Wednesday, November 4, 2009

When I grow up, I want to..........

I've been thinking about this for a while now. We all know how fascinating it is to hear someone talk about their dreams. Even better when you can look into their eyes and see the passion behind these dreams. So, new as my blog may be, I want to start a weekly post about dreams.My dreams and other people's dreams.

I should have used my own dreams, hopes and aspirations to start this post, but I have found a much better way to do this.

Allow me to share..........

A couple of weeks ago, I reconnected with my favourite cousin of all time on Facebook. (Thank God for Facebook). You know how you just click with certain people the very first time you meet and the connection is there forever? That's how it's always been with Eric. I'm so happy to be back in touch.

But this isn't about Eric (Sorry Eric, your time will come!)

Eric is in love. And of course he's told me all about the special lady. And now I'm in love too!

I don't intend to divulge any personal information here, but I need to share some of what I know about this special lady.

She had dreams, and she followed her dreams, BIG TIME. And I am so inspired. I'm not going to go on and on about her as if I've known her all my life, we haven't even met yet, nevertheless, I can say this.

Kokui's dream is to be an opera singer.

And to make this even better,today is Kokui's birthday!

So, Happy Birthday Kokui!

I am so inspired by you and I beleive in my heart that many many more will be inspired too.

Dreams are possibilities. That's what I've learned from you!

I tried to summarise the story, but it would have taken away from the message I want to share, and the experience, so.....

And did I say she was BEAUTIFUL too!

Here's her story, from Ghanaweb.


I was born in Accra, Ghana on November 4, 1978. Shortly thereafter, my mother took my older brother and me to England to join our father, who was earning his Master’s degree from the London School of Economics. I grew up in England and it was there that I got my first taste of being on stage. I was about 8 years old when I was chosen to play a small role in the Christmas play at my primary school. I basically had one line to say in the whole show, but I took my role very seriously. One day, our director pulled me aside to tell me that one of the lead characters; the innkeeper, [who was female in this play], would not be able to do the role anymore, so she asked if I could take over! I was absolutely thrilled.

I already knew the part as if I had played it a thousand times. I always felt comfortable on stage, more so than in my everyday life [I was a shy child…in fact I will admit that I am still a little shy]. Acting felt so natural to me and I blossomed with each performance. One night after the play, several parents stopped me as my mother led me out of the theater. They congratulated me and showered me with praise and admiration, saying how amazed they were that I could act so well at such a young age. To my surprise and disdain, my mother quickly dismissed their comments and told me not to believe that I was that good. At the time, I did not understand that although she was proud of me, she knew how hard it could be to pursue a career in entertainment, so she was trying to protect me by convincing me to focus my talents elsewhere. The Christmas play ended a successful run and I took my last bow as the obstinate innkeeper, but my desire to be a performer still burned deep within me.

About a year later, my family moved back to Ghana and I had my first taste of culture shock. To me, Ghana was foreign, even though my parents instilled Ghanaian values in us. I was enrolled at Ridge Church School in Accra and I quickly adapted to life as a Ghanaian girl. I was always a good student and I made friends quickly but I had to work extra hard to prove that the shy Ghanaian girl with the British accent could hold her own. Many tro-tro rides and ampe games later, I completed Junior Secondary School at Ridge Church and began my Senior Secondary studies at Holy Child School in Cape Coast as a third generation HolyCo Lady.

I joined the Holy Child choir, scola cantorum during my first year. Aside from the fact that it was a performance opportunity, I was attracted by the chance for choir members to take trips to other schools, [mainly St. Augustine’s College] for concerts. I always had a good ear for music and I picked up our songs very quickly. In my second year, our director awarded me the coveted prize for best scola cantorum member. By this time, I had also forged a close friendship with two of my Holy Child sisters, Natasha Gwira and Nana Ajua Mensah- Brown. The three of us formed our own performance group, which we fashioned after the popular American group; Sisters With Voices [SWV]. We rehearsed and choreographed several routines to perform at funfairs and other social events at our neighboring institutions. We soon built quite a reputation among our Cape Coast peers but I didn’t let my love for performing interfere with my studies. After finishing at the top of my class in the Senior Secondary Certificate Examination [SSCE], I moved to the United States to continue my education.

I did some additional studies at the Allen Academy in Texas prior to applying to university. While at Allen, I joined the school choir to fulfill my extracurricular activities requirement. My choir director noticed that my voice seemed to possess a special quality and natural beauty and she encouraged me to audition for a slot in the Texas All- State Choir, which comprised of young singers from all over the state. I had never taken voice lessons and I feared that I may be too inexperienced to compete on such a high level, but nonetheless, I submitted an audiotape recording of my voice and, based on that, was selected as one of the Alto singers for the Texas All- State Choir. I later learned that I was the only singer chosen from the county where I resided.

After my All-State Choir experience, I worked up the nerve to compete in the Texas Private and Parochial Schools vocal competition in our region. I ended up winning the second place medal while a girl who had studied voice for some years won the gold. I began to believe that I did have a special gift, as my choir director said, and I confidently auditioned for a musical in a local theater. The musical was The Wiz, the Quincy Jones remake of the popular musical The Wizard of Oz. I played the role of the Good Witch of the North and impressed the theater director so much that he kept me in mind for a role in a musical he was writing about the city in which we lived. He ended up casting me in his musical in the role of Annie Dale, a downtrodden slave. I had the challenge of creating a role that had never been performed. Annie sang a heartbreaking song about the life she led as a slave and, as a 17-year-old, that was probably my first emotionally challenging role. After the show audience members would approach me and tell me that I brought them to tears with my performance. I felt that I was really growing as a performer.

With more performance experience under my belt, I entered yet another singing competition. This time, my natural talent was not enough to carry me through. I fell ill on the day of the competition and my voice cracked throughout my performance. I was crushed. I knew that I lacked the technique that I needed to overcome situations like that and my mother’s concerns echoed in my mind. I focused my efforts on applying to universities.

I was accepted to the prestigious Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. My intention was to pursue a course of study that would prepare me for law school, so I selected Political Science as my major. I then began to think about the type of law I wanted to practice and decided that I would be happiest as an entertainment lawyer. At least in that field, I would still be involved in the artistic world I loved so much. After examining my options, I chose to pursue a double-major in Political Science and Music. At that time, music majors were required to have an instrument and I had the only one that God gave me: my voice, untrained but willing to be taught.

Upon my arrival at Spelman, I realized that my music major alone would occupy most of my time. I was required to be in the Glee Club, Spelman’s world-renowned choir and premier performance ensemble, for the full four years of my study. The Glee Club rehearsed every day and had several performances throughout the year, in addition to a two-week tour every spring semester. I not only had my core requirements and extra classes to take as an honors student, but I was also learning how to sing. Voice lessons were part of my curriculum and my confidence as a singer quickly faded when I realized that I was in the company of several young ladies who had extensive musical backgrounds from some of the best performing arts high schools in the country. They made me look like one of the rejects on American Idol! I started from the very basics, learning the fundamentals of music theory and composition and taking weekly lessons to improve my breathing technique, range and voice placement. As hard as I worked, I felt that my efforts were in vain. I was not as good as my more experienced colleagues and I frequently sat by as they were chosen to enter competitions or partake in important solo performances. Even though I was mainly studying music to enhance my goals for a legal career, I could not stand the fact that I was failing at something that once seemed so natural to me. Again, I started to wonder if I was cut out for the entertainment business.

My sophomore year came around and it just so happened that I had to fulfill a Performing Arts core requirement for my studies. Since none of my music classes would count towards this, I decided to take an introductory theater class. My initial intention was merely to take the class for core credit, but, as fate would have it, the class I took opened up another opportunity for me. Rumor had it that the theater department only selected certain “favorite” theater majors, to appear in the productions, but in that year, a new professor joined the department and he was selected to direct the first major production of the year. He also happened to be teaching my class. In theater class, I was like an animal in its natural habitat: completely at home. Unlike in the music department, I didn’t feel insecure about my abilities and my professor noticed that I had an innate skill when it came to acting. He held auditions for his production of the musical West Side Story and cast me as Anita, one of the lead roles. I was in love with performing again.

My voice teacher saw me in West Side Story and in my next lesson, she congratulated me on my portrayal of the character, saying that she was amazed by how well I performed. I then spoke with her about a choice I was struggling with: I was contemplating switching my major to Theater and dropping Music to a minor. If I overloaded my class schedule, I could still make the switch and graduate on time. We talked it over and she gave me her support and encouragement. I happily made the change and officially became a member of the Spelman College Theater Department.

But it appeared that music was not finished with me. The same professor who cast me in West Side Story was co-writing another musical entitled Sing Lady, Sing. The show would pay tribute to African American women who had made notable contributions to the musical and theatrical business. Some of the women heralded in the musical included Marian Anderson, Eartha Kitt, Ella Fitzgerald and, the woman who would eventually inspire me, the operatic Diva, Leontyne Price. At the time, I knew nothing about the woman whose voice was like spun silk, but I was eventually selected to play Ms. Price in Sing Lady, Sing. Ironically, the part required me to sing in an operatic style, the style I had been struggling to learn as a music major. Since I still took lessons as a music minor, I worked with my voice teacher on the piece I had to sing in the play: Franz Schubert’s Ave Maria.

I also began to do some research on Leontyne Price. In my process, I went to the music library to find some of her recordings. I came across an album from her Prima Donna collection on which she had recorded the Ave Maria from the opera Otello by Giuseppe Verdi. I sat down and played the record…

That was the moment when I realized that I had to be an opera singer.

I had never heard anything so beautiful. I probably sat there for at least an hour playing the aria over and over again, wondering how a human being could produce such a heavenly sound. It was as if God himself had touched her throat and said “sing.” I told myself I had to learn how to do this. Divine providence had led me to this recording. Music was pursuing me.

I rushed back to my voice teacher and asked her if I could switch back to being a music major, then I realized that I didn’t want to drop the thing that had rekindled my love for singing: theater. I figured that if I was diligent enough, I could double-major in music and theater. This would mean meeting all of my rehearsal and performance commitments and requirements for both departments [which often conflicted] as well as completing all core and major coursework if I was still going to graduate in a year. It was the second semester of my junior year and not only would I have to seek the approval of the entire music department faculty to be re-admitted as a music major, but I would also have to put together a junior recital by the end of the year and prepare for my senior recital for the next year. Somehow, I knew I could do it.

The music faculty agreed to re-instate me and I began to juggle an insane schedule as a music and theater double-major. To this day, I don’t know how I managed it. Sing Lady, Sing proved to be a monumental show for me because it taught me that I could learn how to sing; it was almost as if Leontyne Price had spoken to me through her singing, reassuring me that if she, an African American woman whose career began in the 1950s amid extreme segregation and racial discrimination, then I, a young woman from Ghana whose main “struggle” was within myself, could do it too. I had discovered opera and I was hooked.

I successfully completed my junior recital that year and started preparing for my senior one. Concurrently, I started applying to graduate programs. As you recall, my intention was to go to Law School, but I obviously never set foot in the Political Science Department, so my focus was on graduate schools for music. I toyed with the idea of applying to the Julliard School in New York, but upon hearing that the institution had what some considered a cutthroat environment, I explored other options. One of my closest friends, Sumayya Ali, who was a year ahead of me in school, had already begun her first year as a Master’s degree student at the New England Conservatory of Music [NEC] in Boston, Massachusetts, one of the oldest and most prominent music institutions in the United States. Sumayya returned to Spelman for a visit and encouraged me to apply to NEC, noting that she was currently studying with the teacher of world-renowned opera singer Denyce Graves.

At first, I doubted my qualifications, especially since Sumayya was one of those ladies who came into Spelman with a great voice and lots of experience, but my teacher persuaded me and helped me compile an audition CD to send with my application. The application deadline had already passed, but I sent in my materials anyway and Sumayya promised to follow up on it when she returned to NEC. She kept her word. She made sure the voice department chairman saw my application and I was invited to come to NEC for an in-person audition that same week! I found an affordable plane ticket and prayed that my nerves would not get the better of me.

I arrived at NEC an hour before my audition. Sumayya met me at the school’s main entrance and helped me find my way to my warm up room. I was literally shaking. She helped me calm down and warm up, then, a few minutes before I was scheduled to sing, she walked me to the door of the audition hall, reassuring me as we went along. Soon it was my turn. I entered the room and met the NEC voice faculty. The chairman introduced me as a potential candidate for the Master’s Degree in Music [MM] with a Vocal Performance concentration. I stepped onto the stage, handed the accompanist my music folder, announced my first selection, said a silent prayer, took a deep breath and sang.

About ten minutes later, it was all over. I breathed a sigh of relief and exited the room. They had asked me to sing three more selections from my repertoire, but I couldn’t really tell what they thought. Were they impressed? Disappointed? Did I remember all of the words??? I would have to wait to find out. Decisions would be mailed out in a few days.

That evening, I accompanied Sumayya to a recital being given by one of the students in her teacher’s studio. Just being at an institution that was dedicated solely to music inspired me. It was another level and I wanted to reach it. My friend introduced me to her teacher, who was in the audience and I was surprised that she remembered me from my audition earlier. We talked briefly and then she complimented me on my singing and nonchalantly proceeded to tell me that the faculty has accepted me into the department right after my audition!!!!!!!

I could not believe my ears. I was going to Boston!

I graduated from Spelman and in the fall of 2001, I enrolled at NEC and began my next course of study. I quickly realized that NEC was very different from the wonderful walls of my Liberal Arts undergraduate school. Here, it was all about music and I knew I had a lot of catching up to do. My new teacher was a no-nonsense woman who had a very “old school” teaching style and a reputation for bringing people to tears if they did not produce the sound she wanted, but she cared about her students and she believed in my talent. I worked hard to learn from her and she opened my voice up to a new range and to colors I did not know it possessed. I could probably write a book about my experiences at NEC, but suffice it to say that I learned a lot there, not just about my voice, but about the world in which I would soon make the leap from student to professional. I graduated in May, 2003 with a Master’s Degree in Music and that was when I truly began to understand that this was going to be my career and that it would be a tough road, but I accept the challenge as a labor of love.

My journey continues now and I’m grateful for the opportunities and training I’ve had in this field. I’m mostly grateful to God for His gift to me and to my parents for their love and for always supporting me even when they had their doubts about me pursuing music as a career. They have never stopped believing in me. I appreciate my siblings for the close bond we share and for their unwavering support and love and I thank all of the friends who have been with me and supported me along the way. My next goal is to work on some fusion music with my classical training and African highlife, hiplife, pop and hip hop music. I’ve also learned that with my classical technique, I can sing other styles of music but I think there is something rather special about being a GHANAIAN OPERA SINGER.

I hope anyone who reads this will be as inspired as I am.

More to come.

Thanks for reading.



  1. Inspiring story indeed. The blog has really taken off congrats dear Leonarda and keep it up, am loving the posts. Moua

  2. Ms. Lotsu,

    What a lovely surprise! You have inspired ME!!! Thank you so much for being so thoughtful and encouraging! I can't wait to meet you!!!