by Michael Monroe
On September 11, a day that had seemed sad enough, we lost one of the most remarkably gifted students I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. Evangelyna Etienne, a mezzo-soprano with limitless potential, joined the choir of angels after a long and brave struggle with cancer. She had just turned 21.
“Vangie” had a voice and musical maturity that far surpassed what one might expect from an undergrad. I can still vividly remember hearing her for the first time as I accompanied her audition. Performing an extended scene from Dido and Aeneas in a dry science auditorium with no-budget sets and costumes, she left us all riveted, showing how music has the ability to transcend limitations of space and time. I’d heard, played and taught Dido’s famous lament dozens and dozens of times, but it was new and unbelievably real in those moments.
And then there were the two full roles she sang last year, first as the witch in Into the Woods and then as Ruth in The Pirates of Penzance. She was already quite ill through both runs and had to miss many rehearsals when getting out of bed wasn’t an option; yet she never even considered the option of dropping out—nor did she ever complain. The Into the Woods role is particularly grueling, and we had 10 performances, all of which were elevated by her gorgeous singing and the uncanny combination of brokenness and wisdom one felt every night during “Children Will Listen.” Time stopped again and again.
I’ve always been struck by the power that musical fragments can have, and I’ll close with two other fragment-like musical memories of Vangie. (Of course, it’s worth pointing out that Vangie’s voice and musical abilities are only a small fragment of what made her so special to so many.) One moment comes from early last May when I heard Poulenc’s “Les Chemins de l’Amour” drifting in from a studio next door. I was only half listening and I didn’t hear the whole song, but I was nonetheless fully drawn into the musical moment by Vangie’s unmistakable voice. I can still hear those fragments of melody floating by, and they are as real, beautiful and complete as if I were hearing her sing now. And, yes, I still wish I could hear her sing the whole song now.
One quality I especially admired about Vangie is that she loved so many different types of music and was as curious about new and varied repertoire as any singer I’ve come across. The day after she passed away, I found myself listening to her YouTube submission of the second soprano part for an online virtual choir of thousands put together by composer Eric Whitacre. Vangie was a born soloist, but you can hear in this video how much she loved being part of something bigger—and paradoxically, her single voice manages to make this fragment fully satisfying on its own.
Her life certainly feels like an unfinished fragment from a human perspective, and yet the life she lived was as complete, beautiful, and satisfying as a life could be. We miss her terribly.
Excerpted from “Remembering Vangie,” posted September 16 on MMmusing: Michael Monroe’s musings on music, the mind, meaning and more.
Michael Monroe, D.M.A., assistant professor of music, oversees Gordon’s opera productions, teaches music history, and coaches singers and instrumentalists. His blog, MMmusing.blogspot.com, features essays and multimedia creations. He is also the drive behind a noontime series of “Piano Hero” events.
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