There is no roadmap, but what feels like a years-long tour seems to be taking her to all the right places.
Chelsea Friedlander didn’t write the itinerary that would take her across the country or to more than a thousand community outreach performances, playing to young audiences that don’t usually get to see or hear opera. She simply auditioned for a succession of young artist programs.
Opera Saratoga, Ohio Light Opera, Nashville Opera, Chautauqua and others snapped her up, putting the coloratura soprano to work in roles that would change her, or in some cases that she would change. She fit seamlessly into roles she invested with a bubbly spirit that belied her vocal precision, and the ease of an accomplished actor who charms and relaxes audiences because she doesn’t seem to be working, she just is. Critics praised her range and strength, her cadenzas and staccatos, from Mozart to Gilbert and Sullivan to sacred oratorio.
And in retrospect, the journey she’s been on since graduate school is starting to make sense because it got her here, part of the first group of singers to sign with a new agency, Athlone Artists, ready to sink her teeth into principal roles.
Born in Princeton, N.J., Friedlander later moved with her parents to Long Valley in New Jersey. An only child, she was influenced by her mother, a professional pianist and piano teacher.
In the second or third grade, her mother took her to see a local production of the musical, Oliver. “And she leaned in and said, ‘Do you want to do that? Do you want to perform?’ And I said ‘Yes!’”
At nine, she found her first voice teacher. “My first voice teacher was classically trained and helped me find my soprano voice through art song, golden age musical theater and was the first to introduce me to Mabel singing in Pirates of Penzance.” At 14, Friedlander switched to the Juilliard- trained voice teacher with whom she still studies.
She never cut ties with musical theater, but by high school, she knew “Opera seemed to be the path that was always calling, and was the best suited for my voice.”
After graduation, Friedlander went on to the Cleveland Institute of Music and then the Manhattan School of Music, where her mother had studied piano, followed by years of intermittent addresses, a few months at one Young Artist Program or several months at another, returning home when she could in between.
She toured the country with the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players, earning an Actors’ Equity card. “That was a dream of mine to sing with the company,” she said.
Another dream came true when she had the opportunity to perform as Mabel, the “Poor Wand’ring One” heroine in The Pirates of Penzance with Light Opera of New Jersey. She has played the role at least four times now with various companies while carving out a niche in operetta.
Friedlander chuckled as she thought of Mabel. “She’s my girl. I’ve found things that really bring me joy, singing them over and over again, and finding something special every single time you get to reprise a role. I think it says something when you see those roles again and again on someone’s resume – that they’ve really honed into something, because not everyone can sing G&S.”
She recently signed a contract to play Mabel yet again. Other highlight roles include Monica in Gian Carlo Menotti’s quirky melodrama, The Medium, with Pacific Opera Project.
“That’s a role I would love to sing forever.”
Still, she is looking forward to her continuing evolution as an artist. That means expanding upon the ingenue roles she is often hired for: “what we call the ‘-inas’ and the ‘-ettas’. I’d like to move into more of a full lyric coloratura.”
The wish list includes (but is not limited to) the title role in The Ballad of Baby Doe, Pamina in The Magic Flute and Norina in Don Pasquale.
She runs her own voice studio in Long Valley that caters to singers from young children to teenagers. “I feel like I see myself a little bit in them.”
“They often want to sing things like Mean Girls, or Dear Evan Hansen, all these contemporary things. And I say, ‘You’ve got to start off with something that’s going to sustain you.’”
So, she teaches them the songs she learned with her first voice teacher – Gershwin, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein.
She’s in the midst of playing another of her favorite roles, Adele in Die Fledermaus, with the Light Opera of New Jersey. “It’s an opportunity for my New Jersey fan base to come see me. It’s going to be a nice end to the month of February.” And after that?
“And then start thinking about some new repertoire,” she said, “and getting myself ready for all that is next to come.”
– Andrew Meacham