Soprano Elena Negruta Wins American Prize
We met up with local soprano Elena Negruţă to discuss her unique background in folk music and her recent success as the winner of the American Prize in Vocal Performance for Women in Opera. Negruţă is originally from a village in the Republic of Moldova. Singing came naturally to Negruţă, who said, “I started singing before I could even speak.” Her mom was passionate about folk music and passed along that love to her daughter. In Moldova, as well as other parts of Eastern Europe, folk music is a highly valued part of the culture. At 14, Negruţă won first place at the Golden Stork International Youth Talent Festival in Mykolaiv, Ukraine. She continued her training as a folk artist, studying at the Academy of Music, Theater, and Arts in Chişinău, Moldova. There, she earned the only folk music scholarship in the country and won many other national competitions.
Even while studying folk singing, Negruţă was fascinated by opera, which she said caused a “physical reaction” when she heard it. She asked her teacher, who was also classically trained, if he could teach her some operatic exercises. However, they were both wary that learning operatic vocal technique would interfere with her folk singing since it involves developing the musculature differently. “I knew that if I were to switch to classical, my voice would change, and it wouldn’t sound the same,” she explained. She was also worried that she didn’t have the right voice for opera. “I thought maybe I couldn’t compete with the others—that I didn’t have a big enough or good enough voice to try,” she said.
Negruţă came to the United States about 16 years ago. After taking time away from singing to raise her son, she applied to the master’s program in vocal performance at the University of Illinois. The vocal faculty recognized her innate talent despite her lack of classical training and gave her a full scholarship. “I was so excited,” she recalled. “At this point, I think singing was my salvation. I really needed something to hold onto because taking care of my baby was very difficult.” Returning to her first love—singing and performing—was a way to do something for herself and make her feel whole.
But learning to sing in a new way wasn’t easy, especially while meeting the rigorous demands of a performance degree. “My technique was not quite where I was supposed to be,” she said. But in the midst of performing operas, musicals, and recitals, there was no time to think about technique.
For Negruţă, the biggest difference between folk and opera was that folk singing felt totally natural, whereas she had to fabricate an operatic sound initially. “At first, I was pretending to sound like an opera singer, but I didn’t know exactly how to produce this sound,” she said. “Of course, in folk singing, you also have to use your breath, you have to project, you have to be able to be heard and have a good tone and sing on pitch. But for me, it was a matter of just being free. Sing with as much soul as possible, and focus on whatever your soul dictates.”
Coming from this perspective set her apart from her colleagues. “Having the folk background helped me to be a different kind of opera singer,” she continued. “Although, it was sometimes a problem because when I started singing opera, I started from the feelings, not from the technique…My feelings were in the way for a while, so I needed to separate myself from my feelings for a while in order to learn.”
After completing her master’s degree in 2014, she continued to study privately and build her classical technique while working full-time as a cataloguer at the Music and Performing Arts Library at the University of Illinois. In the last few years, her honed technique has given her the flexibility to expand her repertoire and explore new styles. On the concert stage, she has appeared as the soprano soloist in various masses and cantatas by Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, and Handel with ensembles across the region, including the Baroque Artists of Champaign-Urbana and the Music Institute Chorale in Evanston.
She does not limit herself to strictly classical repertoire, however. In the summer of 2021, she premiered the role of the Wicked Witch in the new musical The Kingdom of Dreams—A Tale of Oz at the Parkland College Theater. Coming out of the pandemic, Negruţă was eager to get back on the stage, no matter the genre. “I remember the moment when they asked me to sing,” she recalled. “I didn’t care [what it was]. I said, just give me something because I missed the stage. I missed singing in front of people so much that when I finally got the chance, I really did my best.” A natural performer, Negruţă has also tackled spoken theater, appearing in the play Stoplight at the Station Theater in Urbana in August 2022.
Most recently, she participated in an exciting new concert series at the Monarch Events Center in Monticello, which took attendees on a culinary and musical tour of France. After the French-inspired meal from Pan & Cake Catering Co., Negruţă treated diners to a recital of popular French songs from the 1950s as well as art songs and opera arias. The following month, she was invited back for the Italian-themed night, where she joined other singers in arias and duets from classic Italian operas.
Despite performing frequently across a broad range of repertoire, Negruţă expressed frustration about some of the barriers she has faced as someone who came to classical singing relatively later in life. Whereas most opera singers begin their training in high school or undergrad, Negruţă only came to classical singing in her late 20s. As such, she missed out on many of the opportunities earmarked for “young artists” to help them jumpstart their careers. For instance, many competitions have age limits, often capping eligibility at 30 years old for female-identifying singers.
Fortunately, there was no age limit for the American Prize, a competition that recognizes the best performing artists, directors, ensembles, and composers in the United States at the professional, university, community, and high school levels based on submitted recordings. Negruţă applied for the American Prize in Vocal Performance for Women in Opera (professional division) in the fall of 2022. The award, also called the Friedrich and Virginia Schorr Memorial Award, honors the memory of Wagnerian baritone Friedrich Schorr and his wife, Virginia Schorr, a voice teacher at the Manhattan School of Music for 50 years.
“Honestly, when I applied for this, I didn’t have hope,” Negruţă recalled. “I’m just sending my recordings…I never, ever thought in my life that anything would come of it.” But during the year, she got a notice that she had advanced to the next round, and then to the semi-finals, and then to the finals. Negruţă was incredulous each step of the way: “I was like, maybe they made a mistake.” Finally, in August, she got an email stating she had won first place.
“I was really, really surprised,” she said. She didn’t even tell anyone for a while in case it was a mistake. “Maybe if I were younger, if I had not gone through so many bad experiences, I would be more like, ‘Wow, this is such a big deal!’ But going through this, I realized that I guess this time somebody liked me.”
Winning the American Prize has encouraged Negruţă that her hard work is not in vain. However, she said she just wants to perform and hopes this win gives her more opportunities to do so. “Having somebody appreciate what I’m doing has given me the push to keep working,” she said. “That’s what this win means for me.”