Whatever Happened to ... the teenage opera prodigy?


Samantha McElhaney works at the Washington Performing Arts Society. (Courtesy of the subject)
September 15, 2011

In 1995, Samantha McElhaney was a 17-year-old on the verge of greatness. Myra Merritt, the senior’s vocal teacher at Suitland High School, called her a “wunderkind.” Elayne Duke, president of the opera talent-seeking group the Rosa Ponselle Foundation, told The Washington Post that the budding soprano had “the potential to be one of our great American opera singers.”

McElhaney also had big decisions to make. Duke thought the teen should skip college and dive into her training for an operatic career. Others, including McElhaney herself, thought she should accept a scholarship to study with New York University’s music program.

Neither scenario played out, says McElhaney. While she gained acceptance to NYU, Florida State University and the University of Southern California, the partial scholarships the schools offered fell too short.

That’s when Merritt stepped in. After becoming a professor of voice at Bowling Green State University in Ohio in 1995, she passed along a copy of one of McElhaney’s recitals to the admissions office and her musical colleagues. “I was accepted without even applying to the program, with scholarship,” McElhaney says.

During the next 31 / 2 years, McElhaney continued to hone her vocalizing skills with Merritt. In the summer, she’d fly home to stay with her parents in Clinton so she could perform with the local Hines-Lee Opera Ensemble. After graduating in 1998, she continued her vocal studies at the University of Maryland’s graduate program, finishing in 2002.

Singing remains the center of McElhaney’s world. She typically performs twice a month, often as a member of the Washington National Opera and Hines-Lee Opera ensembles. She works as the executive assistant to the president at the Washington Performing Arts Society and gives weekly vocal lessons for students 16 and older at a Silver Spring church and out of her Indian Head home. Some of the aspiring singers remind her of her past self. “You have that one who doesn’t even realize they have this amazing talent,” she says. “They always seem clueless, like, ‘Oh, really?’ ”

McElhaney thinks now is the time to go all out to make her teenage dream a reality. On most Sundays of the past year, she has taken the BoltBus to Manhattan for hour-long lessons with vocal instructor Julian Kwok. It’s 60 minutes of pure work, she says.

She hopes to secure a manager soon as a pathway to bigger opera bookings. (Verdi’s “Aida” and Countess Rosina Almaviva in “The Marriage of Figaro” are the roles she longs to fill someday.)

“I feel like where I am vocally and financially, I can handle the plan,” she says. “When I open my mouth to sing, it’s like, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ I know it’s there, and I know what I need to do.”

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