With a résumé that includes backup vocals for Elton John, Aretha Franklin and other megastars, Christina Santa Maria is not your average Binghamton University student.
“It’s been 11 years since I started singing,” Santa Maria says. “My mom was an opera singer and I was in the children’s chorus when she was doing mainstage roles as a chorus member in Brooklyn. And I’d just look at these women, these larger-than-life people singing on stage and I was like, ‘I want to do that.’”
A sophomore, Santa Maria is one of fewer than 10 students pursuing a bachelor’s of music in vocal performance. Apart from the required academic credits, which include music theory, pedagogy and conducting, the degree calls for an additional 86 credits of performance.
“It’s very stressful, very filled for time,” Santa Maria says. “I have classes Monday through Thursday from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. I’m also double-majoring in linguistics because I’m really interested in language.”
Despite her packed schedule, Santa Maria finds the time to be an active member of the co-ed music fraternity Mu Phi Epsilon and perform for both local productions and larger events.
Mary Burgess, assistant professor of voice and Santa Maria’s voice teacher, is confident in Santa Maria’s talent and believes she will continue to grow.
“She has done backup vocals for Barbra Streisand,” says Burgess. “How many other students at Binghamton University have done that? She has a real chance in a very competitive profession where few succeed. Only those whom we consider to have a real shot at a performing career are accepted into our Bachelor of Music in Voice degree program.”
Santa Maria was a member of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, a cross-choral training program with many connections. In addition to her aforementioned performances, she has sung backup vocals for John Legend and the band Grizzly Bear. Her most cherished memory is singing for Streisand, who she considers one of her biggest role models.
“I got an e-mail from the Brooklyn Youth Chorus in the middle of August saying, ‘Hi alumni, do you want to come back and sing?’” Santa Maria says. “I had to read it over five times and then I just screamed because I love her so much. I met her for the first time in Philadelphia for the dress rehearsal and her voice was better than ever. You only get better with age if you know how to take care of your technique.”
Although one would not believe so by looking at her credentials, Santa Maria says she has a ways to go in terms of her vocal education.
“John Di Costanzo is the conductor of the Tri-Cities Opera from where I receive performance credit. He also works here as a coach and master class teacher,” Santa Maria says. “He is very well versed in Bel Canto, which is a 19th-century opera style in Italy. I sang this one song for him, a very traditional Bel Canto. He told me I was brave for singing it and he tore me apart. But that’s how you learn.”
Santa Maria is thankful for the opportunities she has been granted by not only being a member of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, but a student of the Binghamton University Music Department.
“When opera started, it was this big oral tradition that was just passed down from teacher to teacher,” Santa Maria says. “And you find that now with more commercial teachers. But when you’re lucky, you get one that really knows. My teacher had a teacher who was taught by Brahms, so just that connection is fantastic.”
Santa Maria is realistic about the competitiveness and difficulties that come along with the opera world.
“I like to stay down to earth,” she says. “In this business, you live on the road, you don’t know what you’re doing the next week and it’s not a salary job by any means. There are chances, but it’s not likely.”
In the future, Santa Maria hopes to perform for many years before settling down to impart to others the knowledge she received.
“After performing, I want to teach somewhere and keep the tradition going,” she says. “I’d like to get a contract at the Met; even if I go into the background of it, I’d be fulfilled because I’d still be singing, even if it wasn’t in the front of the stage. But sometimes, you want to be in front.”
—By Nicole Negron