“This is my second act and I’m going to make the most of it.”
So declared Blythe Walker, a graduate student in the Penn State School of Music’s voice pedagogy program. Walker’s second act comes nearly 30 years after she was named Metropolitan Opera National Council Winner, which led to performances with the Met, New York City Opera, Boston Opera, Santa Fe Opera and many others. She has performed on Broadway and as a soloist with symphony orchestras nationally and internationally. Also a teacher, Walker has held adjunct faculty positions at the University of Cincinnati/College-Conservatory of Music and Depauw University, in addition to maintaining her own private studio.
So why is she starting her “second act” in a classroom, with fellow students more than 20 years her junior? “I woke up one day and realized I HAD to get back into academia and into the center of my musical life. Of course, it didn’t really happen overnight, but I have spent the past 15 years figuring out what I want to do, and I finally realized I wanted to go back to school.”
After Walker’s husband died suddenly in 1997, she was “shattered.” She continued to teach at the college level and in her private studio, while taking care of her aging parents. She served as soprano-in-residence at the Bay View Music Festival, was a resident master teacher/director of Young Singers of the Santa Fe Opera, and director of vocal studies at the New York Summer Music Festival, among other positions. But she needed more—a clear path and goal.
“I am pursuing my master’s in hopes that my degree, combined with my previous experience, will help me land a good academic teaching position in a conservatory or leading school of music, so that I might continue to live the life and do the work I was put on this earth to do,” Walker said.
She acknowledges that, at age 62, she is certainly an anomaly among the student body in the School of Music. “My age peers are the faculty, but I have been delighted to find my peers among the students as well. Everyone has been great. I feel embraced, respected.”
From a musical family, Walker’s dream of being an opera singer was always embraced and supported by her parents. “I knew in utero I was going to be a singer,” she joked.
Walker credits her early training in Pittsburgh with teacher Norma France as the beginning of her life as a singer. Blythe’s first significant professional engagement came in 1974, at age 21, when she was offered a position in the Cologne Opera Training School. In addition to her award from the Metropolitan Opera, career highlights include winning first prize in both the Liederkranz and McAllister international vocal competitions, and being named a finalist in the international Hans Gabor Belvedere Singing Competition. She has collaborated with Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Peter Schickele, and performed with James Levine, Sir Charles Mackerras and Keith Lockhart, among others. Walker has been featured on the TELARC, RCA, Chandos and Painted Smiles record labels.
Now, in her “second act,” Walker is enjoying being able to pursue her academic interests. She plans to write her thesis on care of the aging voice. “Specifically the postmenopausal soprano voice—I’m my own guinea pig,” she noted.
According to Walker, the research and the pedagogy are moving away from the idea that the female voice must categorically deteriorate with age. “With proper care, and understanding of the physiological changes, there’s no reason why one can’t continue to sing well and healthfully as one ages.”
Walker acknowledges there is a bit of a disconnect between “all us baby boomers who want to continue to sing and those who are actually doing the casting.” She said she is happy to now have the opportunity to play older and comedic roles, including Berta the maid in Penn State Opera Theatre’s production of “The Barber of Seville” in March.
“After a career of playing leading ladies, it’s liberating in a way, not to have to worry about carrying a show. And it’s wonderful to watch and advise the next generation as they make their mark in our art form,” Walker said. “This is the most important part of my life now—passing on what I learned from my teacher and my mentors. To everything there is a season.”
Walker’s voice pedagogy program includes a performance component, and she said she especially enjoys her one-on-one voice lessons with faculty member Jennifer Trost. “We are developing a true collaboration, and that is so meaningful to me. Being here, re-engaging in a life in music, among musicians, is a tonic. And all the faculty here are superlative.”
Despite spending much of her life in more metropolitan areas, Walker noted she feels at home at Penn State. A native of western Pennsylvania, she finds something “wonderfully familiar” about going to school in her home state. “It feels like coming full circle. And I’m getting what I need, at a high level. So much has fallen into place that I have realized this was definitely the right thing to do.”