglety Pop 2016. (Photo by Karl Rabe)

Newberry, front left, performing Higglety Pigglety Pop 2016. (Photo by Karl Rabe)

Today, she is completing a doctorate in vocal music at UC Santa Barbara where she hopes to do more performances in Spanish to embrace her Hispanic roots. In May, Newberry had her Graduate Student Recital where she performed in four different languages: English, Spanish, German, and Italian.  Recently, she was also named a 2018 Tanglewood Music Center Vocal Arts Fellow, where she will be attending for her second summer in a row.

From Simi Valley, Newberry attended the San Francisco Conservatory of Music for her undergraduate studies, then went to Bard College for her Masters, and is currently attending UC Santa Barbara for her PhD. In addition to studying full time, she gives voice lessons and she is a section leader for the choir at the Santa Barbara Mission.

Newberry says that as a musician, she doesn’t have any free time. Her time is consumed with getting gigs and constant rehearsals because her art is something that she must be constantly practicing in order to enhance her gift.

She remembers feeling intimidated when she started her undergraduate studies in San Francisco, noticing that everyone around her was extremely talented. That, and real-world performance pressure, pushed Newberrry to constantly keep practicing. But the process wasn’t all rainbows and butterflies.

 “It was a place where you were basically learning on the job, but there was a lot of failure. I did a lot of stupid things. I did not learn my music, I did not have things translated, or I didn’t have things memorized,” she said.

After graduation, Newberry decided to pursue a higher education in music. She had met soprano Julia Bullock at Songfest 2011 when Bullock was just peaking in her career. Unsure of her next move, Newberry emailed Bullock for advice, which led her to Bard College in upstate New York, a performance-based program.

After graduating from Bard, she went to the Vancouver International Song Institute where she met UCSB assistant professor and vocal teacher Isabel Bayrakdarian, who encouraged her to apply to the music program at the UC Santa Barbara.

Newberry never imagined that she would end up pursuing an education in music, let alone getting her PhD in it. “It really was just that these opportunities kept falling right in front of me,” she said.

Bayrakdarian has now become her mentor and someone whose guidance she values.

Throughout her time at UCSB Newberry has had the opportunity to perform with pianist Jared Eben and flutist Cynthia Vong.

Kelly Newberry performs at UCSB with pianist Jared Eben.

Kelly Newberry performs at UCSB with pianist Jared Eben.

Her work ethic, desire, tenacity to thrive as a singer, and confidence on stage is something that her colleagues most admire about her.

 “Kelly puts so much energy and effort into every musical choice she makes. She always has a thoughtful approach and can explain her reasoning behind that approach thoroughly,” said Jared Eben, who has been working with her since the beginning of the academic school year.

Cynthia Vong, a first year PhD student at UCSB, also says that working with the mezzo-soprano was extremely smooth. “I really enjoyed our connection we had when we were making music, it felt natural and there was emotion to every rehearsal - especially the performance,” Vong said.

Eben describes Newberry’s style as passionate, lyrical and thoughtful. “Kelly is one of my favorite people to collaborate with at UCSB. She is a very talented singer who is always prepared which makes working with her very easy,” he said.

Kelly Newberry performs Le Nozze di Figaro in 2013. (Photo by Betsy Kershner)

Kelly Newberry performs Le Nozze di Figaro in 2013. (Photo by Betsy Kershner)

After she finishes her studies at UCSB, Newberry plans to do as many gigs as possible to build up her reputation and audition for regional opera houses in Los Angeles and Chicago opera, among other top companies.

In the future she aspires to be a teacher at the university level. “I want to teach, I want to give music back to people,” she said.

Newberry says music has helped her live a disciplined, healthy, productive and positive life. But she advises those wishing to pursue a music career to think very carefully about whether there is anything else that they love more because it is really, really, hard. “But if you really love music then do it. For me it’s worth it. If you can emotionally handle it then you should do it too.”

Cynthia Garcia is a fourth-year student at UC Santa Barbara, majoring in Global Studies.