Singer recalls life in opera spotlightPublished 12:12am Sunday, November 20, 2011
NATCHEZ — If it weren’t for a tumble down university campus steps that ended her dancing career, Phyllis Demetropoulos might have never become an international opera singer.
The Mobile, Ala., native and second-time Natchez resident is a dramatic soprano.
“God gave me a big voice with a little body,” Demetropoulos said.
At age 7, Demetropoulos said she found her “head and chest voices” walking to school — playing with the range of different voices she was able to express.
“It was a game,” Demetropoulos said.
When her mother heard Demetropoulos sing, she immediately began to expose her to great music.
“Mom listened to the Met broadcast on Saturdays,” Demetropoulos said. “She said, ‘Let’s listen to opera.’”
While Demetropoulos went the way of great opera soloists before her, she said there is still a dichotomy that exists in her, which is traced back to her first guitar.
Demetropoulos said family friend Robert Skipper, the uncle of the original Hank Williams, told her she will be a great singer.
“He meant country singer,” Demetropoulos said. “So he bought me a guitar. But mom listened to opera, so I knew I would be an opera singer.”
Demetropoulos said she earned the lead in her high school musical and was ready to follow her aria-studded path to success when a peer derailed her.
“(A student) told me that since I didn’t take high school theory, I’d never make it (as an opera singer),” Demetropoulos said.
Demetropoulos took the bad advice and was accepted into the Texas Christian University School of Dance. That is when she fell down the steps and tore her hamstring.
So Demetropoulos entered the Florida State University School of Music. As an undergraduate, she was accepted into chorus of the graduate traveling choir.
“That goes to show you, you don’t have to listen to your peers,” Demetropoulos said.
The singer earned her bachelor and master’s degrees at the university. She also auditioned and was accepted into the Academy of Vocal Arts. Demetropoulos said only 12 singers are selected internationally for the program.
“That’s where agents are brought in, and they finish you as a singer,” Demetropoulos said.
Demetropoulos’ voice has been a vehicle that has taken her across the world, and even to inaccessible locations. Demetropoulos said she sang at the remarkable opera houses in the Soviet Union at the time of the Iron Curtain. While the locals hardly spoke against their own government, Demetropoulos said she was approached once or twice by residents, saying, “We like Reagan.”
At a performance of La Traviata in St. Petersburg, Russia, Demetropoulos said she got a standing ovation.
“They threw roses on stage,” Demetropoulos said. “I thought, ‘I can die now.’ I reached the peak of my career.”
Demetropoulos said she also knew Luciano Pavarotti, who referred to Demetropoulos as “Bella,” or Italian for “beautiful.”
“I never got to sing with him,” Demetropoulos said. “But I knew him at the Met, and worked with William Hicks, his accompanist.
“I’ve never been a household name,” Demetropoulos said. “Maybe I was just famous for a day or two.”
To prepare, Demetropoulos said she stays quiet the days of performances.
“I want that edge in my voice,” Demetropoulos said. “I want the color to be correct. If you pop a (vocal) cord, it’s not like a reed on a clarinet that can be replaced.”
Because Demetropoulos’ career and lifestyle has been extremely regimented — booked with travel, performances and practices — she said she missed valuable time with her young children as they were growing up.
“I was gone a lot of holidays,” Demetropoulos said. “I hated that. My daughter was upset with me. She said she wished I was just a plain soccer mom.”
Demetropoulos said her children, now adults, understand why their mother sacrificed to follow her dreams. Her son, a bass baritone, is a performer at Walt Disney World.
Demetropoulos said success is the result of talent, hard work and sometimes sheer luck.
“There are a lot of great voices you think would open doors, but they don’t,” Demetropoulos said. “There are so many times I could have given up and gone home. But now I’ve been singing for 40 years. Once I knew it was right, I stayed with it. If you sing correctly, you can sing all of your life.”
Demetropoulos, who said she helped co-found the Natchez Opera Festival, most recently returned from Pennsylvania where she sang outtakes from Madame Butterfly.
Demetropoulos’ next performance will be a concert in Corfu, Greece. She is also working on a solo album.
If Demetropoulos could give advice to up-and-coming singers, it’s to not fear rejection and to persevere.
“I’ve you’ve got talent, and want it bad enough, you can get there,” Demetropoulos said. “I’m just glad I fell down those steps.”