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Choosing Opera

Choosing Opera

When offered scholarships, “America’s Got Talent” performers Olanna Goudeau and Ashley Renee Watkins ditched computer science and veterinary medicine for music

 

 

 

 

Ashley and Alanna

Acte II’s Ashley Renee Watkins (left) and Olanna Goudeau (right, standing) perform a short operatic song for Ms. Nesbit’s girls’ choral class.

 

 

 

When Olanna Goudeau was growing up in Port Arthur, Texas, she chose a future that sounded smart: computer science.

 

New Orleans-born Ashley Renee Watkins had been dead-set on becoming a veterinarian since the age of 10. She served as president of her high school’s vet club and organized field trips to vet schools.

 

But both had always loved singing, and when the opportunities to pursue music popped up for each of them, they took it, not knowing where its road would lead – or that it would lead them to each other.

 

As it turned out, the two met in 2002 and many years later would pair up to perform their operatic talents on America’s Got Talent, Season 9. They received a standing ovation by the celebrity judges who selected them as one of 10 acts to perform live at Radio City Music Hall in New York City.

 

Since that time, they have performed in some of America’s largest cities and abroad.

 

Today they live in New York City and work full-time at other jobs. Olanna is a public relations specialist; Ashley is a faculty member with the Lincoln Center Education in New York City.

 

Their Acte II program has been described as “something close to perfection.”

 

They brought their opera-styled music to Wichita Falls Sept. 22 and 23 when they visited Kirby Middle School and Hirschi High School classrooms. They sang briefly and advised students on their own singing.

 

On Sunday, Sept. 25, they performed a concert titled, “Music Our Way” at Midwestern State University’s Akin Auditorium at 3 p.m.

 

Singing together

“We’ve never been allowed to stay apart. We’ve literally been brought together. We submitted to it,” said Olanna of her friendship with Ashley. “We’re opening ourselves daily to being used. We want to be open to the next step.”

 

The two grew up singing African American spirituals and gospel music. They sang in church and in small groups.

 

Opera

Acte II’s Ashley Renee Watkins (left) and Olanna Goudou (right) follow along with the choral piece that Hirschi students performed in class Friday, Sept. 23. Olanna urged students to hold their music up high so they could glance at it, then over it at their director.

 

“I never, ever, ever sat back and said, ‘I’ll be an opera singer,’” said Olanna. “The thought of being a singer was there, but I didn’t see how that could possibly happen.”

 

How Ashley found opera

Opera wasn’t in Ashley’s vision of the future, either. The only connection she had to opera was her habit of singing along with the opera-singing Blue Bell cow, Belle, when the popular old ice cream commercial played on television. It was her only exposure to the elite soprano niche.

 

Years later, her music mentor told her, “You know, you’re a natural opera singer.”

 

Ms. Watkins had never heard an aria, so he taught her one by rote, then took her to a professor and asked her to sing. The professor liked her voice so well that he invited her to audition to be a voice major, but Ashley refused.

 

Meanwhile, her mother had been urging her to find a way to use her God-given gift of singing. Knowing she couldn’t double-major, Ashley knew she would have to choose one path or the other.

 

“The day I chose music, I was literally watching Oprah. Oprah’s show was on in the background. I heard Lee Ann Womack sing, ‘I Hope You Dance.’ I started weeping. When I started crying, (my mother) knew in that moment I had chosen music. I auditioned and started a path in music.”

 

How Olanna found opera

She soon met up with Olanna at Dillard University in New Orleans, Louisiana. Olanna had chosen to attend Dillard for its choir, though she was not yet a music major. But when she auditioned, the choir director asked her to return the next day and sing again – this time for its music faculty members.

 

Her voice was so impressive that the group invited her to join the music department and told her they would match her scholarship for computer science with a similar one for music.

 

“That’s all I needed to hear,” said Olanna.

 

Olanna later pursued her master’s degree at the University of Oklahoma. When the devastating Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans nine days into Ashley’s senior year, Olanna urged Ashley to join her at OU. The school was making a point to accept Katrina victims.

 

Ashley and Olanna  

Hirschi’s girls choral class warms up with a variety of breathing techniques done to pop song rhythms. Ms. Mineasa Nesbit leads the group with a confident, fast-moving teaching style and a lovely voice of her own.

 

 

Connecting and reconnecting

Soon Olanna left OU for New York City. In 2010, she landed a part in the Opera New Jersey summer program. Surprise! Ashley was there, too. The two bonded and encouraged one another and were soon making plans to sing together once Ashley finished her master’s degree at OU.

 

That’s when they got the idea to audition for America’s Got Talent. Soon afterward, they formed Acte II.

 

During the 2016 summer, Ashley helped mentor local artists in the Wichita Falls Alliance for Arts and Culture’s Teaching Artists Learning Lab.

 

During the duo’s Wichita Falls visit, they performed Disney songs, some opera, musical theater, spirituals and some jazz.

 

WFISD Classroom time

When they visited the Hirschi choir classroom, Olanna and Ashley watched as instructor Mineasa Nesbit led the big class in warm-ups to pop and rap songs, then performed their latest song.

 

“This is like a room of potential,” said Ashley. “You’re in good hands. Your teacher is fantastic.”

 

“What you guys did is magical for us,” said Olanna.

 

“We’ve been struggling with carrying the breath through,” Ms. Nesbit explained to her visitors. “How do you sustain breath?”

 

“We haven’t been in choral circles for awhile. We’ll offer what we know and take from it what you can,” said Ashley.

 

She urged the group to key in on the phrasing in the song, with its words like “soar,” and to put a special emphasis there. By staggering their breaths, the delivery would be smooth, she said.

 

Their overall advice to the students was the same advice they gave the day before when they spoke to soldiers at Sheppard Air Force Base. “Whatever your thing is, keep at it. Try, try, try to be the best,” they said.

 

Ashley said it was the same advice that her scorers wrote every time she auditioned: “Keep singing!”

 

Then the two women stood and, with an accompanist, sang a bit of opera for the class.

 

Too soon, the girls’ choral class was over, and the Hirschi girls filed out, collecting autographs and selfies from the two New York performers as they left.

 

 

 

 

Ashley and Olanna

Hirschi students couldn’t leave without asking for autographs and snapping a few selfies with the New York opera performers.

 

“It was great,” said one choral student.

 

“I loved it,” said another.

 

“We don’t get this every Friday,” said Ms. Nesbit.

 

“Kids need to see the next step”

 

The person to thank for Acte II’s visit is Margie Reese, executive director of the Wichita Falls Alliance for Arts and Culture.

 

Ashley had been one of her teaching artists in Dallas; Ms. Reese was quick to invite her to Wichita Falls. At Ms. Reese’s request, Ashley performed a summer concert at the First Wichita Building (Big Blue) in downtown Wichita Falls, then returned with singing partner, Olanna, for her September visits to Wichita Falls classrooms.

 

“I told her, ‘We have kids in Wichita Falls that need to see the next step,’” said Ms. Reese. “They need to see somebody they can touch…and understand the discipline and rigor it takes to take something you love and turn it into a career.”

 

To see a clip of Olanna Goudou and Ashley Renee Watkins performing on America’s Got Talent, go here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7_FscP9UMKc