A! Magazine for the Arts

Opera Singer Following in Ancestor's Footsteps

April 27, 2010

Nineteen-year-old Hannah Dishman will celebrate her 20th birthday this summer in one of the most beautiful cities in the world -- Rome, Italy. She has been invited to sing the demanding role of Count Orlofsky in Operafestival di Roma's production of Strauss' Die Fledermaus.

Hannah is the daughter of Mike and Debbie Dishman of Bristol, Va., and has two older brothers. She grew up working on her family farm near I-81 Exit 7. Her family now has a farm on the Gate City Highway. Hannah owns two Appaloosa horses and frequently does odd jobs in the barns and in the fields.

In her immediate family, Hannah says, "I am the only person who is musically inclined. However, my grandmother, Betty Dishman, was a frequent soloist at Virginia Intermont College more than 50 years ago. My interest in opera comes from my mother's side of the family because her great-grandparents and my great-great-grandparents came to America from Naples, Italy to Connecticut and left behind several brothers and sisters. One of my great-great-grandfather's brothers was an opera singer and traveled all over the world singing in famous opera houses."

Hannah says, "I did not begin singing in a way one would think. I rarely sang when I was younger, except maybe when I was in my room alone with the door shut listening to Hanson, a popular band from the '90s. I have always had an ear for music and could match my pitch and tone almost perfectly to what I was hearing. When I was in fifth grade, friends would ask me all the time to do my impersonation of Britney Spears ("Hit Me Baby One More Time") just to get a laugh because I sounded just like her... not something I am proud of now that I am classically trained."

When she was 15 years old, Hannah auditioned for her high school musical Grease. "I didn't have any voice lessons prior to the audition and, even with no performance experience, I got the part of Sandy. Shortly after that performance, I began taking voice lessons with Mark Owen Davis, not knowing that the lessons consisted of me singing classically. After a short time, he recognized a gift that I had for operatic singing and encouraged me to dig deeper to get the most out of my voice. Here I am four years later with a voice capable of filling up any performance hall one can throw at me."

She continues, "I decided I wanted a career in opera when I first realized that I have what it takes to excel in the art more than any other genre of music. I have become very passionate about performing opera because the amount of drama, internalization of the texts, and the self-freedom it takes to perform thrills me more than anything. Internalization of the texts means that I have to completely understand and portray the emotions. Self-freedom means I have to let go of my body and thoughts and become another person while performing.I have recently been working on a French aria from Samson y Dalilah. Preparing for this aria, I have to become Dalilah and seduce Samson into loving only me. Personally, I am not a seductive person, but to successfully portray Dalilah I have to let go of who I am and just become the part."

Hannah says, "I find performing difficult when I tense up my body, in turn tensing up my voice. I am such an intense person that this habit has been one that is hard to break. Recently, I have overcome that tenseness. It is my greatest joy when I overcome anything that prohibits me from moving forward."

Musical Training

She has studied piano since she was six years old -- under Suzanne Kerney, Connie Wurster, and Ann Holler -- and guitar since age 13 under Tim Paretti.

A mezzo-soprano who has a range of more than 2-1/2 octaves, Hannah began singing classically at age 15 and has been studying voice under the tutelage of Davis, who calls her "a vocal prodigy...the most advanced singer at her age I have ever taught."

She won scholarships from the Virginia Lions Club and Bristol Music Club competitions in 2007 and 2008. She attended the Summer Voice Institute at the Manhattan School of Music in 2009.

At Bristol Virginia High School, Hannah was heavily involved in drama production and performed such roles as "Sandy" from Grease, "Grizabella" from Cats, and "Lady of the Lake" from Monty Python's Spamalot.

She has performed at Bristol's Rhythm and Roots Reunion twice, singing Christian/folk songs, and several other venues. She leads worship music for children and youth for a local ministry called Bristol Outreach and has been an active member of her church choir.

Preparing for Italy

In November of 2009, Hannah auditioned for Operafestival di Roma, a non-profit educational organization whose purpose is to identify and support students, faculty and professional musicians interested in furthering both their musical education and their practical performing experience.

Singers are selected by a jury of international judges to perform in a fully-staged opera, as well as chamber and symphonic music concerts in Rome, accompanied by the International Chamber Ensemble Symphony Orchestra. Performances will take place in a 15th-century square for three days: July 23, 24 and 26.

Hannah will spend the month of July in Italy, taking classes in Italian diction and opera, individual voice lessons, and master classes with a guest faculty of prominent artists from around the world.

She says, "I am very excited about the opportunity to study and perform in Rome this summer. In the next few months leading up to my trip to Rome, I will be very busy."

She will continue working four days a week as a nanny for a family in Bristol, taking care of three children ranging in age from nine months to age 3.

Future Opportunities

"Our most talented participants have often moved from their experience with Operafestival to roles in opera companies throughout the world," says William M. Welty, Managing Director of Operafestival di Roma. "This last year, the documentary "The Audition,' shown in theatres nationwide as part of the "Live in HD from the Met' series, featured two of our former participants who were among the nine finalists in the 2007 Met Opera National Council Auditions."

When Hannah returns from Italy, she plans to pursue a bachelor's degree in music/vocal performance. To that end, she traveled to New York City and Philadelphia earlier this year to audition at The Juilliard School, the Manhattan School of Music, and the Curtis Institute of Music. Shortly thereafter, she was accepted into Manhattan School with a full scholarship for fall enrollment in their Bachelor of Music program.

She is also in the process of fundraising for her trip to Italy to participate in Operafestival di Roma. Welty continues, "It is imperative for young talented artists like Hannah to have help as they begin their careers. If you wish to help sponsor her participation in Operafestival, you may send your contribution check (payable to Operafestival di Roma) directly to: Hannah Dishman, 400 Belleair Lane, Bristol, Va. 24201.