A Song in Her Heart : At 16, Young Opera Singer Already Has Big Plans


Stylishly dressed in an elegant, bright red gown, mingling and chatting backstage, the Calabasas High School sophomore could just as well have been at a school formal last Saturday night.

A few moments later, however, the noisy patter from a packed house inside Forest Lawn’s Hall of Liberty gave way to admiring silence as the teenager floated across the stage with the authority and composure of a seasoned professional.

Soon the young soprano’s voice began to gracefully dance with the strings and horns, commanding the attention of 1,500 listeners, filling the hall with the soaring highs and quivering lows of the aria “Nobles Seigneurs Salut!” from Gounod’s “Les Huguenots.”


When she was finished, Jessica Tivens acknowledged the applause with a graceful nod of her head. It was hard to believe she is only 16. And even more surprising to know she has been singing opera for half of her life.

“I love the grandness of it all,” said Jessica, who, after last Saturday’s concert with the Burbank Chamber Orchestra, is making her world debut in Iceland this week. In addition to two concerts there, she is also scheduled to do radio and television interviews and meet the president and the minister of agriculture.

After years of singing lessons and competitions, Jessica--an unusually young professional opera singer--has had a handful of performances in the United States over the last few years and debuted with the Burbank orchestra last season.

But it was her winning performance at last year’s prestigious Music Center Spotlight Awards--featuring Southern California’s best high school musicians, singers and dancers--at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion that convinced her that opera was what she wanted to do for good.

“It was one of those times when time just stops--you feel suspended,” she said. “That’s what really affirmed, ‘Yes, this is what I want to do.’ ”

With father Lynn, a former professional trombone player, and mother Debbi, a college voice major, music seemed to come naturally to Jessica, an only child. She began dance lessons at age 2 and voice training a few years later--even performing a pop song in Ed McMahon’s “Star Search” in 1989 at age 8.



Then, during a visit to her grandparents’ house in Florida, she walked out of the room where her mother was watching “Jake and the Fat Man” and, on a television in another room, stumbled across “Aida” with Placido Domingo.

“This is what I want to do,” Debbi remembers the girl firmly declaring after she found her motionless before the screen.

“I could not believe what was going on” in the opera, Jessica said. “It filled me with something I had never felt before.”

After years of lessons and traveling to perform and to watch performances, opera has engulfed the whole family--which often plans other activities around Jessica’s singing schedules.

“It amazes me what she does--to sit there and see strangers crying when she’s singing, to see her control 3,000 people,” Debbi said about some of Jessica’s performances.

Saturday night’s audience was dazzled by an energetic half-hour performance also featuring the arias “Micaela’s Air” from “Carmen,” “The Jewel Song” from “Faust” and “Ah, Je Veux Vivre” from “Romeo and Juliet.”


These days, in addition to schoolwork and extracurricular activities such as dancing and the poetry club, much of Jessica’s time goes toward rehearsals and weekly lessons with a teacher who works on her technique and a coach who concentrates on the actual music--both University of Southern California staffers.

An articulate and energetic teen, Jessica is most comfortable in her neat, second-story bedroom--studying scores or listening to works of Puccini, Gounod and Bizet, lost in a world of sweet melodies, romantic themes and tragic characters.

When Jessica first started singing opera eight years ago, friends didn’t quite understand her art form and labeled her hobby “uncool,” Jessica said. Though she has never doubted her passion for the art, there have been times--even up to her freshman year--when she felt alienated and wished for just a bit more mainstream popularity.

“I went to one or two parties and came home crying,” she said.

But eventually she realized that not fitting in was a good thing and only recently began to admit her love of opera to schoolmates.

“Why am I going to be an artist if I’m just going to be part of the crowd?” she asked. “I’m not going to make anybody understand I just love [opera].”

She credits much of her focus to manager Mike Garson, a family friend who has become almost a second father to her. Garson is a musician who, among other things, tours as the piano player with rock star David Bowie, performs with a jazz trio and records soundtracks for the movie industry.


He has dropped off Jessica’s tapes in different parts of the world during his tours, and the Iceland concerts were booked after a promoter there heard a tape.

The main obstacle so far in getting gigs for the young singer--especially in the United States--has been her age, Garson said.

Opera singers in their 20s are considered very young performers, while those in their 30s are considered to be in their prime, Garson said.

“She’s probably the best opera singer up to the age of 25 in this country,” Garson said. “When she opens her mouth and has a bad day, she’s better than most young opera singers.”

Jessica’s voice is developed like a singer in her 20s, with a wide range, partly because she started studying opera so early, said teacher Judith Natalucci. She already sings well in French, Italian and German.

“It’s unfortunate there are not that many opportunities in this country for someone that young,” she said.


But in Iceland--a country known for its natural beauty and love of opera--fans flipped when they heard the advertisements with Jessica’s voice, said Lisa Hanson, the show’s promoter. Two concerts at a 2,000-seat hall in Reykjavik--the country’s capital--easily sold out.

“As soon as people heard her on the radio, they were amazed,” she said. “They could not believe a child could sing that way.”


As Jessica gets older, projects in the next few years include an audition next year at Italy’s Monte Carlo Opera, Garson said. Other efforts will include negotiating concerts and a recording contract and auditions at New York’s Metropolitan Opera and other opera houses.

“I have no doubt Jessica will be on the stages of all the great opera houses in the next 20 years,” said Steven Kerstein, who performed with Jessica on Saturday as conductor of the Burbank orchestra.

After a standing ovation that night, Jessica slowly made her way through the hall, overwhelmed with hugs, kisses and flowers--and occasional requests for autographs--from family, friends and the public.

“If I quit at 29, that wouldn’t be right--to leave an art when you really love it,” she had said before the concert. “When I die I want written on my tombstone, ‘She loved what she did.’ ”