Gisella Montanez-Case used to believe her only life’s choice was opera.
“I sang all the time. I couldn’t help myself. Nothing else made me happy.”
So the mezzo-soprano doggedly pursued her dream, singing lead roles with the Grand Rapids Opera and then the Lyric Opera of Chicago. She earned great reviews.
When maestro Walter Barrachi heard her, he invited her to La Scala, the famed opera house in Milan, Italy. But life’s circumstances tripped up her rise. She was pregnant.
“The general manager in Milan, I’ll never forget this, patted my hand and said ‘Have a nice life,’ ” the singer said as she blinked back tears. “I crashed. I cried an awful lot. I felt my life was over. Those were dark days for me, very dark days.”
She did bounce back. She and her husband, Paul Case, went to New York City. She joined the chorus of the Metropolitan Opera and the New York City Opera. But life in the city was difficult. Paul, a lighting technician for Broadway, was at the theater a lot. So was she. It was a tough schedule on their boy, William, who suffered outbursts and rages, a symptom of his Tourette’s syndrome and obsessive compulsive behavior.
So when Paul suggested a move to Glens Falls to work at Adirondack Scenic, Montanez-Case agreed.
That was 17 years ago. And during those years away from the grand opera houses of Italy, Chicago and New York, Montanez-Case found another voice. Her rich, deep chords render Civil War folk tunes with the 77th Regimental Balladeers, oratorios and hymns at religious services at the First Presbyterian Church and the classical choral repertoire with the Glens Falls Symphony and the Berkshire Lyric Theatre. She also performs as a historic re-enactor, portraying Emma Thursby, an American singer who attained international acclaim during the mid-19th century.
“Singing all these different styles keeps my brain awake,” said Montanez-Case. “Moving up here to Glens Falls was the best thing that ever happened to us.”
Q: How is singing opera different from singing other styles of music?
A: My voice teacher used to tell me ‘no drinking, no partying, no lovemaking before a recital.’ If you do, your vocal chords, two small muscles, will be tired and you won’t have the proper support. If you drink, stay up late, you can damage yourself. Many singers, they cover their throat when they go out. They drink very little. They have to respect their bodies.
For jazz, you have to be careful that you don’t do any screaming. Jazz takes a dustier tone. Pop and musical theater is similar — you’re using a chest voice. Pop is a heavier, gutsier sound. The opera voice is up in the head.
Q: Why do you like to sing other styles?
A: Opera, there is a great discipline to the art, which I liked. No, I loved. But sometimes it’s fun to sing for the freedom of it. When I’m singing folk music from a particular period, it’s very freeing for me. I don’t have to worry about impressing anyone. It allows me to play with melody lines and harmonies. It sounds cliché, and I can’t help it, but when I sing this music, I feel like I’m weaving on a loom, weaving this musical fabric. I get moved by that.
Another thing, too, when you look at the influences of Irish music, Hispanic music and the Moors, all of those influences are intertwined. I will hear similar patterns. Every time I open my mouth, I feel something old and familiar. I don’t know why, but I like that.
Q: But do you prefer a theatrical role to hang your singing on?
A: I used to think that but, quite honestly, I don’t think it matters what I sing. It matters how worshipful I am. For me, when I’m singing, I’m praying. It doesn’t matter if it’s oratorio or a Frank Sinatra song, I’m singing to him. I transcend. I can’t help it. I go to some other plane. I feel it when I’m singing with the Balladeers when I’m singing ‘Patty’s Lament.’ I close my eyes and I see the pictures, the levels, the color. Or if I’m singing Fauré or Verdi or Mozart, I’m seeing patterns, music, God. I don’t know. I can’t explain it to you. But when I open my eyes, I’m back on Earth. But while I’m singing, I’m not here.
Q: Do you miss the opera, the trappings, the grand old theaters, the costumes, sophisticated audiences?
A: I didn’t do it for that, honey. I miss the people I worked with, the men and women I got close to. I don’t miss the excitement of getting ready for the show, because I’m still doing it. I miss the people. The pretending stuff, I do all the time anyway.
Q: What made you interested in Emma Thursby?
A: When I’m doing Civil War music, I’m dressed in costume. I wanted to find a persona. I was looking all over and I found her. I started reading about her. She was one of the first American singers to hit international fame. She was a contemporary of Marcella Sembrich, whose studio museum is up in Bolton [Landing.] They used to socialize.
Emma Thursby had the opportunity to do opera, but felt it was not ladylike. She was very well-known for sacred music and oratorio and as a recitalist. I found out by reading a book on her life that she was up here. She performed at the Adelphia [Hotel.] When I get my bravery up, I’m going to talk to the Adelphia and see if I can do a recital there. I think it would be a kick.
Q: Do you still sing all the time?
A: Yes, it’s a bad habit. I used to get in trouble as a kid all the time. I saw the corner more times than a rug. “Miss Montanez, you are doing it again. Please don’t sing — you’re disturbing the other children.”
I’ve been given a great gift. When I read other singers who say, “I’ve been given a great gift,” I think “What a diva.” But I see where they are coming from. It is a great gift.