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‘The little lady with a big voice’: JSU vocal major plans to sing her way to success

Hillary Watkins, a senior vocal performance major at JSU, traveled to Italy last summer to perform the lead role in an opera. (Charles A. Smith/JSU)

Hillary Watkins, a senior vocal performance major at JSU, has her sights set on becoming an opera star. (Photo by Charles A. Smith/JSU)

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“I was always classified as the little lady with a big voice,” says Hillary Watkins, a senior music vocal performance major at Jackson State University.

It is a fitting description for the 5-foot-1 Watkins who spent part of summer 2016 in Viterbo, Italy, performing the lead role in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s opera “Die Zauberflöte,” also known as “The Magic Flute.”

While in Italy, Watkins received vocal coaching from Metropolitan-signed opera singer Elizabeth Stevens, who invited the graduating senior to train with her in New York over the upcoming spring break.

It is a trip that has since been postponed due to unforeseen circumstances, but nothing appears to quell the bubbling excitement Watkins feels about her future in the music “biz.”

“I want to be signed to the Metropolitan Opera,” she says. “My goal is to become a big house name like Kathleen Battle, or Leontyne Price from Laurel, Mississippi.”

AS a child, Watkins’ talented efforts amounted to her singing songs from the musical “Annie” around her Jackson home. Although she did stints in her middle school choir, it was her freshmen year at Jim Hill High School that would lead the soprano to a full-tuition music scholarship at JSU.

Watkins explains the day Jim Hill’s choral director, James Hawkins, invited her to attend practice after school. “I was kind of nervous, so I sat in the back,” she says.

Watkins says, "Before I go on stage, I say 'Lord, shine your light through me. Let them see you through me.' (Charles A. Smith/JSU)

Watkins says, “Before I go onstage, I say ‘Lord, shine your light through me. Let them see you through me.’ ”                            (Photo by Charles A. Smith/JSU)

After leading the anxious ninth-grader through a musical scale, Hawkins was taken by her “lovely” voice and “just regular Hillary” became a member of the Jim Hill High School choir.

“As a freshman, I sang with the student sextet on a song. It was like a big deal. I had a solo or two. A lot of things freshmen did not really do, I got to do,” says Watkins, whose voice resembles the sound of wind chimes when she speaks.

Every year, Dr. Willenham C. Castilla, former JSU director of choral activities, would scout for talent among Jim Hill’s senior choir students. It was an event that did not typically include freshmen participation until Hawkins told Castilla “you got to hear this little girl.”

Once Castilla listened to the petite powerhouse, he asked Watkins to consider JSU as her college of choice. “And I did,” she exclaims, her voice again tinkling like bells.

Unfortunately, Castilla would pass away during the second semester of Watkins’ sophomore year at the HBCU. In a somber tone she says, “Mr. Castilla’s passing really took a toll on me.”

She releases a long gentle sigh before continuing, “Mr. Castilla was not only a choral director, he was a father figure, a counselor and a mentor. He was a God-fearing praying man. … It was a nurturing situation.”

Like Castilla, JSU vocal instructor Dr. Phyllis Lewis-Hale also recognized Watkins’ potential.

When Hale invited American soprano Karen Slack (“For Colored Girls Only”) for a session with select music majors, Watkins received an opportunity to be critiqued by the opera star.

“Because she had been developing very well vocally, I wanted her to receive some feedback from an active and accomplished singer,” Hale says.

Watkins shakes her head side to side as she recalls watching Slack perform. “Breathtaking,” she gushes. “Ooh, I mean breathtaking.”

After singing for Slack, Watkins was slightly perplexed by the feedback she received from the professional.

“I noticed that she didn’t give me many tips or suggestions vocally and technique-wise. What she did comment on were things in the music I should watch out for,” Watkins says.

Watkins starred as the evil Queen of the Night in Mozart's opera "The Magic Flute" in Italy. (Charles A. Smith/JSU)

Watkins starred as the evil Queen of the Night in Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute” in Italy. (Photo by Charles A. Smith/JSU)

As Watkins headed to her seat, she wondered if Slack had been pleased by her delivery until “I happened to turn around and she was pointing at me and whispering to my vocal coach “she is so good.”

SLACK would later give Watkins her cell phone number along with the words “keep in touch,” and after several weeks the songstress took Slack up on her suggestion.

“I texted her, and she responded. She told me I was very good,” Watkins says.

So good, in fact, Slack recommended Watkins for two Italian operas.

“I auditioned for both. I sent in audition CDs, and they both responded and wanted me to do the lead roles,” Watkins exclaims.

After much deliberation, she accepted the part as the Queen of the Night in “The Magic Flute.” She then traveled to Viterbo, Italy, and spent nearly a month preparing before executing four performances all sung in German.

“In the opera, the Queen of the Night was mean, wicked and vindictive. I’m very alluring. But I’m also wicked. I’m so very wicked,” she says.

It’s difficult to fathom the beaming, buoyant “just regular Hillary” as an evil queen. She chuckles, “I can be mean. But, I really had to channel what wicked was to me.”

Watkins says she envisioned the villainous Joker character from the movie “Batman.”

“I knew if I could put myself in the mind-frame of the Joker and how evil he was then I could do it.”

Watkins is ready to share her soaring soprano with the world. (Charles A. Smith/JSU)

Watkins is ready to share her soaring soprano with the world. (Photo by Charles A. Smith/JSU)

Suddenly, Watkins shuts her eyes, her head dramatically falls forward, and she recites the words: “wicked, wicked, wicked” three times in a low, menacing tone. When she opens her eyes again, her face wears a sinister expression. Just as quickly a smirk emerges on her face as if to say, “I told you I could be mean.”

She laughs and again the tinkling sound spills from her mouth.

DURING her research of the role, Watkins noticed there were few black opera singers to star as the Queen of the Night.

“So, I think being a young African-American lady playing the Queen of the Night was a good look for this character,” she says.

The applause from the Italian audience and the shouts of “bravo, Bella,” which translates to “well done” and “beautiful” in English convinced Watkins that she was right.

“When I look back at it, you’re your worst critic. I think I could’ve done different things, but they loved it,” she says.

Watkins, whose personality radiates a blend of youthful innocence with an old soul charm, says she loves how distinctly different opera is from all other musical genres. “Two, there is not a whole lot of African-Americans in this profession. Three, because I know God gave it to me I’m going to go forth with it.”

The faith-based senior conveys that she wants the audience to see the glory of God when she sings. “Before I go onstage, I say “Lord, shine your light through me. Let them see you through me.” I wouldn’t have it any other way. I do it every time before I go onstage, and God has not failed me yet.”

After graduation, Hale has hopes that her gifted music scholar will “move on to pursue the Master of Music degree in vocal performance at a high-ranking program such as Julliard’s, Manhattan School of Music or Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, as a number of my other students have done,” she says.

Once Watkins sings in her chill bump-producing soprano, it’s easy to believe that she is destined for greatness. Notwithstanding, she expresses that she is open to all major opportunities that may materialize during her last semester at her HBCU.

But, her current focus is learning her music and completing her required recitals.

“If it’s God-given, I’ll take it. But right now, I’m graduating. I got to get out.”

Up next for Watkins: 

A vocal performance on Fox40 MS Music Now segment

at 8 a.m. Feb. 24 and JSU’s Opera Workshop on April 23.