Millicent Scarlett Biography
Surprised by Her Singing Skill, Earned Singing Scholarships, Performed with Pavarotti, Began Building Professional Career
Her voice has been called sublime, radiant, commanding, and quite simply, beautiful. In operas, jazz concerts, and show-stopping recitals, Millicent Scarlett has sung her way into a resounding career. "I love singing very dearly," she told The Diamondback, the student paper of the University of Maryland. "I hope the love of what I'm doing shows through in my performances." Apparently it does, with everyone from her second-grade music teacher to opera legend Luciano Pavarotti having fallen sway under her vocal charms.
Surprised by Her Singing Skill
The youngest of seven, Veronica Millicent Scarlett was born on April 25, 1971, in the Canadian city of Winnipeg, Manitoba. Her parents Neville and Veronica Scarlett, both born in Jamaica, provided a solid middle-class upbringing for Scarlett and her siblings. "My mom was an LPN nurse at Deerlodge Hospital and my dad was a welder and worked for Old Dutch Potato Chips," Scarlett told Contemporary Black Biography (CBB). Nonetheless, the Scarletts found it difficult to afford to raise their large family and provide the youngest Scarlett with voice lessons at the same time. "I really appreciate the sacrifices [my parents] made for me, for my training," Scarlett told The Winnipeg Free Press. "There were lessons, and many trips to Europe. It was not easy."
Those sacrifices began when Scarlett was in second grade. "One day after music class the teacher took me aside and said she wanted to speak to my mother and that she would take me home after school," Scarlett recalled to CBB. "[She told my mom], 'I think that Millie should take voice lessons.' My mom was surprised as I never sang at home. I was surprised too. I had only been doing what the teacher told me to do." The teacher was insistent, and Scarlett soon found herself in singing lessons.
Scarlett was a natural. "Singing was never a difficult thing," she told The Winnipeg Free Press. "Learning the theory, and what makes it all come together was more difficult for me." By the age of ten, Scarlett began participating in local and regional singing competitions including the Winnipeg Music Festival. She also began studying for the Canadian Royal Conservatory of Music exams. She sang for her school choir and participated in three school musicals. She also sang in the choir at Holy Trinity Anglican church. While still a high school student, she was hired to sing for productions of Rainbow Stage, a professional theater company in Winnipeg. Despite her busy performance schedule, she was 16 before she realized she was good. "[I began] winning competitions and scholarships and actually getting money from singing," she told CBB. "By that point I hadn't decided if I'd be a singer or not, but I realized I was good at it."
Earned Singing Scholarships
In 1989, after graduating from high school, Scarlett headed to Brandon University on a performance scholarship that included a full tuition waiver. There Scarlett was introduced to opera by her vocal coach. "She helped me…develop an appreciation of opera, to make contacts, to be prepared for anything," Scarlett told The Winnipeg Free Press. Until that time she had sung mostly jazz, chorals, and Broadway-style musicals. While at Brandon, Scarlett also realized that music was more than just something she was good at. "In my first year in college, I went to a summer camp in Tampa, Florida, sponsored by the International Institute of Vocal Arts," Scarlett told CBB. "While I was there I realized for the first time that a career in music was very possible for me to do." During her senior year, Scarlett received Brandon's coveted Silver Medal for the highest GPA in applied performance and in 1993 she graduated with a Bachelor of Music in applied voice performance.
Scarlett left Canada for Washington, D.C., in 1994 and enrolled as an opera graduate student at the University of Maryland College Park. She knew only the director of the school's opera program. "He is Canadian as well, and he was the reason I moved to Maryland," Scarlett told CBB. She earned several scholarships to cover the costs of her tuition and settled into the program. She traveled to Salzburg, Austria, to study at the Mozarteum music school. She also traveled several times to the International Institute of Vocal Arts in Chiari, Italy, though she told CBB that she was "just a tag-along" on those trips. "At the time I was living with another singer who I thought was just fantastic. Her manager had taken her to Italy through the International Institute, and I went along too." And when Scarlett's roommate enrolled in the Luciano Pavarotti International Voice Competition, Scarlett did too. "But I assumed she would be the one to be called back, not me," Scarlett told CBB. She was wrong.
Performed with Pavarotti
Of the over 2,000 singers from around the world who entered the 1996 Pavarotti competition, only 145 advanced to the semifinals. Scarlett was among them. She performed the aria from The Marriage of Figaro for Pavarotti. "When I finished he said in Italian, 'Thank you very much, that's enough.' He had listened to everyone else sing two arias. But he stopped me at one," she told CBB. "On the way upstairs to get my things I just assumed I had sung badly. By the time I got back downstairs, one of Pavarotti's assistants was waiting for me. He told me, 'Maestro Pavarotti said to tell you that he only needed to hear you sing once. It was enough for him.'" Scarlett had made it to the finals.
When Pavarotti called her name as one of the winners, Scarlett was so shocked that the other contestants had to push her forward to shake his hand. "All I could think was here I was, this girl from Winnipeg who came to Maryland for school, not knowing anyone, not knowing about the Pavarotti competition," she told CBB. "And I became one of the winners. I knew then that my parents' money hadn't gone down the drain. All the encouragement I had received over the years, all the hard work from my teachers, all of it wasn't wasted. That was the best for me."
As a winner, Scarlett performed onstage with Pavarotti in the Luciano Pavarotti Opera Extravaganza in Philadelphia. "[That] was another high," Scarlett told CBB. "Meeting him, performing with him, he was very nice and very encouraging," she told The Winnipeg Free Press. However, Scarlett's real joy in performing with Pavarotti came from knowing her parents were watching her. "He was the only opera singer my mom knew," Scarlett told CBB. "Until the day I die, I'll never forget the look on my mom's face when she and my dad walked into the auditorium the day of the winners' performance and saw him on stage rehearsing. My mom nudged me and asked me, 'Is that him?' I said 'Yes.'"
Began Building Professional Career
Almost immediately on the heels of her Pavarotti win, Scarlett had her operatic debut in Washington in Dido and Aeneus. "I got a fantastic review from The Washington Post, " she told CBB. Over the next year she participated in nearly a dozen productions both with the University of Maryland Opera Studio and professionally. Notable among them were roles in the North American premier of La Fiamminga and in the world premiere of Fatal Song. After graduating with a masters of music in opera in 1997, Scarlett began a heavy schedule of singing, teaching, and touring. In 1998 she became a national finalist at the prestigious Metropolitan Opera auditions in New York. She performed a solo with the National Symphony at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. She also made her debut in Italy as soloist with the Internationale Orchestra di Italia. Meanwhile Scarlet joined the faculty of George Washington University as an adjunct professor of voice and also began giving private classes and lectures including master classes in voice at the University of Manitoba.
In 2000 Scarlett made her professional opera debut with the Illinois Opera playing the role of Clara in Porgy and Bess. The Winnipeg Free Press quoted reviews of her performance calling Scarlett "radiant and enchanting" and "a standout in the cast." Since then Scarlett has graced dozens of stages. She has sung soprano solos in famed operas such as Mozart's Requiem, Verdi's Requiem, Haydn's Creation, Handel's Israel in Egypt, and Lord Nelson's Mass. She has also performed with Opera International at the Lisner Auditorium in Washington, D.C. However Scarlett doesn't classify herself as an opera singer. "I love all genres of music," she told CBB. "I love opera and love performing it, but I also love doing recitals too, and singing with orchestras. I love doing concerts and smaller cabaret-style shows." This diversity is reflected in her roles. She has sung show tunes in Celebration of Music by Bernstein and Gershwin with the Washington Theatre Orchestra and gospels in Let My People Go with the Master Chorale of Washington. She has also performed at churches, fundraisers, political dinners, and in 2000 she was a featured soloist on ESPN's live broadcast of the Outback Bowl's half-time show.
Poised to Keep Performing
Of all her performances, Scarlett told CBB about one that was very dear to her. "Performing with Pavarotti was amazing, and doing Porgy and Bess was unbelievable, but a more personal thing for me was going back to Winnipeg [in 2004] and doing my first solo recital as a bona fide professional." Scarlett was invited to do the recital as a guest of the Women's Musical Club of Winnipeg. The group supports young Canadian musicians with scholarships and had awarded a $500 scholarship to Scarlett in 1990. At the recital Scarlett performed songs ranging from Mozart's "Exultate Jubilate" to Gershwin's "Summertime." "[It was] probably the best recital I've ever done," Scarlett told CBB. "My family was there, my friends, teachers, other singers I had competed against while growing up. It was so great to come back and sing in front of them.… I was not little Millie anymore. Now, I am Millicent Scarlett. The reaction I got I will never forget. They treated me as if I were a rock star."
A singing career is never easy to pursue, and Scarlett encountered the usual disappointments along the way—rejections, bad auditions, insecurities. However she also had to deal early on in her career with a subtle racism. "Sometimes it is hard being a black soprano," she told CBB. "We have to be very, very good to get noticed. I am not blonde, nor skinny, and I think that has had an effect on the way I've been treated, but I have never let it bother me." Reflecting on her current career, she added, "I don't notice if it is happening now. I can't afford to allow that to occupy my mind. I am going out to sing, if they don't like me, well, I move onto the next person."
As Scarlett considered her future, she looked forward to simply singing. "I don't know where that will lead me," she told CBB. "I don't know if that means opera or recitals. I just want to be singing." With a calendar bulging with performances, classes, and a CD in the works, she seemed poised to do just that.
The Winnipeg Free Press, April 21, 2004, April 22, 2004.
"Student to Sing with Pavarotti," The Diamondback, www.inform.umd.edu/News/Diamondback/1996-editions/02-February-editions/960213-Tuesday/NEWS-student_to_sing_w_Pavarott (October 20, 2004).
Additional information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Millicent Scarlett on November 7, 2004.