Opera star returns home to sing at Christmas Mass

Esther Heideman shares her musical talents with Lebanon parishioners

NEW LONDON — New London native Esther Heideman is grateful she is able to live her dream. The operatic soprano sings on stages around the world. This Christmas, her “stage” was with the choir at her home parish of St. Patrick’s in Lebanon.

Opera singer Esther Heideman stands outside St. Patrick Church in Lebanon, her childhood church, on Christmas morning. She returned home to sing during Christmas Mass. (Brad Birkholz | For The Compass)

She joined them for Christmas carols before the 10 a.m. Mass and sang at Communion. This included some solos, to the enjoyment of parishioners, many of whom are family and friends.

When on stage, she said, “I feel the vibration of the music in my body; I feel like I’m in a trance. It feels like the highest sense of religion you can have. I am so filled with gratitude and joy. When you are doing a job you love, you just feel it. I can’t put it into words.”

Watching the reaction of audience members also fills her with gratitude, she says. “I had a teacher who said if you can imagine doing anything else in the world, you are in the wrong job.” She said she is touched by the comments she receives after performances. “I really noticed it after 9-11. People needed music to lift them up. I need the energy of lifting people up.”

Reviewers have noticed as well, and she wins high praise for her angelic voice. At one point, The Boston Globe said, “She reminded one of a young Beverly Sills, what with her great cascade of strawberry blond curls, her bubbly personality and the drop-dead gorgeous voice.”

Every year or so she returns to Wisconsin to be with her parents, brother, sister and extended family when they gather at her family’s farm in Sugar Bush, a small town near New London.

Esther Heideman joined members of St. Patrick Parish in Lebanon for Christmas carols before the 10 a.m. Christmas Mass and sang at Communion. (Brad Birkholz | For The Compass)

“I grew up on a dairy farm in Sugar Bush, the middle of three children,” Heideman said. “We were not allowed to do sports because of chores, but my mother encouraged artistic pursuits. My mom taught herself guitar and we all sang in the church choir with her. My sister, an alto, became a poet, and my brother is a beautiful Irish tenor, who runs the family farm. His three children are in band.”

“I tell people, I grew up singing to the cows until I found an audience. (Today’s audiences) are much nicer,” she laughed.

Her initial career plans weren’t directed at music, however.

“I thought I’d be a paralegal and I tried it for a day while in high school. I remember coming home crying; I hated it so much,” Heideman said. “The next day, a recruiter from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire was at school. I applied.”

She intended to become a music teacher and it was there that she discovered her passion for singing, taking her first serious voice lesson at age 19. She earned a master’s degree at the University of Minnesota while performing with groups in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

“Then I moved to New York and after several years, things really took off,” she said.

In 2000, she won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. “There were 7,000 singers and seven rounds starting in Minneapolis and ending at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. I think there were about five winners,” she said. “It was an incredible experience just to be on that stage. It’s the most nervous I’ve ever been in my life. It was a crazy experience that jumpstarted things. The next day, I was asked to cover a lead role at the Met.”

That has led to performances with symphonies and orchestras around the world, including The Baltimore Symphony, Pittsburgh Symphony, St. Louis Symphony, just to name a few.

She spent a year and a half in Beijing, China, where she was teaching and performing while returning to the States every other week for performances. However that soon proved to be too much traveling and she moved back to Washington, D.C.

Her schedule varies as opera companies and orchestras hire her for short periods of time. Jobs can vary from three to six days to three weeks at a time. “They tell me about this six months to two years ahead and tell me what they want me to sing. I practice and show up prepared. It certainly keeps you in the present moment.”

“This allows me to set my own schedule. It is exciting, but also a bit scary,” Heideman said.

Her career “all started with amazing teachers in New London,” she said. “I still meet up with them when I can get back. We have coffee and we keep in touch with cards and letter. They are just incredible.”

Editor’s note: To listen to Esther Heideman’s music, visit her website.