On a cold evening this past March, Alexandria Shiner stood on an Amtrak platform in New York’s Penn Station. She had just won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions Grand Final and was heading back to her home in Washington, DC, for the last few months of her three-year Cafritz Young Artist fellowship with the Washington National Opera. She saw an email pop up from the US Judiciary. It was from Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s assistant. Ginsburg heard Shiner sing several times, met and talked with her, and knew about Shiner’s coup de grace at the Met. “As I said at the court,” wrote Ginsburg. “You go from strength to strength.”
“I felt a chill go up my spine,” recalls Shiner.
Just a couple of months before, Robert Ainsley, the director of the Cafritz Young Artist Program, had introduced Shiner to The Business Council, a group of Fortune 500 CEOs and DC bigwigs, at the Kennedy Center by noting proudly that he “found her working as a barista at a Starbucks in a mall in Knoxville, Tennessee.” As it happened, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson was there and happily took a picture with her. “I didn’t quite understand the gravity of that moment,” says Shiner. “If four years ago someone had said these things were going to happen to me, I would never have believed it. I could never have imagined this.”
‘There’s a Voice in This Kid’
“I always loved singing,” says Shiner, who grew up in Waterford, Michigan. “My elementary school music teacher told my mom, ‘There’s a voice in this kid.’” Shiner enjoyed roles in all her high school musicals. In her freshman year she played Agatha in the Salvation Army chorus in Guys and Dolls. In her junior year, after The 1940s Radio Hour and Godspell, she started taking voice lessons, in time for Schoolhouse Rock Live her senior year. “I wanted to do musical theater, but it didn’t work out,” she says. She tried out for several musical theater programs but didn’t get an offer. When she auditioned for the voice program at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, she got in.
The summer before her senior year at WMU, Shiner attended a six-week program at the American Institute of Musical Studies in Graz, Austria, where she met UT Professor of Voice Marjorie Bennett Stephens. “In my very first lesson at AIMS,” says Shiner, “I sang ‘Si, mi chiamano Mimi’ from La Boheme. She said, ‘OK.’ Then she helped me open up my sound and find my voice. I was singing high and light and sounded like a little girl. She helped me find more colors in my voice than I’d ever had. With each lesson, I appreciated her teaching more and more. She seemed like the right teacher for me.”
She graduated from WMU with a Bachelor of Music in voice in December 2013 and decided to work in the university concerts office to earn money for graduate school auditions. In March 2014, she received a Facebook message from Stephens. Shiner got right back to her. “Well, that was fast,” said Stephens. “Do you want to come to grad school for free? We have an open assistantship that’s yours if you want it.”
“I had really only driven through Tennessee on the way to Florida,” says Shiner, who found an apartment online and was in Knoxville by August.
She and Stephens quickly got to work. “She’s a tough teacher,” says Shiner. “If I had known what I was getting into working with her, I wouldn’t have believed it. Knowing the work that I would do and where it led me, the training and performances—she helped shape me into the artist I am today.”
In 2014, by invitation of Manhattan Concert Productions, Shiner performed in the Fourth Annual Collegiate Honors Recital at Carnegie Hall. In 2016 she placed second in the Young Artist division of the Orpheus National Music Competition for Vocalists and competed as the Mid-South Regional Winner in the National Association of Teachers of Singing Artist Awards in Chicago.
With UT Opera Theatre productions, she sang the roles of Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni, Magda Sorel in The Consul, and the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute). In a review in the Knoxville Mercury, critic Alan Sherrod effused poetically: “Aided by spiky headdresses and a sumptuous atmosphere of stars, Shiner had perfected the required contrast between the Queen’s disingenuous lament in her Act I aria and the raw vengeance of her Act II appearance. [Her] portrayal went a step further, though, with a gorgeous coloratura, amazing depth and power, and a stunningly vivid dramatic portrayal.”
In these and other roles, Shiner was coached by UT’s Director of Opera James Marvel. She describes the experience as “coming into an environment that felt supportive, where you were given the room to try things and fail, to make mistakes and improve.
“The acting and musical training with James has continually helped me to approach each audition, competition, and performance with an edge and confidence that has made all the difference so far in my career. It was a safe and nurturing environment, and it gave me the tools to be where I am today. UT was such an important place for me, as a singer, as a person, and as an artist,” she says.
From Starbucks to the Washington National Opera
After graduating with her Master of Music in voice in 2016, Shiner wanted to save money as she had after her undergrad degree. “I was working at a Starbucks at West Town Mall,” she said. “I got a Facebook message from Rob Ainsley: ‘I am the director of the Cafritz Young Artists Program, and I’d love to talk to you and see if you are in DC or NY in the coming weeks.’”
After Christmas, Shiner was a finalist in a round of auditions for the program, received 45 minutes of coaching from Ken Weiss, the program’s principal coach, and started a three-year fellowship in 2017. The Cafritz Young Artists Program is one of many DC-area cultural mainstays supported by the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation.
The program immerses 12 singers on the verge of international careers in voice lessons, language classes, career guidance, and master classes with Washington National Opera staff and guest artists. The singers perform at the Kennedy Center as well as at various community concerts, recitals, and events throughout the DC area and beyond. For the emerging artist performance of Alcina in November 2017, Shiner sang the title role. In May 2018, she sang the role of Berta in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. That fall was the role of Kayla in the world premiere of Sankaram’s Taking Up Serpents, for which the Washington Classical Review praised her “powerful soprano voice with precise intonation and a broad range of dynamics and color.” She capped the 2018–19 season singing Mirra in the North American premiere of Liszt’s lost opera Sardanapalo and the title role in Ariadne auf Naxos with Wolf Trap Opera. In December 2019 she traveled to Moscow to sing at the Bolshoi Theatre.
“It’s been a wild whirlwind of different experiences,” says Shiner. “The Washington National Opera is amazing, and my colleagues are wonderful to work with and listen to all the time. To be able to bump into major singers and get to know them and listen to them in rehearsal has been a critical part of my development. Angela Meade, just to hear her and watch her, just watching and covering [understudying] her. I’ve worked with Renée Fleming many times. Nothing compares with being in the same room with an operatic voice.”
Shiner met Justice Ginsburg after a 2018 performance at the Supreme Court. “We talked, and she said I keep going from strength to strength.” Ginsburg came to most of the opera dress rehearsals and the season-opening party at Calvin and Jane Cafritz’s Georgetown home. In January 2020, Shiner sang at Ginsburg’s induction into the Only in America Gallery and Hall of Fame at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. Those earlier experiences made Ginsburg’s kind words after the Met auditions even more meaningful.
Showdown at the Metropolitan Opera House
By February, Shiner was a semifinalist in the 2020 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. For more than 60 years, this annual competition—which starts with regional auditions around the country—has helped launch the careers of some of opera’s greatest stars.
Stephens journeyed from Knoxville to New York to watch her former student compete. “Marjorie was just there to support me,” says Shiner. “My big cheerleader. It was very special for both of us that she was able to be there for both rounds.”
Shiner sang two arias in each round. Her first two arias got her into the Grand Finals Concert with just nine other singers. In the Grand Finals, she sang, “Dich, teure Halle” from Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser and “To this we’ve come” from Menotti’s The Consul. Shiner had performed the role of Magda Sorel in The Consul with the Washington National Opera and the UT Opera Theatre and had learned both with Stephens. “Do you remember when I did them in Knoxville?” she asked Stephens afterward.
By any measure, Shiner was in the zone. Stephens reflects on that moment, “What an absolute joy it was to watch and hear this young lady own the stage at the Met. “With great poise and elegance, she rocked the house.”
While she was performing, Shiner says she thought to herself, “This is how singing is supposed to feel.”
Shiner was one of five winners, each of whom received a cash prize of $20,000. “We had the opportunity to sing in front of countless industry professionals on the Met stage and were able to sing with the Met Orchestra,” says Shiner. “The exposure is astronomical.” Afterward, when Shiner thanked Stephens for all she had done for her, Stephens said, “I didn’t do anything.”
“I’m so grateful to have met her,” says Shiner, “because without her I would not be where I am today.”
Back in DC’s Takoma Park, Shiner is finishing her third year in the Cafritz program. “This is yet another demanding and rewarding and busy year of my life,” she says. Pre-COVID, she was scheduled to make her debut with the Met Opera in December, singing the role of Berta in Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville). That production has been rescheduled for March 2021 as the Met postponed the opening of its upcoming season to January 2021, but Shiner is hopeful. “Any opportunity to sing on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera is a gift, and one that I plan to make the most of.”
Feature photo: Alexandria Shiner as Berta in The Glimmerglass Festival’s production of The Barber of Seville. Photo by Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Shiner was the first UT opera student to win the competition. Cheryl Studer (’79) won in 1978 and Delores Ziegler (MA ’79) was a finalist in 1979.