The Opera Star Next Door
Milwaukee’s Emily Fons comes home
By Kelly Schlicht, Florentine Opera Development Manager
You never know who your barista will grow up to be.
On a rainy January afternoon, Emily Fons found herself back in the familiar confines of Anodyne Coffee on Trowbridge and Kinnickinnic Avenues in Bay View.
“It was in 2009, when I finished doing the summer young artist program at Santa Fe Opera,” said Fons, smiling as she held her latte. “There was a nine month period before I started at the Ryan Center at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and I was living at home with my parents in Bay View. I started working [at Anodyne Coffee] to get some extra cash, and a big reason they hired me was because they thought it was cool that I was an aspiring opera singer.”
Flash forward to 2017, where things have come nearly full-circle for the mezzo-soprano.
In March, Fons will make her company and role debut as Donna Elvira in the Florentine Opera Company’s production of Don Giovanni.
“It’s hard to believe that I haven’t yet sung here in Milwaukee, but I’m really glad it’s happening at this point in my career,” she said.
General Director William Florescu said he is thrilled to welcome Emily Fons to the Florentine. “The combination of her world class career and her Milwaukee roots is a perfect reflection of what the Florentine is all about,” he said.
After fifteen years away from this area, Fons has built quite the resume. While performing regularly around the country and the world in traditional operas, she also created the role of Ruby in the world premiere opera, Cold Mountain, last year, with the Santa Fe Opera. The recording of Cold Mountain has since garnered a Grammy Award nomination, the excitement from which Fons says she’s still reeling.
“The morning that they were announced, my phone was just filled with messages back and forth between the cast and crew. We all couldn’t believe it, that it was real!” she said. “I can’t even imagine the pride and accomplishment that [composer] Jennifer Higdon must feel.”
Despite her accomplishments, Fons retains many typically-Midwestern qualities that make her the opposite of an opera diva—humble, hard-working, and slightly self-depricating. While Fons says she’s proud to have gotten to a point in her career where she supports herself by singing full-time, she says she doesn’t think of herself as having “arrived.”
“I’m still working every day to improve as a singer, and to hone my craft. That is still very much a part of the journey that doesn’t stop,” she said.
Travel remains a large part of Fons’ schedule. From January through February, she’ll be rehearsing and performing the role of Dorabella in Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte with Opera Omaha. After a month in Milwaukee for Don Giovanni, she’ll head to the Boston Lyric Opera to play Cherubino in Le Nozze di Figaro. But instead of returning to her second city of Chicago after a long string of productions, she will now truly return home.
Fons says she hopes being back in her hometown will enable her to share her passion for opera, and local performing arts, with more people in the community.
“The response has been overwhelmingly awesome. I was visiting my best friend, who’s from West Allis, over the holidays. Her parents, who usually aren’t in to opera, were ecstatic as they told me that they’d already purchased their tickets to Don Giovanni. I’ve had people from high school that I haven’t talked to in years tell me they’re coming to see the show, because I’m in it,” Fons said.
Fons says if seeing a hometown girl on stage at the Marcus Center is the catalyst to breaking down the perceived barriers to attending opera, she’s completely comfortable in that role.
“I think that for many people who aren’t used to seeing opera, they can be concerned of ‘what do I wear, how do I act, will I understand it?’ But I think that if they know the person on stage, there’s a real human connection,” said Fons. She says it would be fantastic if these audiences turning out for her performance come back for other operas in the future.
As for her future, Fons says she’s remaining open to whatever opportunities come her way.
“Contentment is no small thing. It wasn’t until very recently that I realized what I was truly happy doing in my career. And I never really realized how important it is to be close to family,” she said.
Fons says she’s reveling in the little pleasures of home. She enjoys walking her dog, Lupita, a rescued Australian Kelpie, around Bay View, and visiting with her parents, David and Carolyn, who live nearby. She’s also delighted to be a hands-on aunt.
“My sister has a one-year-old,” she said, beaming. “It’s really great that he’ll finally get to know me, and not just through Skype.”
As she prepares for her Florentine Opera debut, the thing she’s most looking forward to is something most people take for granted.
“I’m excited to go to work, and come home and sleep in my own bed!” she said, with a laugh.
See Emily Fons in Don Giovanni, March 17 and 19, 2017 at Uihlein Hall at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. Contact the Florentine Opera Box Office at 414-291-5700 ext 224 for tickets and details.
Meet Emily Fons and hear more about her journey as a singer at the Florentine Off Stage event on Thursday, March 2 at 5:30 p.m. at Company Brewing in Riverwest. Click here to RSVP.