Judy Parker, a 1971 graduate of Erskine College, grew up in Anderson, South Carolina, but settled in New York City. She spent 20 consecutive years in the Metropolitan Opera’s “extra” chorus and has used her musical talents and other skills to make a living in one of the largest and most exciting cities in the world.
Parker’s career preparation included inspiration at Erskine, studies in voice education in West Virginia, and a semester at the Mozarteum in Austria.
“Tom and Betsy Owen in the (Erskine) music department inspired us to perform and to do professional jobs,” Parker recalled. “They worked hard to create venues for us and to show us that there was a whole big world out there to try.”
She cites the late Shirley Lampton, professor emerita of music, as “a kind and gentle presence in our music world,” along with the late Dr. John Brawley, professor emeritus of music.
Her first-year Bible professor, the late Dr. William H.F. Kuykendall, father of Associate Professor of Music Dr. J. Brooks Kuykendall, was another influence. “He taught me to think outside the box and I’ll always be grateful to him for stirring my budding intellect.”
West Virginia University was Parker’s first stop after Erskine. At the suggestion of Roger Michael, a voice teacher at Erskine, she sent in an audition tape and was admitted. While earning a master’s degree in music education, she appeared in three operas in secondary solo roles.
Her semester at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, not in the summer when the city’s music festival draws tourists, but in the fall and winter, was “a valuable experience.”
Her landlady in Salzburg provided one meal a day. “I would go and get bologna and any German sausage I could recognize in the butcher shop and make sandwiches for myself for lunch,” she said. “Wurst —sausages—were also sold by street vendors, along with smoked eel—considered a delicacy but something I could never warm up to!”
Only a few classes were taught in English at the Mozarteum, but Parker’s voice teacher spoke fluent English, and her German repertoire class was taught in English.
“I think everyone should travel or live out of their country if they have the opportunity. It just gives you a broader worldview,” she said.
New to New York
It wasn’t a particular career opportunity in New York that led Parker to make the move from West Virginia, where she was working in repertory theater.
“My husband at the time and I were performing in Beckley, West Virginia, in Hatfields & McCoys and Honey in the Rock. George was an actor and I was doing a small role and chorus in both shows,” Parker said.
“A fellow performer asked if we wanted to sublease his apartment in New York City for a month while he was away doing a show.”
They “jumped at the chance,” though they did not have jobs lined up. “That’s what you do — you move here and try it out, basically, although with today’s rent prices I don’t know how easy that is to do.”
While they were subleasing, the apartment next door became available, and they took it. Meanwhile, her husband began going to acting auditions and Parker “mainly worked whatever jobs I could find to support us.” She didn’t start singing again until “a couple of years had passed and we had split up,” she said.
“I have to say, I was a bit overwhelmed by New York City since I had never lived in a large city and had never really taken public transportation,” Parker admitted. “Took me awhile to adjust!”
How did that happen?
A strange audition experience launched Parker on her 20-year run as a member of the Metropolitan Opera extra chorus. Accustomed to arriving hours early for auditions and waiting in line, she entered the dark, empty lobby of the Metropolitan Opera House about 8:30 a.m. for a 10 a.m. audition.
“I was wondering if I had the wrong day or time, but as I was thinking about it, the door to Weill rehearsal hall opened and a man stuck his head out and kind of did a double-take at finding me there so early,” she said.
The man was David Stivender, chorus master of the Met.
“He had been in that position for many years and had basically scared away most singers in New York City by being very critical of their selections and their performances in auditions,” Parker said. “Luckily I knew nothing about that or I probably would have run, but I went in and sang my piece from Les Huguenots—which I later learned was one of his most hated arias—and he asked my age and if I was ready to give up pursuing a solo career.”