Alison Wahl '08
Alison Wahl ’08, soprano, performed Grant Park Music Festival as a soloist with the Grant Park Orchestra in Chicago, July 2017.

Opera: Soprano Alison Wahl ’08

The peculiarity of making a living as a classical singer is not lost on Alison Wahl ’08. “I pay my rent,” she says, “by making weird noises with my face.” But Wahl is pretty sure she landed in the right place: “I keep coming back to music, because I find it more interesting than anything else.”

For an emerging singer, Wahl has earned an impressive list of accolades. Her vocal talents have landed her coveted soloist gigs with professional orchestras in New England and the Midwest—including the Boston Pops, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Music of the Baroque—and awards from the Met Opera’s National Council, Handel Aria Competition and Musicians Club of Women, among others.

This July she performed during the Grant Park Music Festival as a soloist with the Grant Park Orchestra, the first prominent role she’s been offered without having to audition.

The Chicago Tribune has praised Wahl’s “bright, vibrant soprano,” but as with any job, it’s helpful if you end up in the right place at the right time. “I’m singing full-time, and I’m passionate about the music,” says the performer, “but all of my successes are really the product of luck.”

Take one recent example: A promotional poster for a Chicago Symphony Orchestra performance accidentally listed Wahl as a soloist, rather than as a choral singer. The error was eventually corrected, but the Tribune took note and ran an article praising Wahl’s brief solo. “My role got a little blown out of proportion because of a mix-up,” she says. “But it’s part of the reason why I landed the gig at the Grant Park Music Festival.”

Alison Wahl '08
Wahl, performing as a soloist at the Kennedy Center Conservatory Project in Washington, D.C. Her dream role is Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro.

Wahl’s favorite performance to date also landed in her lap by luck. While she was pursuing her doctorate in musical arts at Northwestern University, she says, “one of my voice professors was supposed to play the narrator in Aaron Jay Kernis’ adaptation of Goblin Market.” The professor got sick just before the performance, and so Wahl stepped in for the role, based on her knack for sight-reading and background in composition.

More luck came in 2015, when Wahl sang in the world premiere of a long-lost opera composed by Eustasio Rosales, one of the first Latin American composers to have work performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Rosales’ grandson, a young filmmaker named Arlen Parsa, discovered the 80-year-old opera in his aunt’s attic and decided to simultaneously stage the opera and film its production for a documentary.

“The filmmaker had no musical background,” Wahl says, “and I was lucky enough to be associated with the conductor he randomly found on Google.”

Wahl was cast as the opera’s protagonist and featured in the documentary, which won the Chicago Latino Film Festival’s Audience Choice Award. “Part of it is about the immensely important contributions that immigrants make to our society,” Wahl says.

Wahl expected to major in psychology, but her music professors at Amherst encouraged her to pursue classical singing. She studied music composition and German literature, and took voice lessons at UMass with mezzo-soprano Janna Baty, who offered this advice: “There are as many ways to be a musician as there are stars in the sky.” Consequently, Wahl does not limit herself to classical music. She also performs original folk songs, accompanying herself on guitar and banjo.

Wahl’s dream role is Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro. “When I was a junior at Amherst, Professor Sigrit Schutz showed me a picture of a professional actress playing Susanna and said, ‘That’s going to be you someday,’” Wahl says. “I’ve gotten to do scenes from it, but I’ve always wanted to play the whole role.” With her luck, it just might happen.

Rachel Rogol covers the arts in the Amherst communications office.