Thomas R. Oldt
It’s probably accurate to say that Imperial Polk County isn’t particularly known for incubating opera singers. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t — and one of the standout talents is mezzo-soprano Kimberly E. Hernandez of Lakeland, whose credits include performances here and abroad. She will then play the role of Santuzza in Mascagni’s opera “Cavalleria Rusticana”, which will be presented by the Lakeland Symphony Orchestra on January 21 at Florida Southern College.
Hernandez, 36, who works in finance for Marriott, is the 8:50 a.m. music director for All Saints Episcopal Church in Lakeland. In addition to opera, his musical styles include spectacle, classical, and gospel. And his voice – well, let’s just say it’s big, full and clear, and doesn’t require any microphones to be heard clearly across a concert hall, and quite possibly outside too.
Q. Something is usually a trigger for those who pursue a career in public performance. What was it for you?
A. My mother is a singer and an artist, and I have always been drawn to singing. I dreamed of being on stage, but I was a very, very shy kid so I didn’t think that would ever be an option. But then I saw the movie “Selena” when I was in sixth grade and it changed everything for me. I know it’s like a great cliche, but I think that movie was the reason I had to be on stage – it wasn’t an option for me anymore, so I started looking for ways to sing more . My sister and I were in a children’s choir, but I wanted to be a solo singer so I started taking steps to make that happen.
In Harrison we were taken to the opera “Carmen” when I was about 14. I had seen opera excerpts and attended classical performances, but I hadn’t really been shown a full live opera. And when I saw “Carmen”, I knew I was her – I had to be her. I didn’t know how or when it was going to happen because at 14 I had a very small voice, a little brassy, but I was still a big person so it was very confusing for me – I don’t I don’t know how it was going to happen.
MORE FROM THOMAS R. OLDT:
Q. Obviously you did. But how does a self-proclaimed introvert like you overcome his shyness to the point of being able to perform in front of people?
A. I just kept taking steps to overcome my shyness. I had crippling anxiety in front of the audience at that time, and I just had to keep getting over it and keep moving forward. Around this time, I heard a few of my classmates at Harrison who were juniors and seniors singing spirituals, and it moved me in a way that I couldn’t explain. Of course I had heard spirituals, but they hadn’t been presented as I wanted to sing. There was a Negro Spiritual Scholarship Foundation competition sponsored by the Orlando Opera. I competed there during my senior year in high school and came second and it was such a big milestone for me that I started auditioning for colleges.
Q. Which colleges were you interested in?
A. It was an obvious choice to go to Florida Southern, but I also auditioned for Stetson and Florida State and was accepted into all three schools. I wasn’t quite ready to go very far from home, so Florida Southern was the obvious answer. I did great singing with great instructors, but somehow got into a bind and developed some vocal issues.
I had bad allergies and a very bad cold. I wasn’t sleeping, I was stressed, and I developed this cough that just threw me off. An ear, nose and throat specialist said I had a polyp on my vocal cords – for someone who’s been trying to sing their whole career, it just floored me. They said the thing to do was to have surgery and I said absolutely not. I was still so young then and had no idea what this would do for my development. They said the only other thing I could do was not talk, so I had complete vocal silence for a month and everything was fine. I’m so introverted that it wasn’t a problem – it was kind of a nice break. I went back and they said it was like the polyp was never there – completely gone.
Q. But you say you were at an impasse. After your medical crisis passed, what did you do to get back on track?
A. I moved to California and found another teacher. I joined a community choir and the conductor said, “My mom needs to hear from you. I wasn’t feeling great with my voice at the time, but he heard some things in my voice that he thought his mom could really help with. She changed my whole vocal world from then on. She knew exactly when she heard my voice that I was a mezzo-soprano. She said I was a mezzo was music to my ears because of course I dreamed of singing “Carmen”. She also told me that it was not a question of winning a competition but simply of making yourself known, of appearing in front of the judges and the public. This prepares you for auditions and the real world. The more you do, the easier it becomes.
I came back in 2009 to South Florida and studied with Dr. John Thomason. His honesty with me was what I value so much in a teacher – no sugar coating – he kicked my ass from day one and helped me really start to understand my instrument.
Q. If you could go back to any era and talk to any musician, who would it be and what would you talk about?
A. I’ll talk to Jesse Norman. He’s someone I’ve always admired. I have many questions – How did you do? How did you get where you are? I’ve read his books and heard his interviews, but I’d like to hear him tell me candidly about some of the pitfalls, because I know there were a lot of them. I was living in Berlin in September 2019 when she passed away, and it was a dark week. This seemed particularly significant to me because she spent a lot of time in Berlin in her early years.
Q. If you were stuck on a desert island and could listen to the music of only one composer, who would it be?
A. I don’t know if I would listen to opera. Maybe Chopin.
Q. If you could play a part in an opera, what would it be?
A. Carmen of course. “Carmen” is such a great role and I love singing it. I had an opportunity to sing it and it was a fantastic experience.
Q. What are you doing to protect your voice?
A. I don’t know if I’m doing it consciously, now that I’m a wife and a mother and being pulled in so many directions, but keeping stress low is very important if you play a lot. Plus, sleep, no smoking, and limited alcohol intake, which can dry out your vocal cords. It is important to warm up your voice every day. When I get into the rhythm of singing a lot, I tend not to warm up too much because I sing all the time. I love warming up in the shower with all that steam.
Q. Do you have an agent?
A. I don’t, and it’s something I’m working on. One of the downsides of my upbringing – and I’m thinking of music education in this country in general – is that you have to be really good at marketing, and that’s something that has to be taught. I haven’t had much success there. As an introvert, one of the hardest things is putting yourself out there.
Q. As an introvert, how do you stand up in front of complete strangers who will judge you on every note that comes out of your lips?
A. Something invades me, another person. A lot of performers would say that the person on stage is someone a little different than they really are off stage. After leaving the stage, it’s a bit overwhelming – I need to be alone.
Q. You were trained in opera and have sung oratorios by Handel, Mozart, Prokofiev, Vivaldi and others. You’ve sung show tunes, Gilbert & Sullivan works and spirituals. Do you have a favorite musical style?
A. No. I love to sing, and I will sing whatever the opportunity comes my way. I’m up for the challenge because I love singing – that’s what makes me whole, sharing my gift. Right now most of the music I sing is contemporary Christian and sacred music. Working in music has always been my goal – that, and continuing to sing until I die. I feel that I have received a huge gift and that I must share it. And that motivates me.
Thomas R. Oldt can be reached at [email protected]