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.”
It was a pivotal moment for Parker. “My answer, off the top of my head, was a perfect one,” she mused. “I said that I would really like to make a living doing what I was trained to do in college: sing in a good chorus.”
She was asked back for a further audition, but because she was in the middle of a transition from soprano to mezzo soprano, her voice “had not filled out in the register he needed.” Someone else was hired for the slot, and Parker endured disappointment. Then the chorus master phoned her late one night and offered her “extra” chorus work.
Performing in Aida, Boris Godunov and Otello that first year, she began her 20-year adventure. In order to continue in the Met’s “extra” chorus, she had to go through the audition process every year. “You’re hired per season, per opera, to augment the ‘regular’ chorus — a misnomer if I’ve ever heard one—for the larger scale operas,” Parker explained.
“I’ve also sung with the New York Philharmonic and the Met Orchestra at Carnegie Hall and other professional orchestras as a jobbed-in professional singer.”
Fun with famous people
Singing in the Metropolitan Opera’s extra chorus gave Parker a few stories to tell. In her first year, performing in Aida, she spent 30 minutes putting on dark makeup, had to wear a shroud-like burlap costume with a hat that “looked like a cow patty,” and sang for only 20 minutes. “It seemed very anti-climactic compared to the professional chorus jobs I had been doing with the Philharmonic where the chorus is a very full part of the performance,” she said.
But her next opera experience with the Met that first year, Boris Godunov, made up for it. “There the chorus is in the entire opera and is really considered a character in the opera: the starving Russian masses,” Parker said. “We had a Russian coach to help us learn pronunciation for the libretto, which was transcribed from the Cyrillic. I really loved working and performing in that opera…loved the music, the language and the acting on stage.”
Also during Boris Godunov, David Stivender, the chorus master for whom she’d auditioned, chose her as one of two women in the chorus to be in a small solo group. After Stivender died suddenly about three years later, Parker learned that he had been planning to make her part of the regular chorus.
As it happened, however, she stayed in the extra chorus at the Met, singing her way through many operas. “Some were loads of fun, others not so much, but it was always a thrill to walk in that backstage door, make the block-long walk to the ladies’ dressing room and finally walk onto that amazing stage area,” she said, noting that the main stage area is 103 by 90 feet, not counting the rear and side stages.
Parker has met and worked with her share of famous people, including tenor Plácido Domingo. “I remember being all done up in my third act chorus ball gown, going past the stars’ dressing room heading to the double doors leading to the backstage area. Ahead of me was Mr. Domingo, who opened the doors for himself, did a little quarter turn, a double take, and then asked me, ‘Are you new?’”
Despite the “dreadful wig” she was wearing as part of her costume, Domingo’s attention made her “smile and feel good about myself,” she said. She was brave enough to go to the stars’ dressing room area during a subsequent performance, the singer’s autobiography in hand, to ask for his autograph.
“Little did I know that you were never supposed to do that, especially during an opera performance, but he was extremely gracious and even let his manager take a picture of us together.”
Parker also worked with the Canadian tenor Jon Vickers. During a rehearsal of Samson & Delilah, the powerful singer “felt the need to stop the rehearsal and give the chorus a lecture on what we should be feeling and emoting.” The chorus members, she said, perhaps “weren’t feeling the part of the thoroughly downtrodden Hebrew slaves,” the role in which they were cast.
When Vickers was taken ill on the afternoon before an evening performance, a singer from the New York City Opera was brought in since it was too late for the cover tenor to fly in from Texas. At a later performance, the cover tenor took over. He was considerably taller than Vickers, but was given Vickers’ short toga.
“I know the first rows of the house, or at least the orchestra, could see our shoulders shaking with laughter,” Parker said. She speculated that perhaps most of the audience “thought we were acting and shaking with grief at being poor slaves.”
Don’t quit that day job
Life hasn’t been all opera and glamor for Parker, although she has had a few brushes with celebrity even in her non-operatic endeavors.
“Like most pro singers, I also had church choir/soloist jobs to help support myself along with working part- to full-time in many different industries,” she said. “It’s been a challenge, to say the least.”
Parker’s first professional singing job in New York was as a soloist for a high-profile funeral. “I subbed for a friend who had been asked to sing, and ended up singing for the funeral of Annie Laurie Aiken, mother-in-law of Claus Von Bulow,” she recalled. Von Bulow had been accused of putting his wife, Sunny, into a coma, was barred from the funeral, and security was tight.
“As I began to sing ‘Annie Laurie,’ as requested,” she recalled, ” I looked out and there was Beverly Sills, the general director of City Opera at that time, in the front row.”
Her first professional chorus job was singing Verdi’s Requiem at Carnegie Hall, with Luciano Pavarotti as tenor. “I remember that I caught the flu and still went and performed—probably infecting all the singers around me—because I wasn’t sure if I’d be paid if I had done all the rehearsals and didn’t show up for the performance.”
Parker’s first full-time church job was in a professional choir at Marble Collegiate Church, where Norman Vincent Peale had preached for many years. “Although he was no longer actively preaching at that time, he made lots of appearances at Marble and gave a few sermons while I was there,” Parker said. Services were televised back in the 1980s and early 1990s when she was in the choir.
“At the time Donald Trump and Marla Maples were active members,” she said. “In fact, that’s where they met. There was also a large group of professional actors in the congregation.”
Later, she sang at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. “Most public dignitaries in New York City attended that church for special events and in the aftermath of the 2001 terror attacks, and there were many, many funeral masses there for firemen and policemen,” Parker said. “That was a choir of around 40, mostly volunteers with professional section leaders and soloists.”
She also sang for Yom Kippur and other holy day services at a Jewish resort in the Catskills and at various synagogues in New York City. “I always loved singing the music for the services, since it was in a different mode and very melodic,” she said.
“The only problem was that with Orthodox services it’s forbidden to use an organ or instrument, so the choir has to provide chording for the rabbi when he sings, and that’s pretty exhausting,” she said. “There was always a lot of music and it was mostly handwritten. Trying to sight-read Hebrew and unfamiliar music at the same time was not an easy task.”
Outside the music world, Parker worked as head cashier and bookkeeper at a midtown bookstore, her first regular job when she moved to New York. She also served as a promotional makeup artist at Macy’s, and as a member of the staff at Elizabeth Arden’s “Red Door” salon, frequented by such famous actors as Rosanne Barr, Halle Berry, Michael Douglas, Jennifer Lopez, Kathleen Turner and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
A memorable tour
In 2001, the Metropolitan Opera went to Japan, and Parker took that exhausting but unforgettable trip. “Ah, that was an experience, especially poignant now with the horrible disaster that has happened there recently,” she said, referring to the earthquake in March 2011.
“The Met had offered some of us in the extra chorus the opportunity to perform the Verdi Requiem and the Schoenberg Gurrelieder as a part of their concert series in Tokyo,” she recalled. The chorus at that time was memorizing these works, along with others, for performances at Carnegie Hall.
“Believe me, these choral works were not meant to be memorized and are very difficult to learn,” Parker said.
Nevertheless, she took the opportunity to head east—chorus members received full transportation, room, and a daily stipend for the trip.
Getting there was half the work. A 13-hour flight, a tiny back-row seat that could not be reclined, a tall man in front of her who could (and did) recline his seat, not to mention an area beside her seat used as the official ‘bar area,’ added up to no sleep for Parker, who arrived dazed and swollen from the flight.
With only two days off during the 10-day stay in Japan, Parker tried to work in a little sight-seeing. “A Japanese friend of mine from the St. Patrick’s choir had arranged for her cousin in Tokyo to contact me, which she did the first day, and I immediately went with her on a train to see the Great Buddha in Kamakura, about an hour’s trip, I think,” she said. “It was lovely, but I was so jet-lagged.”
Most of the singers were in the same state, and once rehearsals started the next day they were “always desperately looking for coffee.” Japanese vending machines were set up on the street, and they had to figure out for themselves what beverage was being dispensed.
Appreciative audiences in Japan helped make up for all the hard work and inconvenience. “Japanese audiences love classical music and they are very quiet and rapt during a performance and afterwards their applause is very contained,” Parker explained. “However, the Met performances are always sold out and they loved having the Met come there for tours.”
Parker used her remaining free day to see Mount Fuji and tour the hot sulphur springs nearby. “It’s really a beautiful country.”
Moving on in music
Although she considers herself retired from singing, Parker continues her musical career by serving as a music therapist in a nursing home in Brooklyn.
“I actually teach an opera guild for the residents, and it’s amazing, but there are so many residents who are interested and find joy in opera,” she said. “Many are from Europe and Eastern Europe and they grew up hearing classical music, and some of their parents sang opera arias to them at home.”
Parker’s method is to collapse an opera into a 50-minute segment “by telling a condensed version of the story and then playing selections that move the action and story forward,” she said.
“It’s up to me to successfully tell the story, hold their interest, and help them recover memories from their youth or childhood,” Parker added. “Plus, the beautiful music has the power to soothe the soul even if you don’t know what exactly is happening!”