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Perseverance and Passion
by Michelle Latour
Katherine BallBeing a singer can be difficult. It helps to be naturally gifted, but you also need to have drive, determination, and dedication in order to clear all the hurdles placed in front of you. Imagine trying to launch a singing career while also being sight impaired. Dramatic soprano Katharine Ball is doing exactly that. In the November issue, we shared Cristina Jones’ inspirational journey, and this month we continue with Ball’s story of perseverance and passion.
Like many aspiring singers, Ball discovered her musical talents early on. She began singing in choir in elementary school, and her teachers frequently commented on her beautiful voice. She took seven years of piano lessons and three years of flute lessons. But singing was Ball’s true passion. “I have always loved singing,” she elaborates, “and I started private voice lessons at age 13 with a friend of my mother from the music fraternity Mu Phi Epsilon.
“My high school choir director was the first to really encourage me and was the first to notice that I have perfect pitch,” she continues. “My high school choral program exposed me to a high standard of music making. When I heard the seniors sing solos as a freshman, I had this yearning to follow in their footsteps.” When both Ball’s choir director and voice teacher suggested that she pursue a career as a singer, Ball’s mind was set.
Another talent Ball explored when she was young was dance. She took a year of tap dance lessons in elementary school and then picked it up again in high school. “I was in show choir and I started taking dance lessons during my junior year of high school so that I could learn the choreography,” she says. “My teacher was incredible as she helped me learn dance steps tactically. I learned the choreography so well that no one in the audience could tell that I had a disability.
“I continued working with her off and on after graduation through my sophomore year of college,” she says. “I learned so many valuable lessons from this experience, from the basic positions of ballet to how to move gracefully onstage. To this day I rely on the tools that my dance teacher gave me when I am onstage.”
Ball went on to earn numerous degrees from prestigious universities. She earned her BM in voice performance from the New England Conservatory and has two master’s degrees. She first completed an MA from New York University, followed by an MM from the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor. She has also enhanced her education by participating in several national and international summer programs and arts festivals.
Moving to a new city for an undergraduate degree and traveling to Europe for a summer program by yourself can be a daunting task for any young singer, let alone a sight-impaired one. How did Ball deal with the obstacles of traveling and negotiating her way around new cities?
“I am proud to say that I am very independent for someone who is visually impaired,” she says. “I gained that confidence from attending NEC for my undergrad and then living in New York City while attending NYU.
“Part of that was learning to fly by myself,” she continues. “I had aid and assist to help me check in, to go through security, and to get to the right gate. I would pre-board. Once I landed, someone would walk me from the gate to either my connecting flight or to baggage. Because of already having this experience under my belt, I was able to take on the challenges of traveling to places like Austria and Alaska.
“When I attended the American Institute of Musical Studies in Graz, Austria, the setup was ideal,” she says. “Graz has a good mass transit system, and my classes, rehearsals, and performances were within walking distance. I did the program as a member of the Concert Studio. I studied German and worked on Lieder, including learning my first Wolf, ‘Die Zigeunerin.’ I had the opportunity to perform Schubert’s ‘Der Hirt auf dem Felsen’ and the ‘Alleluia’ from Mozart’s Exsultate, jubilate. Attending this program was a great experience.”
Ball did have a bit of an adventure flying internationally, however. “Flying to Graz was more complicated,” she admits. “I flew Lufthansa where, thankfully, everyone spoke English. Navigating the Frankfurt airport was interesting, because there were many steps involved in connecting from my Detroit flight to my flight to Graz. First I rode in one of those carts that they use for people with disabilities, and then I got on a bus to go to the next terminal. From there, I had to clear customs and had to go through security again.
“The interesting part of my journey was the return flight home,” she says. “I discovered when landing in Frankfurt that they were unaware that I needed aid and assist. I was a little anxious that I might miss my flight to Detroit. It took forever to make it to my connection, which included a bus ride to the next terminal and walking outside before going up a staircase to my connecting flight. Fortunately, upon landing in Detroit there was someone to help me clear immigration and customs.”
Ball’s next summer program experience happened several years later when she attended the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival in Alaska. It was here that she gained confidence through successfully performing her first operatic role under a conductor. “I performed the role of Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte with orchestra,” she shares. “The production was semi-staged. What was most important about this experience was that now I had proof that I could perform a role onstage as a visually impaired artist.”
Her biggest obstacle? Negotiating her way from rehearsals to housing. “The festival was housed at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks,” she says. “I was able to live on campus, but the difficulty was that most of the rehearsals were off campus. I had to rely on rides from participants. I did a couple outreach performances, which were on the other side of town. Fortunately, the final performance was on campus.”
Were all of Ball’s experiences positive? No. In fact, a program she attended prior to AIMS was practically the opposite. She found challenges in negotiating her way around town and in the overall learning environment.
“It was impossible to get around independently as there were no sidewalks,” she says. “The only means of transportation was by car, and nothing was in walking distance. It drove me nuts. It didn’t help that I had an unpleasant living situation. My roommates and I did not get along. I was already contending with the stress of receiving my role assignment at the last minute and, thus, did not have much time to properly prepare.
“To make matters worse,” she continues, “the program director was very disorganized and not very accommodating. The overall atmosphere wasn’t very friendly. Only a few people were actually helpful. The positive that came out of the entire situation was that I got to perform my first role, the Third Spirit in Die Zauberflöte. In hindsight, this program was a valuable learning experience. I needed to see how difficult this business can be. I learned firsthand what obstacles singers can face.”
What about now? Has Ball found that being sight impaired has held her back in her career? Despite any setbacks Ball has experienced, she continues to face challenges with perseverance.
“Have I been discriminated against? Absolutely,” she admits. “There have been a few opera companies that said, ‘You have a beautiful voice, but we don’t have the resources to hire you.’ I also auditioned for an agent who told me that I should find another line of work because my disability would make it difficult for me to even have a career in concert work.
“I want to show other people who have challenges that there is nothing that they can’t do if they have the passion and drive,” she continues. “I wish that opera companies would be more open minded in casting. The best voices are rarely accompanied by a Hollywood image. If the opera world continues to disqualify people based on looks or disability, then opera will struggle to survive.”
Ball’s most recent step has been making the transition from lyric soprano to dramatic soprano, even venturing into Wagnerian repertoire. Upon the recommendation of several teachers and coaches, Ball started experimenting with singing Wagner.
“When I was 28, I noticed that my voice was changing,” she explains. “I can’t describe how it happened exactly, but it just felt like it was growing. My teacher and I discussed this, and we agreed that I should give ‘Dich, teure Halle,’ from Tannhäuser, a try. So I learned the aria. Although it took a while for it to settle into my voice, it felt comfortable to sing. Around the same time, I also gave ‘Du bist der Lenz,’ from Die Walküre, a try, but ultimately decided to put it aside.”
“A few years later, I started studying with my current teacher,” she says. “It was a great fit, as he really understands developing large voices. I have improved significantly, learning how to use breath support and resonance to the best of my ability. I knew that I had the potential of becoming a dramatic soprano, but I needed the proper guidance. My proof came when I pulled out ‘Du bist der Lenz’ again, and this time it felt much easier in my voice.
“The aria that I am currently working on is ‘Einsam in trüben Tagen,’ from Lohengrin,” she continues. “Even though Wagnerian singers are more of a rarity, I am well aware that the competition remains fierce. With the help of my voice teacher and coach, we are determining what new dramatic repertoire to pursue. I still have a lot of work to do, but it is exciting to see what the future holds.”
Ball’s future plans? Maintaining a balance between career and personal life. She is continuing with her current voice teacher, is planning on auditioning, and has a small voice studio of her own.
She recently got engaged and often performs with her fiancé, Andy. He completed his DMA in organ performance from the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor, where he and Ball met. They frequently perform together, and she also sings at his church job. “We support each other in our musical aspirations as we balance out each other,” she says. “We are certainly looking forward to spending the rest of our lives together.”
Dr. Michelle Latour is active as a teacher, singer, writer, and adjudicator and lives in Las Vegas. She has been on the full-time faculties at several universities. She is currently a voice faculty member for the Italian-based summer program, The International Opera Performing Experience and owns a private studio, the LATOUR Voice Studios. You can visit her at www.thelatourvoicestudios.com, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.