It takes more than talent to bridge the gulf between wishful thinking and success in a field as rarefied as international opera. ¶ Fearlessness to try it in the first place. Independence and resilience to keep going in the face of rejection.
Voice teacher Judy Bender said she saw those qualities a decade ago in Ellie Dehn, an Anoka native and rising opera singer who has performed as far away as Europe and with as grand a company as the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.
Today and through the weekend, Dehn will close a run as Juliette in the Minnesota Opera's production of "Roméo et Juliette."
It's the first time Dehn has performed in her native state since she began appearing professionally about three years ago. Bender took in a show with a group of students last week and said her students were awestruck and inspired.
"[Dehn] has the things I knew would make her go far because she was extremely determined and talented. A singer is often afraid. I think it's the same way with actors; they don't really know they can do it. Ellie knew what she wanted and knew she could do it," Bender said.
Dehn, 27, credits Bender as being a formative influence, the person who motivated her to begin voice lessons at the end of her junior year at Anoka High and who "recognized I had an instrument."
It was on Bender's advice, Dehn said, that she went to a summer vocal camp at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, where she later went to college and met peers for whom opera was a vibrant art form and eventually a living.
Dehn always was interested in music, playing piano and flute when she was young. And she sang in her high-school choir and performed in musical theater, but she didn't develop a passion for opera until later.
Growing up in the Twin Cities or any smaller city, she said, one isn't immersed in opera. She went to one performance at the Minnesota Opera in high school and liked it. But "you really don't know that it's something you want to do with your life until you meet people who really are doing it, and you realize it's possible."
At Oberlin, and later in graduate school at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia, Dehn fell in with a community that saw her talent and nurtured it.
Career fell into her lap
"I didn't really know that I was going to do something performance-related with my life," she said. "It just kind of fell into my lap when it turned out to be something that I was good at."
Those college years were transformative. In 2003, while still in graduate school, Dehn lined up a manager. Lots of auditions followed, with lots of rejections -- at least 40 or 50, she said.
She persevered, and has performed at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome, at Carnegie Hall in New York City, the Spoleto Festival USA in South Carolina, and in Tulsa, Cleveland and Mexico.
Dehn now lives in New York City. When she isn't performing, she stays in form with vocal lessons and yoga. Because opera singers are typically hired two to three years in advance, most of her time is spent learning new roles. Months of work go into mastering a part.
In a busy year, she said, she spends four to five months on the road, living in hotels and apartments in a new city for roughly a month at a time.
"It's definitely different. It's not a 9-to-5 job," she said. "But a lot of my friends are professional singers, so they're in the same boat. We still talk over the phone and Skype [over the Internet] and stuff like that. You work it out."
Being in Minnesota has been wonderful, she said, because the Minnesota Opera staff is comparably laid-back. And people who don't usually see her perform -- grandparents, extended family, high- school friends -- have been able to come see her.
With roughly three years behind her, Dehn's career is only beginning. She comes across as natural, sincere, not overly polished, interrupting herself if a sentence sounds "cheesy" or "not right."
But as far as opera goes, she doesn't feel like she's still feeling her way on stage. It's not about confidence, she said, so much as years of preparation.
"I went to grad school for four years and really honed in on a lot of the specifics," she said. "Now, I kind of feel like I'm growing into my own a little bit more. But I learn new things every day. There's something really satisfying about being a part of a great production, with a great group of people who inspire you."
Eric M. Hanson • 612-673-7517