School Days

Charlie:  If you, as an adult, had been advising your parents about your childhood singing aspirations what would you have done differently?  It was Mac Johns, the church music director, who first took an interest in you as a singer and did the advising.  What would you have done differently?


Elizabeth:  That’s interesting because what Mac Johns told them is what I’ve gone on to tell other parents of young singers since then because what he said to our parents was correct.  I don’t say anything different from that.  I tell them the age appropriate time to begin voice lessons and what to do ahead of that to prepare them by making sure they get music lessons, that they join a choir, that they play an instrument, preferably two or three, that they study their musicianship, then, at the age of 16 began their solo lessons, and not sooner.


Charlie:  So, Mac Johns could not have done it any better?


Elizabeth:  What he said was correct.  There is really nothing to add to that. 


Charlie:  Whose idea was Children’s Theater?


Elizabeth:  Our parents wanted us to have experiences like that as part of our general education.  I went in when I was 5.  I couldn’t read yet so I had to learn my roles by rote.  I think I was in there until I was 12 or 13.  I loved it.


Charlie:  Were there any benefits to your career?


Elizabeth:  Stage experience, Mrs. Reynolds out there shouting, project, project!  I learned how to keep my face front, how to walk on the stage, how to get in front of an audience without losing it. 


Charlie:  When did you get interested in singing?


Elizabeth:  Mom says I was born singing.  I loved the children’s symphony concerts.  I can remember sitting in Ford Auditorium.  My knees wouldn’t even go over the chair, I was so small, may be 2-3 years old. 

Charlie:  When did you join the church choir?


Elizabeth:  I wanted to get into the choir by the time I was 8 or 9.  They said I couldn’t join until I was at least 10 because the other kids were bigger than me.  So I waited until the proper age.  Until then, I had to settle for the few hymns we sang in Sunday school.  I was divinely happy in the choir.  I stood out, the organist and choir director, Mac and Marion Johns’ noticed me.  Mac Johns was assisting a choir rehearsal and he could hear my voice and told me to stand up and show the others how it was done.  It was on some Alleluia refrain we were working on.  Apparently, he told his wife Marion, “That Parcells kid can sing!”  He said the same to my parents.  That Christmas at 11 years old I sang my first solo in church—the Lute Book Lullaby.  I sang from the choir loft so I wasn’t nervous.  The second time was at 12, in front of the church doing The Birds by John Jacob Niles.  I was nervous doing that one.


Charlie:  Were you getting any other music lessons?


Elizabeth:  Piano lessons starting at 5 all the way through high school.  I could never get music signals to my fingers.  I can Elsie Inselman & Elizabeth Parcellsplay with one hand okay but not two.  I studied violin, I taught myself guitar.  I wrote songs, little songs.  Most of them are forgotten.  I admired the folk singers.  I had to have a guitar and be just like Joan Baez.  I begged Mom to let me grow my hair out and stuff like that.  I played well enough to accompany myself at simple English ballads. (singing at 16 before voice trainingIt was a way to do age-appropriate music.  I wanted to sing, I wasn’t sure where it was going.


The Johns wanted me to go to Interlochen.  I did two summers of music camp sessions and the academy for senior year of high school.  I would take my homework to the rehearsal hall and listen to the orchestra.  I immersed myself in the music.  As a voice major, I had a teacher and colleagues.  It was heaven.  That is where I began listening to classical singers on recordings that other kids had.  We played Maurine Forester, Joan Sutherland, Sills--whatever we had around.  My senior recital at Interlochen included the Messiah arias, a big challenge for me then.  I’d heard Sutherland do them.  I sang some French and some German.


Charlie:  What did the people at Interlochen think of you?


Elizabeth:  I got good grades, except for the piano (laughs).  Ken Jewell was the voice department head and choir director there, a wonderful guy.  He showed a lot of faith in me.  He felt I had all the elements, young as I was.  He said time would tell.  I think Interlochen considered me a good prospect.  I was singing age-appropriate things at the time, not terribly challenging, but I was doing everything right and not overstepping myself.  I was building my voice in the proper way. 


Charlie:  Were you doing all your exercises as diligently as you want your students to do?


Elizabeth:  Oh yea.  Coloratura singing is technical; it doesn’t just fall off a tree.  You have to train it.


Elizabeth:  I had a good experience at New England Conservatory, then went to the Zurich International Opera Studio for a year of apprenticeship.  Part of it was to learn all the German theatrical and music vocabulary you need to get along.  By the middle of the year I was hired by the opera house in Augsburg--a nice B theater 30 miles from Munich in a wonderful ancient city.  I spent two years there as a beginner and did well.


Charlie:  What did they tell you in Zurich about your prospects?


Elizabeth:  They underestimated me.  I was among the first few in the class to land a job.


Charlie: Were the students German?


Elizabeth:  No, mostly Americans.  It’s a place to prepare non-Germans to perform in German opera houses.  Zurich was an interesting place to live and a Swiss theater is a good place to “learn the ropes.”  It was another year of my life but I think it was time well spent.  There was some prestige to being in that studio too.  I wasn’t just some American showing up on the plane to audition.  I’d really come over for the year and I was serious about it.  As soon as they know you are sincere and want to move to Germany and do this then they are more willing to consider you.


I sang Caro Nome in the audition for Augsberg.  They seemed to like it a lot.  I had 5 or 6 roles the first year.  The first one was Frau Fluth in Nicolai’s opera, The Merry Wives of Windsor.  I got to do Norina in Pasquale and other more beginner roles.  Then I went to the opera house in Wiesbaden.  I sang Olympia there with great success and then I was hired into the ensemble.  After Wiesbaden I went to Frankfurt.  I was there for 4 years.  Then I freelanced until I came back to the States.

Singers Notes

(Interview with Elizabeth Parcells 2005)