Getting to know…Isola Jones
Journey to the MET
Many great artists and musicians have lived on this earth since time has been measured. Each brings their own unique beautiful talent to brighten and uplift our lives. In my conversations with them, they all have faced some difficulty or have come from a difficult life circumstance. Isola Jones is such a performer. She feels her success comes from one source. She often quotes, “Put on the whole armor of God…” Ephesians 6:11
Mezzo Soprano, Isola Jones was born in Chicago, Illinois. By looks, you would guess she is an exotic princess. I asked her, “what is your background?”
Isola smiled. She is often asked about her ancestry. “I am African American, and Native American, from the Cherokee tribe. My grandmother was fair-skinned as was the man who fathered my mother.” She proposed that perhaps she was also a bit Scottish.
Growing up, Isola’s favorite movie was Sleeping Beauty. She loved watching it. The year Walt Disney re-released Sleeping Beauty, Isola was attending a round table discussion at Liszt Hall, where the MET does the intermission feature for the Saturday radio broadcast. Next to her sat Mary Costa, who had just become her new best friend. They were laughing not really paying attention when Jamie, another friend, seated in the audience took their picture. Later that week, Jamie invited Isola to see Sleeping Beauty on the big screen. As she sat in the theater, she read the credits listing the voices for the characters. She was shocked to see her new friend’s name. Mary Costa was the voice of Sleeping Beauty. She had no idea!
As a youth, Isola was especially influenced by Leontyne Price. She heard Leontyne Price singing on the television. “She had such a beautiful voice.” Isola fell instantly in love with Price and her singing style. She tried to imitate it. In that magical moment, Isola was transformed and her life took a whole new direction.
Isola sang in the Chicago Symphony Chorus and was the understudy for Yvonne Minton, singing the Verdi Requiem. Just like in the movies, (I’m remembering a scene from Phantom of The Opera) Minton became ill for the final dress rehearsal. Isola was summoned to the stage. On one side of her stood Luciano Pavarotti. On her other side was Leontyne Price. When the rehearsal finished, Pavarotti and Price grabbed her hand and squeezed it. Minton returned for the performance, but Isola Jones had made an impression. Based on the strength of that afternoon, doors began to open for her. She was no longer just a voice in the chorus, but a recognizable talent and important people wanted to meet and listen to her.
“My audition at the MET came about in this way. When the Chicago Symphony was in New York doing Flying Dutchman, I was asked to sing a solo audition for James LeVine at the MET. I was a kid out of the chorus. I was thinking, ‘shouldn’t you speak a foreign language, shouldn’t you have some experience singing opera, shouldn’t you have experience, just in general?’ My answer was, no. I did not think I was ready.”
Isola went back to Chicago and continued to study. “My voice teacher and I were not the best of friends, but I could not pull away from the situation.” She continued to sing in the chorus for The Chicago Symphony. About a year later, she finally made a decision that changed her life. “I made one decision. I decided I was done with this organization I was singing with. I did not care if I did not have any money, any friends, nothing. I’m done. That was on a Sunday evening. Monday, the MET called me. I had not had any contact with them in a year. Again, they were asking if I would like to sing a solo audition for Jimmy Levine. This time I said yes, because I had a ticket to go to New York and I knew that this was God. I still did not have any experience. I still did not have a really reliable vocal technique.” She trusted in God and said, “Let’s do this.”
“I sang my audition at Carnegie Hall. It was less than stellar.” Jimmy LeVine asked Isola if she was studying with anyone. She replied, “No.”
Mr. Levine told Isola that she needed a little more training. Isola went back to her motel room and called a friend. She bemoaned that God had brought her to New York and she had blown it. The audition was a disaster. The friend calmly said, “Don’t worry. There was only one person there. (Perhaps he meant one person that mattered.) God.” That statement cheered her up.
The next day Ms. Jones was in the MET doing some performances with The American Ballet Theater. She ran into Jimmy Levine. She apologized to him for singing so badly. He told her not to worry, he just wanted to talk to her before she left New York, but he never called. “I figured he doesn’t want to deliver bad news face-to-face. That’s OK. I don’t like to receive bad news face-to-face.”
A year later, Isola was still working in Chicago. One day, she was watching TV with the sound down and singing Habanera when the phone rang. It was the Metropolitan Opera offering her a grocery list of roles to learn. Excitedly, she sold all her furniture, packed her music books and clothes, and left for New York.
In New York, a friend helped Isola locate a place to live with thick walls where she could practice singing. The Ansonia Hotel “looks as if it was plucked up out of the middle of France and sat down in the middle of Manhattan.” It did not have windows. More quaint, it had French doors with little balconies. It was a new experience for Ms. Jones to be in New York on her own. Her eyes twinkled as she recalled what her first night was like. “I plopped down my books, clothes and records then went down to the lobby to find some food.” There, she ran into an old friend, a Baritone from Chicago, who had recently gotten a contract in a German theater to sing for three years. The next day he called Isola to see if she knew anyone who needed furniture? Isola told him, “bring everything to me.” She had everything she needed down to the teacup and teaspoon.
During Isola’s first week at the MET she received training from the Italian coach, Alberta Maziello Ms. Jones described Alberta as a very scary woman. “She wore a turban and smoked cigars.” Maziello didn’t want to hear Isola sing. She only wanted her to speak the Italian for Maddalena from Rigoletto. Isola laughed as she explained, “I said something that just made her crazy.” Maziello got on the phone and got Isola a private Italian coach. The next thing she knew, Isola Jones was singing in the second live telecast, ever, from The Metropolitan Opera in the featured role of Maddalena from Rigoletto. This all came from one decision…to leave a really bad situation. Just like Abraham, he leaves Orr and he asks God, “Where are we going?” God says, “I’ll tell you when we get there.” That’s how I felt. I am just going. God’s got your back.”
During her years at the MET, Isola’s voice developed and matured. She recalled how being trained by the finest voices in the world was a blessing to her own vocal development. She sang as a leading lady singing opposite Pavarotti and Domingo. Imagine what it was like having some of the best singers in the world singing up close and in your face?
Isola sang 16 successful seasons at The Metropolitan Opera, including over 500 performances, beginning in 1977. While performing in the West she was asked to join the faculty at South Mountain Community College in Phoenix, Arizona. She continues to perform around the nation and teaches others that wonderful vocal technique that dialed in her voice.
The role of Our Lady of Guadalupe, from the opera, Guadalupe, Our Lady of the Roses, was written for Isola Jones. She wrote one of the songs for herself. The opera recants the legend of a poor Mexican Native and his encounter with Our Lady of Guadalupe (Mary, the Mother of Christ). The music is unique for opera. It has rich native (Aztec) undertones. Composer James DeMars included Native American flutes and drums in the score. The original recording features R. Carlos Nakai , famed Native American flutist. Also, performing are: Robert Breault as Juan Diego, Carole FitzPatrick as La Malinche, Robert Barefield as Bishop Zumarraga, and Fr. Jorge Rodriguez Eagar as Don Valeriano.
Q. What is your favorite food?
A. I love chinese food. The Chinese, in terms of cuisine, have the right idea. They give you everything. It’s like opera which includes all the art forms. Chinese food has got hot, sweet, sour, crunchy, and savory.
Q. What is your most favorite place that you have visited?
A. Paris is beautiful. Parisian women can dress so simply, but it is so exquisite, so elegant. I love the French language. I sing a lot of French Opera. (Isola is best known for the role, Carmen.) If you are talking about a place I would like to visit, that would be Tahiti, or Bora Bora. Give me someplace subtropical.
Q. Do you have a favorite color?
A. I like red and blue.
Q. Do you have a favorite book or author?
A. I think Diana Gabaldon is so brilliant. I love her Outlander series. She is celebrating 20 years from her first publishing now.
Q. Do you have favorite music?
A. My favorite music is whatever I am singing at the time. I even like some new age music because it can be very inspiring and calming. I like Enya, Mozart, Mahler, Bizet, and Dvorac’s, Song to the Moon. I like good music that is soothing. I like to listen to it while I am driving to keep me calm behind the wheel.
Q. What do you like to do in your spare time?
A. Movies, I love movies, and educational TV such as PBS. There is an AMC Theater in The Esplanade where you sit in a suite. It has call buttons where you can call for a waiter. They serve real food and it is fantastic.
Q. Is this what you call a TV dinner?
A. It’s not a grandma’s TV dinner. This is real food and it is so convenient. You don’t have to smuggle food into the theater anymore.
Q. If you had five words or statements to describe yourself, what would they be?
A. I am hoping this is true about myself. I hope to be honest. sincere, communicative, and trustworthy. One thing I am working on is to be generous of spirit, trying not to be critical. It is easy to be critical of people. We need to be more generous and more understanding. Usually, when I criticize somebody else, I am guilty of it.
Q. If you were to create your own perfect world, what would you include?
A. I would include someplace tropical, music, art, and beautiful things to look at. People, I do like people. Bring the people, animals, and lots and lots of honey. Honey is very medicinal. I’ll say this as a caveat. I have allergies. As soon as I started using honey, drinking it in hot teas, I stopped having allergy symptoms. They have gone away. I think it is something with bees that are pollinating these little plants or cross-pollinating them that is somehow building up an immunity in my system. I want honey in my perfect universe and chocolate. Another trick she swears by is oil of Oregano. It’s a good antibiotic. (I tried it). You don’t want to use too much at a time. It can be hard to keep down.)