How an opera star rose from a hip-hop town
Earlier this year, Quincy native and Robert F. Munroe Day School grad Elizabeth Strickland outsang some of Georgia’s most talented young vocalists, placing second in the Rome (Georgia) Symphony’s world-renowned 2019 Barbara Beninato Young Artist Award Competition.
Strickland is hardly the first great singer to rise from the rolling hills of Gadsden County. With a rich history of struggles and triumphs, storytelling music like hip-hop is alive and well. And with a slew of churches per capita – the kind with rocking gospel choirs and vibrant music services – this rural North Florida community is dripping with soul and, accordingly, soulful voices.
But Strickland, who just completed her sophomore year at Wesleyan University, is no ordinary vocalist – certainly not among Gadsden County songstresses. Sure, she can no doubt carry a pop tune with the best of them, but her sonic flavor-of-choice is of a more classical, even baroque bent: opera. Likewise, her musical ambitions don’t involve record labels and top 40 hits.
“I’d love to join a Paris opera house,” Strickland said of her future dreams as a vocalist. “I really love the history of opera there. The French were among the first to have a national opera house. And my voice is better suited to the smaller opera houses of Europe.”
Strickland’s visions of joining a musical order stretching back centuries in Paris has decidedly more humble roots – in musical theater at Robert F. Munroe and Christmas productions at Christian Heritage Church of Tallahassee, where she is a member.
“I’ve always loved performing,” Strickland recalled. “In fact, when I was in pre-K and kindergarten, they’d put on little kid productions at the end of every year, and I just loved them. I always wanted the solos.” Later, Strickland performed in the casts of many-a-Quincy Music Theater production, and at age 12 she began formal vocal and piano training.
While many youngsters shudder at the older, more traditional music disciplines, Strickland embraced classical study at an early age. Spurred by her distinct love of the art and the encouragement of mentors like music teacher Dr. Carla Conner, by high school Strickland had chosen opera as her path to sonic nirvana. The challenge of operatic singing for someone with a self-described naturally small voice proved a big part of the draw.
“[Opera] is really a challenge, but I love a challenge when it comes to singing,” Strickland said. “In opera, there are no microphones. You have to sing over 100-piece orchestra and cut through so the back row can hear you.Its’ also tough learning to sing nearly exclusively in foreign languages”
So how does a “small-voiced” songbird roar like a lion?
“Technique,” Strickland insists. Not to mention love for the artform and persistence.
“I’ve loved opera from the beginning; I always loved listening to it, and then singing it. But singing it is so much more difficult – at times it makes you stumble and question whether you really want to do it,” Strickland said. “But it’s so beautiful, and in the end you say, ‘I love what I do; it’s a great path to choose.’”
A great path, indeed, for this Quincy-born songbird-turned-vocal lioness.
By Brian Dekle