A Flexible Balancing Act
By Dara McBride | Photography by Mary Grace Johnson
At 5 a.m., professional opera singer Julia Ebner wakes up. It’s not quite that early every day, but at least on some Tuesdays and Thursdays, the Baldwinsville native’s first job requires an early start.
At 6 a.m., Julia teaches a ballet barre fitness class at Bodhi Barre in Dewitt. After an hour-or-so break for breakfast, she’s back to teach another class.
At 10 a.m., she has a few free hours for lesson planning. Then, her afternoon is spent teaching youth dance classes at Tiffany’s School of Dance in Skaneateles or giving voice lessons from a Baldwinsville studio. Depending on the day, she may also teach Pilates or act as a standardized patient for medical students at SUNY Upstate Medical University.
Her day usually wraps up around 8 or 9 p.m.
“Within a year, about 50 percent of my livelihood comes from music and about 50 percent comes from something within the fitness world, including dance,” Julia said.
As American opera companies typically employ per performance, performers often find themselves between gigs. During the 2015-16 opera season, Julia appeared locally, sang with Florida’s St. Petersburg Opera and made her debut as a chorister with the Metropolitan Opera.
The odd gaps in her performing schedule, along with perhaps 30 to 40 auditions a year, mean Julia needs second jobs that are as flexible as she is.
“I can live here and have jobs that are more fulfilling and interesting to me,” Julia said, “and experience not a slower life, but what is — for me — a fuller life.”
With a grandfather who was a singer and an aunt in the opera world, her family made it “easy to fall into the arts,” she said.
Julia saw her first opera at the age of 8, a performance of “La Bohème,” in which her aunt performed. She started with piano and clarinet lessons at age 13, before moving to singing once her voice matured.
“I was most interested in musical theater, but then my voice teacher gave me an aria from an American opera, and the harmonies were much more interesting,” Julia said. “It was vocally and melodically more challenging, and it just sparked my interest in opera.”
Julia studied vocal performance at Syracuse University in the early 2000s, then pursued a master’s degree in opera at Binghamton University and participated in the Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Program.
Julia often works on multiple music projects. In April, she appeared in a Syracuse Symphoria concert as the soprano soloist for Mahler’s “Rückert Lieder” and Bach’s “Magnificat.” Her summer projects included directing “Annie Jr.” with The Tiffany School of Dance and Performing Arts Center, as well as singing the role of Maud Gage in scenes from a new opera, “Pushed Aside: Reclaiming Gage,” at the Society of New Music. In October, she plans to appear as Frasquita in “Carmen” with Syracuse Opera.
“There is this idea that opera is stuck-up, or only for wealthy people, or that it’s not accessible, and it’s very accessible and has something for everybody,” Julia said. “It’s just about getting exposed to it and finding the style that appeals to you.”
While accessible, opera is still the most challenging arena for Julia. All her jobs require some element of performance, but opera requires her to keep track of her character, the music and the overall story.
When she’s teaching a fitness or dance class, Julia has more opportunity to be herself and let loose.
She’s taught dance on and off since 2000, but it wasn’t until 2013 that she became more interested in fitness. While performing in the opera version of “A Streetcar Named Desire” with the Virginia Opera, Julia popped into a Pilates class at the local YMCA. She was hooked.
“I could get through the class and didn’t feel like a total failure,” she said. “I didn’t feel weak or out of place, but I also noticed that I felt taller and I felt centered. I didn’t feel like I had broken my body. So then I kept going, and I never stopped.”
About a year later, Julia became certified to teach Pilates, and in 2015, joined the Bodhi Barre staff. She wasn’t familiar with barre — a workout that builds on dance, Pilates and yoga — but it sounded like something she could do.
When she sent in her resume, studio owner Colette Calderala was impressed.
“I just had no doubt she would be really good at this,” Colette remembered.
Colette described Julia as someone who “rolls with things.” Despite being constantly on-the-go, Julia always makes time for her students, Colette said.
While she leads a busy life, Julia wouldn’t want to give up her multi-career style.
“To work a 9-to-5 would probably blow my mind,” she said with a smile. SWM
For more on Julia, visit juliaebner.com.