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The Soaring Soprano: 9 questions with Monica Yunus

Daughter of Bangladesh's Nobel-Prize winning economist Muhammad Yunus, Monica Yunus is no less talented - as a gifted opera singer she advises budding musicians to "have the soul of a butterfly and the skin of a rhinoceros"!
BY Uttara Choudhury |   28-05-2013
Sing for Hope Co-Director Monica Yunus

Spectacularly gifted soprano Monica Yunus made an electrifying debut as Countess Olga Sukarov in Umberto Giordano's “Fedora” and moved on to performing with top European and American opera companies. She received her Master’s degree in vocal arts from Juilliard, where she also met her husband Brandon McReynolds. He is a tenor so it is a match made in musical heaven. Yunus also received her bachelor’s degree from the prestigious Juilliard School.
Yunus is a soprano on the roster of the Metropolitan Opera. She was Zerlina in “Don Giovanni” and has joined the Met for productions of “The Enchanted Island,” “Le Comte Ory,” “Die Zauberflöte,” and “Manon.”  She is also co-director of Sing for Hope, an organization in New York that presents benefit concerts and provides educational outreach to children.
And yes, if you recognize the last name, you recognize right – Monica is the daughter of Vera Forostenko Yunus and Bangladesh’s Nobel Prize winning economist and Grameen Bank Founder, Muhammad Yunus.
The ebullient New York-based opera singer talked to about how Juilliard and being in the Met’s Children’s Chorus has influenced her journey.

1. Did you always want to be an opera singer?

I have wanted to be a singer since I was a child. Why it was opera versus another genre is probably because I was introduced to the Metropolitan Opera House at an early age. Now I am in the enviable position of getting to perform in the greatest opera house in the world.
I got introduced to opera through The Met in an unusual way: I was in the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus. My mom had me audition when I was 11 years old. I have vivid memories of the theatre the way it smelled, the largess, the endless hallways. In fact, when I started my debut season, the Children’s Chorus director, Elena Doria, took me into the hall, and had me hum a few notes. She said it was the same house where I had performed in the Children’s Chorus, except now I wasn’t a kid anymore. I was the first from all her kids to make my professional debut as a member of the roster it made her proud and me very happy!

2. What do you think had the biggest influence on your journey to your current career?
That’s hard to say because there isn’t one single factor. I think in life in anything that you set out to do, you need a combination of factors that drive success vision for what it is you would like to accomplish, support from family and mentors along the way, and a bit of luck never hurts! It’s easy to see failings as roadblocks. It’s much harder to look at those failings as necessary learning moments along the way.

3. What profession do you think you would have entered if you hadn’t become an opera singer?
I have always wanted to be a performer.

4. How did Juilliard help prepare you for your career?
Juilliard is a like any important school it is what you make of it. For me, it was the experience of being surrounded by musicians and aspiring performers of the highest caliber. You may have been “the best” at what you did where you came from, but now you are surrounded by the best of the best and you either sink or swim. It’s preparation for the outside world because you get a taste of what the competition will be like when you leave. 
When you graduate, you find the same faces in the wider world provide a network of friends. No matter where you go, chances are you will run into the same people again as the music world is small. And, that provides great comfort.

5. What was your most memorable (good or bad) experience while studying at Juilliard?
Some of my favorite memories from Juilliard are simple college memories hanging out with friends, cramming for an exam, and watching the dancers, actors and musicians all have their stereotypical performer personalities come out at random moments!

6. Best place you ever performed at, and why?
Nothing beats making your Metropolitan Opera debut with friends in the audience and Maestro James Levine in the orchestra pit. Joy!

7. What is Sing for Hope, and as the Co-Director what do you aim to achieve with it?

My best friend Camille Zamora and I started Sing for Hope in New York seven years ago. What we do is simple; we connect artists with communities in need. The Sing for Hope vision of art for all is informed by our belief that the arts have a unique power to uplift, unite, and transform individuals and communities. Our outreach programs in under-resourced areas from schools to community centers to healthcare facilities demonstrate this every day. Sing for Hope provides a network of support for artists of all kinds from dancers, instrumentalists, opera singers to visual artists who share their art with vulnerable communities.
Volunteers are the engines that drive the Sing for Hope mission. Sing for Hope’s ‘artist peace corps’ of over 1,000 artists from New York’s leading companies volunteer in outreach programs in under-resourced schools, healthcare facilities, and community-based organizations.
We are known in New York for the largest public art project: The Sing for Hope Pianos where from June 1-16, 88 pianos will be placed in public spaces in New York’s five boroughs for all to play and enjoy. It is our way of saying that the arts belong to everyone. You can find us at here.

8. Any tips for a young South Asian student wanting to get a degree in vocal arts from America?
You have an advantage now: YouTube. You can watch the great opera artists from any era online. So if you are seriously considering studying Western music, I would start there and then try to find a local teacher with a background in classical music.

9. What is the one thing you would recommend packing for anyone planning to go study music?
As one of my teachers used to say, the artist has to have the soul of a butterfly and the skin of a rhinoceros. Pack both!
Uttara Choudhury is Associate Editor, North America for TV 18’s Firstpost news site. In 1997, she went on the British Chevening Scholarship to study Journalism in the University of Westminster, in London.   



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