Filipina-Chinese mezzo-soprano Michelle Mariposa emerged as one of seven winners of the prestigious Sullivan Award, following a competitive screening process held in New York on October 29 and 30.
The 28-year-old singer’s impressive achievement earned her a prize of $10,000 and five years of role preparation assistance from William Matheus Sullivan Musical Foundation.
Meanwhile, Filipino countertenor Kyle Tingzon was one of the six singers who was awarded $2,500 Career Development Grants.
The Foundation was established through the estate of William Matheus Sullivan, a New York attorney and opera lover. Since 1957, it has been helping talented young opera singers develop their professional careers through a unique program combining audition awards with continuing support for learning new roles.
Nearly 1,100 early career singers have already earned Sullivan support. Many of them have achieved considerable acclaim in the world of classical music like Jessye Norman, Shirley Verrett, Kathleen Battle, Renée Fleming, Susan Graham, Denyce Graves and current Sullivan trustees Christine Brewer, Vinson Cole, and Susanne Mentzer.
In an interview with ANCX, Mariposa expresses her surprise upon learning that she’s among this year’s awardees. “I just couldn’t believe it,” she says, brimming with excitement. “I was up against singers who have been singing and thriving in the United States for years, while I have only been in the US for a little over two years. I was up against the likes of those who have performed in prestigious venues like the Metropolitan Opera, the Washington National Opera.”
Currently, Mariposa serves as a young artist with the Chicago Opera Theater and the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University.
The Filipina opera singer says she’s very happy that the time and energy she devoted to the audition bore fruit. “I worked hard for it. I was very prepared,” she shares. “I remember telling my friend that I felt like it was one of the best auditions I had because I just went out, performed, and had a great time.”
She sang “Ah! quel giorno ognor rammento” from the opera "Semiramide" by Gioachino Rossini and “Vois sous l’archet frémissant” or the "Violin Aria" from the opera "The Tales of Hoffmann" by Jacques Offenbach during the audition.
Her musical journey
Mariposa’s passion for music traces back to her father, Eduard, who harbored dreams of becoming a pianist. Financial constraints prevented him from pursuing music professionally, yet he continued to play the piano as a cherished hobby. The young singer inherited her father’s love for the instrument, and at the age of four, she, along with her two siblings, commenced piano lessons. Recalling those early days, she says, “I think I was the only one who really enjoyed playing the piano, though.”
Her natural inclination for singing also surfaced effortlessly. In first grade, she told her mom that she would like to join a school singing contest. “My mom was like, ‘Wait, you’ve never had a voice lesson, and you’re joining this competition?’” she recalls her mother Terrie’s initial hesitation.
Despite her mother's reservations, she made her daughter take voice lessons, and her voice teacher confirmed that the young girl had potential in singing. “Your daughter has a good voice,” the teacher assured. Mariposa won fourth place in her first singing competition and later joined the church choir, which further nurtured her singing abilities.
If the name Michelle Mariposa sounds familiar, it’s likely because she made headlines a couple of years ago for graduating summa cum laude as a BA Music major in University of the Philippines, Diliman. This accomplishment followed her first “summa” in 2016 when she completed the same university’s BA Psychology program with an impressive 1.1650 weighted average grade (WAG).
Originally inclined towards medicine, Mariposa pursued Psychology at UP. While taking up her first undergrad course, she also became involved in the collegiate choir, where she got to work with Katherine Molina, currently an associate professor at the Department of Voice, Music Theater and Dance at UP College of Music Diliman.
“Sayang if you don't pursue this because you have the talent for it,” she remembers Molina telling her. “And I realized that, wait, I am pretty good at singing,” she reflects. “I enjoy the feeling when I sing well. I like the challenge of learning music and I’m pretty fast at learning it. So I thought, maybe this is something I should pursue.” Thus, after completing her Psychology degree, she decided to take up BA Music in UP.
In her third year of studying Music, she won first place in the voice category of NAMCYA (National Music Competition for Young Artists), considered one of the biggest music competitions in the Philippines. This success further affirmed her commitment to continuing a career in music, with a specific focus on opera.
“Initially, I was more obsessed with chamber music, because we don't really have a lot of opera in the Philippines. It's not as accessible. But when I was preparing for that competition, I worked with another teacher, Chris Arceo, and he challenged me to explore the capabilities of my sound,” she shares.
“You should challenge yourself and embrace the extent of your voice. It's an operatic voice,” she remembers Arceo telling her. That inspired the then 22-year-old singer to delve more into opera as a repertoire.
As expected, her fondness for the art form grew. “[Opera] can be excessive — you need a set costumes, makeup, acting, a director, lights etc. But it's so fun to be on stage, to sing, and to just be someone who can be so different from you,” she says.
Fulfilling her father’s dream
In 2020, the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic hit close to home as Mariposa's father became one of its early casualties. During this challenging period, she found herself contemplating her next steps. “I thought I should help out, earn my own money so that I don’t burden anyone else,” she says. She ventured into teaching voice lessons online and supplemented her income by selling cakes.
Towards the end of 2020, she learned that US schools were accepting online applications, so she decided to take advantage of the opportunity. “My dad would have wanted me to pursue my dream [of becoming an international singer] because he was unable to pursue his dream of being a pianist,” she thought to herself then. She applied for a scholarship at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and was not only accepted but also awarded a full scholarship.
“I feel like the highlight of my stay in Northwestern was my growth studying with Stephen Smith, because he is such an amazing teacher,” she says. “His ear and his attention to detail was so good and I feel like the voice I have now is largely because of how Steve helped me find my own voice.”
During her time at Northwestern, she had the opportunity to take part in notable productions. “In my first semester at Northwestern, I took on the lead role in the opera titled ‘The Medium.’ It marked my initial venture into an English-language opera, portraying a semi-deranged old woman. The experience was incredibly enjoyable, stepping into a character vastly different from myself, witnessing the costumes and sets come to life as we narrated the story."
She found immense value in being part of an exceptional class where everyone supported one another and contributed to each other's development.
Over the past few years, Mariposa has enjoyed a vibrant and fulfilling musical career, but she regards winning the Sullivan Award as her most significant milestone to date. “Winning the Sullivan Award provided me with the confidence to believe that I can truly pursue this career,” she says. “It affirmed that I have the potential, and this recognition of my capabilities means a great deal.”
Asked about her future aspirations, Mariposa expresses her desire to perform in renowned venues such as the Metropolitan Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and other major European houses.
But her primary goal is simple — to continue singing. “I just want to make a career out of this art form,” she declares with enthusiasm. “The biggest goal for me now is to sustain myself while enjoying this career.”