Return to the Met

Story by Logan Judy | Photos Courtesy of Murrella Parton

School of Music alumna Murrella Parton (’15) has won a distinct honor–to reach the final stages of the Metropolitan Opera Laffont Competition twice.

The Metropolitan Opera’s Laffont Competition, previously known as the National Council Auditions, is a highly competitive nationwide competition featuring the best young opera singers in the country. Parton took her first step onto the Metropolitan opera stage in 2019, when she reached the semifinals.  In 2021, she proceeded one round further, being named a finalist. Of the 10 finalists, only five are named winners. While the performances were virtual this year due to the pandemic, semifinalists and above typically perform in-person at the Met. But while the virtual nature of the event meant she didn’t step onto the stage itself, she said that it resulted in greater access for her friends and family.

“The audience was multiplied by hundreds beyond the people who would normally see those performances,” she said. “I received messages from people I hadn’t spoken to since high school. Prior to this year, the audience would have to buy a ticket and fly to New York. It gave the competition a lot of accessibility that it had never had before.”

When you sit down and talk with Parton about opera, accessibility is a theme that comes up again and again. The pandemic has brought to the fore a lot of interesting ideas about expanding the reach of and access to opera, she says, a shift that she believes will have industry-wide effects beyond the pandemic. There has been a recent surge in the creation of new, smaller opera companies, and the venues that opera takes place in are expanding as well.

“It’s really forcing us to rethink what opera is,” she said.  “Opera does not have to be in a 4,000-seat house with a 40-piece orchestra. I’ve been to a couple of operas in much smaller, more intimate venues like bars and warehouses. I think the entire idea of what our field is will have to change.”

That shift is one that Parton is taking an active role in.  While she has sung on stages such as the Met, the Houston Grand Opera, and the Lyric Opera of Chicago, she also takes pride in working with regional opera companies, and the opportunities that work presents.  

“I have learned that in order to be happy, I have to be making art that fulfills me,” she said.  “That does not necessarily mean I have to be working for a specific company or in the biggest opera house.”

Parton was not always interested in opera.  She was drawn into it after an opera director came to her high school and persuaded her that she was a skilled singer.  She came to the University of Tennessee as an undergraduate, but did not initially complete the program.  Then, she had what she describes as a transformative experience that inspired her to continue her higher education journey, all because of a commercial.

“I was recovering for six weeks following a knee surgery, and this commercial came on,” she said. “The music was Barber’s Adagio for Strings and I remember sitting there and weeping and thinking, ‘How can something this intangible create such a visceral response?  If I have the ability to be a part of something like this, then I have to.’”  

She returned to the University of Tennessee shortly afterward to complete her music education degree.  Once back on campus, she was recruited into participating in the Opera Theatre program, and then discovered that she loved the process of developing the show, including all of the behind-the-scenes production elements.  As she gained more experience, she discovered another layer to her love for the artform: the way opera allows her to communicate with the audience.

“I have found in performing that there is this moment that happens where a connection is formed between you and the audience,” she said.  “When that connection is formed, language barriers do not exist.  You’re not drawn into the lighting or the costume; it is truly, solely about communicating something to the audience.  It’s very fulfilling, not in an egotistical way, but in being able to make a human connection to people in a room–nothing exists in that moment except the people you’re communicating with.”

When asked what advice she has for current students, she says, “Never go into a room unprepared.  You get hired for your voice.  You get rehired because people like to work with you and you’re prepared.  You have to be able to bring something to the table that is your own artistry.”