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Rising Star

Ventura’s Sophie Wingland has never been one for the straight road. Now, at age 21, the talented soprano is looking to push opera in a whole new direction.

By Ivor Davis

Photo by Molly Wingland

 

t was a noisy Saturday night at the Ventura Harbor Comedy Club. Table five was raucously celebrating a birthday, with nonstop primo margaritas. I ordered a drink called a Twisted Orchid from the pretty blonde waitress as the first two comics tossed out a handful of worn and slightly risqué jokes.

Then, halfway into the show, the M.C. announced: “We have a surprise… Please welcome Sophie.” And my blonde, pretty waitress dropped her tray and bounced on stage to sing a brief operatic song, “La Villa Nelle.”

For a few seconds the audience was stunned, wondering if she’d gotten lost on her way to a gig at the Santa Barbara Opera, or if perhaps this was some warped Monty Python comedy act?

Neither. The big-voiced blonde was local girl Sophie Wingland, one of the Ventura Music Festival’s “Rising Stars,” who will share the limelight with 16-year-old violin prodigy (and Harvard researcher) Jourdan Urbach as part of the Festival’s 15th annual program. And as incongruous as it seemed, the audience, which had come for laughs, was captivated. 

Welcome to the economic reality of classical music. There is no easy way to the top for a 21-year-old opera singer from Ventura, so while trying to carve out an uncommon career, Wingland has to find ways to pay her bills and fund her voice lessons. And while it is unlikely that Maria Callas or Renee Fleming had to sling Mai Tais and chicken wings, the road to success is never easy. (Beverly Sills sang for kids’ birthday parties before becoming the darling of the New York Metropolitan Opera.)

Wingland is no exception. She lives with her parents, Mark, a composer and music teacher, and her mother, Kathy, a nurse/midwife, while dreaming of a career on stage. Last May, hometown soprano Nicole Cabell, winner of the Cardiff BBC “Singer of the World” competition, returned to Ventura to perform at the Music Festival. This year Ms. Wingland is hoping for a similar standing ovation from the hometown crowd.

Such abundance of talent leads one to wonder if there’s something in the Ventura air that grows wonderful voices. “At less than two years old Sophie could sing melodies on key and had a great sense of pitch,” recalls her father, Mark Wingland.

Local voice teacher Linda Ottsen remembers her as a very young girl saying she wanted to star in one of her operas. “She was nine years old at the time, but even at such a young age her voice took on a whole new dimension of power … so resonant it cuts through the orchestra.” She’s always been headstrong, her father says, always a “much older soul than her age.”

In between her comedy club waitress stint and applying for a scholarship to the USC Thornton School of Music, the lively young soprano sat down at My Florist Café in downtown Ventura, attacked a steaming bowl of oatmeal, and talked about her life of song.

She is dressed all in black, her blonde hair pulled back tightly. With blue eyes, finely chiseled features, and a pale complexion, she looks more East Coast prep than California surf queen. 

Ivor Davis: Was music always part of your life?

Sophie Wingland: My dad teaches music at Pacifica High School in Oxnard, and he’s a composer and blues guitarist who also runs a music program at Ventura Methodist Church. So I was brought up with music in my life.

Where did you go to school?

Elmhurst Elementary, and then Anacapa where I played cello with music teacher Mario Bocalli and was in his choir. Then I went to Ventura High and played cello there. After two years I got my GED, and at 17 I left Ventura and went to the Oberlin Music School in Ohio for four years. It’s a little isolated, and very Midwest for a West Coast girl.

How old were you when you started to sing?

I was seven and sang with Marcene Jardine’s Ventura County Children’s Master Chorale. I wanted to start a lot earlier. Singing in the choir was my favorite time. I also did a lot of solos.

How did your parents feel about your singing?

I guess there was an aha! moment. They always knew what I wanted; they have a tape of me when I was four saying, ‘I want to be an opera singer.’

Did friends think you were eccentric for pursuing opera?

I was always a bit of an odd fish … but so were my friends who had been playing with me since fifth and sixth grade. They understood classical music and my passion for music. And they came to my concerts. 

How do you feel about singing at your local church, the venue for the Ventura Music Festival concert?

Great. I’ve sung there many times and know the stage, so it’s a bit like performing at home.

What can we expect at the concert?

I’m doing some Stravinsky—the Anne Trulove aria from The Rake’s Progress—as well as ‘On This Island,’ the song cycle by Benjamin Britten. And a few other pieces.

Is your ambition to sing in all the great opera houses of the world?

Honestly, it’s not my life’s dream, although I’m sure a lot of singers would want that. My dream is to open my own opera company to showcase new composers and music and get younger people interested in it. I love new music and have been in several contemporary productions. I feel opera needs one big push in a different direction.

04-01-2009

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