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Kathy Diller Brauen

August 21, 2018

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15 minutes with Julia Szabo

Julia and Jerry Szabo backstage at Carnegie Hall

Where did you grow up?

My family settled in Rockford, Illinois when I was 8 years old. I spent nine years of my childhood in Rockford before leaving for college, then for NYC.
Tell me a bit about your childhood.
My parents had six kids - all girls - and we were each born in a different state. When I was 10 years old, we almost moved again - to upstate NY - but that fell through, thank goodness! Too much moving around is not good for a child's confidence.
Did you like school?
I was a good student, so I liked classroom work. But I was very shy.
When did you begin singing seriously? Did you take voice lessons before going to college?
Yes. When I was a junior or senior in high school, I rode with another high school senior all the way to Northern Illinois University in DeKalb - 50 minutes away - twice a month to take lessons with a teacher there.
Did you perform in high school productions/contests, etc?
Starting in 7th and 8th grades throughout high school, I was always given the character roles in the school musicals. I was tall and, apparently, very funny on stage. I was also hired (got paid) for the ensemble of a local dinner theatre where I performed some bit parts. I also got some leading roles (Guenevere being my favorite) at the outdoor summer stock theater called "Starlight Theater" at Rock Valley College. That theater is still going strong.
How did you choose Northern Illinois?
They gave me a full tuition (four year) scholarship. By then, my parents were divorced, so being offered a "free ride" was pretty sweet. Two of my older sisters had gone to NIU and I was still studying with that soprano on their faculty.
Was your major music performance? What were your plans for after college?
Yes, voice performance. My plan was to become a star on Broadway, of course!
Is that when you went to NYC? What was it like moving there? Did you know anyone else there, or were you brave enough to go alone?
I was handed my diploma one week before Christmas in 1981. Three days after Christmas, I was in a friend's car on my way to NYC. It was exciting and scary. My best friend had been living there for a year. He invited me to stay in his apartment with him and two other people (!) above a restaurant. I had never seen cockroaches before. When a former roommate showed up yielding a machete and demanding his security deposit back, I moved to Queens.
Where did you live when you first got there? How did you get around the city?
In Chelsea for one week, then Astoria-Queens for a year, then back to Manhattan. After that first year of moving around, I settled in upper Manhattan - above the George Washington Bridge. The rents are cheaper up there and there are many parks and open sky because the buildings are only six stories high in that neighborhood. You learn the subway system.
Did you begin performing immediately or did it take awhile to get your first gig?
I arrived with $2,000 - which was spent quickly on rent and food. So, I needed to get a job - which was very easy because of my wholesome Midwest look and manner. I landed my first gig nine months later.
I assume you held other jobs at least in the beginning? What were some of the things you did?
Oh yes. Always. Billing clerk at a construction firm, secretary at a real estate office, executive secretary at Gant (apparel), Calvin Klein, and Morgan Stanley, legal secretary....
If I remember right, you met Jerry through his brother, Jon. Were you and Jon performing together?
Yes. Jon and I would end up singing in certain professional ensemble jobs every few months. I always thought Jon was very nice. Still do.
What is your favorite performance venue? Why?
Carnegie Hall. Great acoustics and great history.
How would you describe your singing voice -- in terms of your range, timbre, etc. -- in professional terms and how a layperson would understand that?
I am a lyric mezzo-soprano. "Mezzo" meaning "middle" and "lyric" meaning "flexible." My voice is best-suited for the music of Mozart, Rossini, Handel, Bach instead of the dramatic music of Verdi, Wagner...you get the idea?
How often do you practice?
Not very often when I don't have a gig coming up.
How many hours do you practice when preparing for a specific performance?
Three hours a week for two months.
Can you sight-read easily?
I can now, but I am still not as good at sight-reading as Jon Szabo!
Do you still take lessons?
After a long hiatus, I finally started taking lessons again this past September and I feel I am singing better than ever!
What are some of your favorite pieces, solos/oratorios, etc.? Is there someone in particular that you enjoy performing with?
"Er barme dich" from the St. Matthew Passion by J.S. Bach. My oboist husband, Jeremy Szabo!
Have you done various types of music (i.e., pop, Broadway, classical, jazz)?
Only Broadway and classical music. Jazz and pop are a whole other ballgame which require a different skill set.
Any restaurant background type music?
No! I would be terrible at that.
Do you and Jerry ever perform together? If so, is that difficult or do you understand each other so well that it's easy?
Yes. We understand the amount of physical and emotional energy it takes to perform, so we help each other get what we need pre- and post-performance.
How often do you return to NYC to perform?
I've gone back twice to perform in Carnegie Hall. Jerry goes back every six months.
Do you always sing somewhere on Christmas and/or NY Eve?
Not any more, thank goodness. Jerry and I were always working on holidays in NYC.
Tell me about your most recent performance. Are you nervous before those performances? If so, how do you cope with that?
I just sang two Mozart arias with the Lima Symphony Orchestra in their "Mozart by Candlelight" series. I was nervous singing for the hometown crowd thinking "what if I can't cut it anymore?" I prayed and drank lots of water.
Does your son, Jake, like to sing? Play any instruments yet? How old is he?
He's a good singer. He plays drums and piano. He'll be 5 in March.
When did you return to Bluffton? Tell me about why you and Jerry decided to leave NYC to settle in Bluffton.
August 2006. NYC is exhausting and complicated with a child. We wanted to be nearer to our Midwest relatives and provide our son with a safe and stable childhood in a town where he will make lifelong friendships.
Was it a good decision? Do you miss the day to day busyness of NYC?
Absolutely! No, not the day-to-day business. I miss the "over the top" personalities and certain individuals like our building superintendent from Nicaragua and the Jordanian deli owners and the Korean dry cleaner, etc.
What is your current job at Bluffton University? What sorts of things do you do?
Director of alumni relations and annual giving. I try to think of ways to engage our alumni with their university so that they will help current and future Bluffton students get a quality education.
Who is the most famous person you've ever met? The most famous you've performed with?
Most famous to whom? I've met Placido Domingo, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Julie Taymor, Beverly Sills, Julius Rudel, Paul McCartney - ah! There's a name I think everyone has heard of. I was a backup singer to Andrea Bocelli on David Letterman's show.
What and/or where would you like to perform (something you've not yet done)? Do you have any "musical" goals?
On the stage of the Metropolitan Opera - but that's never gonna happen. To keep being asked to sing. I'm glad that people like the sound of my voice. I worked on it for a very long time. I didn't get famous and I didn't get rich, but I have a beautiful instrument.