A Path to Authenticity: A Conversation with Leah Partridge

The images started when she was 14, maybe younger. Leah Partridge would step outside her parents’ home in Lincolnton, Ga., a town of 1,600 at last count, with three stoplights and 30 miles away from the nearest grocery store. Sometimes she went out there to feed the dog, other times just to think.

“There were tons of stars,” she said. “And the world would seem so big when you go out there in the evening. You had no streetlights. It would create this sense of wonder, and then that’s usually when I would get excited.”

The night sky triggered visions of the future. She’d be walking in some city, who knows where. Wearing a trenchcoat and tall boots, carrying an umbrella and a briefcase. The vision scared her, either because it was an illusion or because it would come true.

“I couldn’t tell whether I was having a panic attack or I just loved it and wanted to do it so much,” she said.

Partridge, a soprano, has now held more than 40 leading roles in opera houses around the world. She is widely praised for her acting as well as her classical sound, a grade-A instrument that imparts fullness and warmth and power and compassion. As she tells her students in The Voice Studio Atlanta, the road has come with bumps and detours but never really deviated from where she wanted to go, if not literally then in layers of understanding, the lessons unfolding when she was ready to receive them.

Her grandmother, the most musical of her relatives, taught herself chord progressions on the piano without knowing how to read sheet music. She wrote down her favorite gospel tunes in a blue spiral notebook, with notations like, “All white keys,” or “three black keys.”

Meanwhile, fellow parishioners put young Leah to work early, appointing her at age 14 to direct the choir of New Hope Baptist Church. “I sang at every funeral, wedding, banquet, beauty pageant, revival, church service,” she said. “I had a running business by the time I was 13 years old.”

She gravitated to the country music of Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn and her favorite, Emmylou Harris.

“Those singers could actually sing in tune and knew how to use their voices,” she said. “I think that’s what we’re all still responding to.”

As for her, a voice teacher told her she could compete at the state level. A German exchange student in town taught her to pronounce the words to songs by Schubert and Schumann, all of which helped to land her in the music program at Mercer University.

In all that time, she said, “I saw opera occasionally but it didn’t stop me in my tracks.”

Until it did, when flipping through the channels at home and stopping at The Three Tenors on PBS. That and a production of Pagliacci suddenly brought her to the brink. Not only could she sing opera, that was exactly what she wanted to do.

Doors opened. A prestigious fellowship at the Indiana University School of Music. A pair of vocal competitions won. A national semifinalist spot in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. All of which launched a career that never looked back. Her childhood dreams were coming true, and it was freaky.

“You think about wanting to do it,” she said. “I would see ahead and think, ‘That’s what I want.’ But when things started to happen you think, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m here. And am I really here? Is this for real? And how long am I going to be here?’ It’s a little shocking for awhile.”

Before Google Maps on your phone, she traveled to far-away cities only to realize she had no idea how to get to her hotel. “You get off a plane and you have a map. And you have to kind of trust that the cab driver was taking you where you wanted to go.”

She was living vulnerability and risk taking, qualities she now preaches that took years to embody as a singer.

“It’s knowing your craft,” Partridge said. “It’s knowing your voice and all the limits of it. But not trying to go, ‘I’m going to do this because I want to sound like Eleanor Steber and how she did on this turn. I think you go through that point, that period when you’re studying — and it’s probably long, I know it was long for me — I don’t think I understood my authentic voice or let go of wanting a certain sound, probably until 12 or 15 years into my career, honestly.

“Because you’re still going, ‘How do I want this to sound?’ As opposed to, ‘Who am I and what have I studied? And just allowing and trusting all the things that I know to come out rather than judging it before it’s even happened. That takes a while. That takes a lot of growing up, and guts.”

The travel risks paid off in comfort, in coming to new places. A six-week stay in Valencia, Spain, comes to mind, long enough to get a sense of how the town breathed, of seeing the same people in the grocery store and not feeling like a tourist anymore.

The artistic risks deepened through a succession of teachers, notably the late Patsy Sage in New York.

“Her big thing was energy and movement and who you are,” she said. “In the moment, in the day. You’d come into her studio and you couldn’t bring the outside in. She didn’t really want to spend a lot of time talking about your day or what was going on on the street.”

Instead, the goal was to “drop into your breath,” similar to the yoga Partridge also teaches singers in her studio. This is not about accuracy of notes or following rhythms, she emphasizes. It’s about coloring of notes, which depends on the singer.

“And not judge it, just do it, move it,” she said. “That was her thing. In other words, if you’re thinking about it and you’re already judging it, it’s too late. And you’ve just got to show up to whatever’s there that day.”

Nor is the kind of singing she aspired to dependent on sounding pretty, a standard she spent as many years unlearning as learning.

“In my early young artist days, I was making it all about my voice because opera had to be the voice first. And there is that. It needs to be beautiful. But I think what becomes more interesting, and if you look at people who have been successful, there are those elements when it’s not so beautiful but it’s authentic, it’s true to the story. And you look at people who are really making it in opera these days, what people are responding to — it’s this release of emotion, I think.”

When she’s not traveling or teaching, Partridge enjoys gardening or taking walks in the woods, picking up acorns or owl feathers. She took an improv class to shed the security blanket of having a score in front of her.

Following the contours of the present moment will bring technique in line, she believes, because “you’re not just beating notes into your head, you’re really feeling the process of making music.”

And who could illustrate that principle better than Willie Nelson?

“I like what Willie Nelson does,” Partridge said. “He’s constantly shape-shifting all the time to me, and somehow he catches up to himself rhythmically. But it’s always bending and moving, it’s always interesting.”

She tells her students to calm down before auditions. Do a dry run from the hotel in New York to the location. Find the exact door inside the building, so that those things won’t be stealing your breath. And then they can be ready to breathe on their own, as themselves the moment the audition begins.

“We can get caught up in what’s right and what’s wrong,” she said. “It’s really more about what’s true and what’s not.”

— Andrew Meacham