Tatum Spears loved to sing from the time she was old enough to talk, and she performed for her family, friends and school talent shows. She didn't begin to study music until she was a junior in high school, when she joined the school choir. Her choir director Jason Whitson taught her to sight-read and encouraged her to audition for the Tennessee All-East Choir.
"I ended up being chosen as a member of the All-East and All-State choirs my junior and senior years. After that, I realized that music was something that I was passionate about, good at, and potentially had a future in, so I decided to apply to ETSU as a music major," Spears says.
It was while she was at ETSU that Spears, a lyric soprano, discovered opera. "Before coming to ETSU, I had very little experience with classical music. At the time, Mozart was my favorite composer. I loved everything about his music, and his operas always piqued my interest. The first aria I remember feeling an emotional attachment to was "Der Hölle Rache' from "Die Zauberflöte.'" Her favorite composer is now Puccini, and her favorite opera is Donizetti's "L'elisir d'amore," in which she recently played the role of Adina in ETSU's production.
"I didn't know anything about opera until I started attending ETSU," Spears continues. "The applied voice staff teaches the classical style exclusively, and as a music major, I was required to study with a voice professor. When I discovered how easy it was for me to learn and implement operatic techniques in my solo singing, I started to become quite fond of the classical style and wanted to learn more about opera. Knowing that I was capable of singing opera at all was a miracle to me. I continued researching and learning all the opera jargon and lingo and fell in love with it along the way."
Spears says she loves acting in opera as much as she loves the singing.
"It showcases the human voice in the most unfiltered, uninhibited and purest way. In my experience, opera is definitely the most exhilarating form of singing. I love acting in opera just as much as I love the singing. When I was in my first opera ("Gianni Schicchi'), I got to experience what it was like to move around and interact with others while singing, which was very different from the recital etiquette I was being taught – standing still, arms to my side, etc. Now, I feel that character development and emotional awareness are absolutely vital to a genuine opera performance. Learning notes is easy – becoming the character takes the performance to the next level."
Her love for and ability in opera led her to the Metropolitan Opera National Council North Carolina auditions, which is a program created by The Metropolitan Opera designed to discover promising young opera singers and assist in the development of their careers.
"The MONC auditions were simultaneously thrilling and terrifying," Spears says. "As the second-youngest singer, I was astounded by the talent that I was surrounded by that day from people much older and more experienced than I was. I thought I was in way over my head. I was so nervous that my entire body was tingling. I performed two arias: "Steal Me, Sweet Thief' from "The Old Maid and the Thief' by Gian Carlo Menotti, and "O wär ich schon mit dir vereint' from "Fidelio' by Beethoven."
Spears admits she was shocked when she won the Frances Shafter Recognition Award at the MONC audition. Thirty-six singers auditioned; three were chosen to go on to regional competitions and four received recognition awards. "Winning the Frances Shafter Recognition Award is undoubtedly the biggest accomplishment in my career so far," Spears says.
She hopes to continue with her career as an opera singer. "I want to attain a master's degree in opera performance. My goal is to have a successful career as an opera performer. I have no backup career plan, which means that I can never allow myself to give up on auditioning or learning or growing as a singer. I know that rejection is as natural a process as breathing, and I let every "no' fuel my desire to improve until I hear a big "yes.'
"To me, music is a pure form of communication from one soul to another," she says. "It is a powerful source of raw emotion. Music is timeless, and it is never performed the same way twice. It is my way of channeling my deepest collection of feelings and sharing them with the audience. Music makes me feel powerful and vulnerable at the same time.
"I like to approach music from an emotional level. I want to figure out what the story is behind the music and turn it into my own interpretation. It's tricky to approach everything from an emotional point, however, because I never want to forgo my vocal technique for the sake of pure acting. It's really a fine line that I'm still toying with. But for me, the story is the most important part of the music. To me, performing is a way of communicating my innermost thoughts that can't otherwise be expressed. I reach a level of emotion through singing that I can't reach in any other way. It's truly a sublime experience."
Spears is a 22-year-old senior at East Tennessee State University, Johnson City, Tenn. The Weber City, Va., native is the daughter of Charlie and Judy Spears.