Tracey Engleman and her husband were enjoying French food at a dinner party with friends in their Maple Grove neighborhood when she took a phone call. The caller told her she had won a prestigious artist fellowship from the McKnight Foundation.
“What? Are you sure?” was her first response. It was true. Her friends erupted with cheers and congratulations. “It’s like winning the lottery,” she says. “It took awhile before I truly believed it.”
Engleman is a soprano opera singer. Her recent roles include Papagena in The Magic Flute with the Minnesota Opera and the school teacher in Aindamar with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. She also premiered the role of Isabella Smith in The Ladysmith Story, a contemporary opera by Minnesota composer Christopher Gable.
McKnight Artist Fellowships are awarded to mid-career professionals to provide time and money to expand what they do. The fellowship supports working artists as part of the foundation’s goal of improving life for current and future generations. A variety of art disciplines are eligible, such as composers, writers, theatre artists, musicians and visual artists. Only four musicians are chosen per year and awarded $25,000 each. Classical singers are not often chosen, but Engleman decided to try.
Applying for the Fellowship
She prepared a performance resume and a 500-word artist’s statement explaining what was unique about her art, what defines her, and what she contributes to Minnesota. As she wrote, she would pause to wonder, “If someone else were writing this, what would I think?”
She chose and practiced what she would sing for her tryout and decided how she would use the award if she received it.
There were 106 applicants for the award. It was narrowed down to nine finalists who sang before the judges. For this, she prepared a 25-minute recital consisting of repertoire in French, German and English by Mozart, Debussy, Schoenberg and American composers Joseph Schwantner and Libby Larsen. She was the last of the finalists to perform.
“The judges all looked tired,” Engleman remembers. I thought, “They’re not interested. They don’t want to hear me sing.” She wondered how she could motivate herself. “I decided, ‘I love to sing. I’ll sing for myself.’ And I sang my heart out,” she says.
After she sang, the judges asked her what she would do if she won. She spoke of highlighting the under-representation of women in the arts.
Besides a singing career, Engleman teaches at St. Olaf and has a family. “It’s like I have 1½ jobs,” she says. “But I love all I do. I love living in Maple Grove and I love teaching. It’s a juggling act, just like any other profession. I get up at 5:45 a.m. and get to bed at 10 p.m. during the school year. I’m extremely organized and extremely motivated.”
The bulk of her performances are also during the school year. “So many gigs are free or $200, yet they take so much time,” Engleman says. “The McKnight Fellowship is life changing money. I have incredible respect for McKnight. It’s a fantastic organization.”
Engleman plans to use part of the award to record a CD to be used in classrooms by music teachers. It will come out in the spring. She will also commission composer Libby Larson to write a set of songs for her. Larson won a McKnight Distinguished Performance Award and chooses texts by women for her pieces. Engleman sung Larson’s set of “Sonnets for the Portuguese” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning with the LaCrosse Symphony two years ago.
The Fellowship also allows Engleman to apply to sing at the International Voice Congress in Stockholm, Sweden and she may record there next summer.
“I don’t think my daily life will change very much,” Engleman says of the fellowship. “I will still keep singing and keep teaching.”
Behind the Scenes
First Operatic Role: Barbarina in Le Nozze di Figaro by Mozart
Most Recent Role: Kitty Packard in the new opera, Dinner at Eight by William Bolcom in the upcoming premiere at Minnesota Opera workshop (beginning March 11)
Favorite role: I love Papagena in The Magic Flute. It’s a tiny role, but she is hilarious and you get to sing one of the most famous operatic duets ever written.
Did you sing opera as a teen?
I studied classical singing in high school, but generally, singers don’t seriously start studying operatic repertoire until college.
How did you become interested in opera?
I grew up listening to classical music at home, which included opera. My parents are music educators, so music was highly valued. My three siblings and I all played instruments and took piano lessons.
What and when is your next appearance?
I’ll be singing a Brahms’ Requiem at Orchestra Hall in March.