And Now, for an Encore

If you could change one decision in the past, what would it be? 2013 Life Lessons Essay Contest winner Adrienne Starr reflects on an impulsive, life-changing choice—and her struggle to reclaim the identity she lost.

Photo by Martin Adolfsson

There is no greater role for a mezzo-soprano than Carmen. In the opera repertoire, which contains multitudes of adolescent-male characters in drag, she is the exception—the sexy and dangerous femme fatale. My favorite of her arias is “Seguidilla,” a lilting song of seduction that sounds effortless when sung well, though in truth it is challenging for nearly everyone who tackles it. It was while performing this aria that I decided to stop singing.

I did not make this decision as I waited in the cramped hallway outside the studio, sandwiched between other hopefuls stealing furtive glances at one another. And not afterward, muddling through the familiar disappointment of yet another failed audition, getting only a curt “Thank you” as I left the room, deflated. Instead, I quit just as I finished singing the line “Mon coeur est libre comme l’air” (“My heart is free like the air”). This is not the end of the aria, but it is where I stopped.

I apologized to the accompanist, then turned to the audition panel. There were three of them sitting behind a table, a tall stack of résumés and head shots spread out before them. Their brows were knitted in confusion, or perhaps annoyance.

“I am so sorry,” I said. “I’ve been ill.” (Not true.) I gestured vaguely at my stomach. “I should have canceled. Sorry for wasting your time.” I quickly collected my music and scurried from the room. I emerged to the hustle of midtown Manhattan, getting lost in the passing crowd, stepping in rhythm with the anonymous many.

I’m done, I thought. I’m done with singing.

Until that moment, there had never been a time in my life when I didn’t define myself first and foremost as a singer. Not long after I began to speak, I stunned people with a giant, operatic voice, which blasted from my tiny body like a foghorn.

It is a unique pleasure to do something so well that it sets you apart from the rest of the world. The surge of pure happiness I felt when I opened my mouth and saw the eyes of my audience widening with surprise—even a jaw or two dropping—was, in the simple emotion of a child, my greatest pleasure.

From the age of five, I never experienced a setback as I went from audition to performance to competition, always taking center stage and basking in applause and admiration. When it was time for college, I auditioned for the best conservatories. After I sang for one of the most prestigious schools, the dean emerged to shake my hand. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years,” he said. “You are going to be a star.”

I did not become a star.