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South Hills

Italy trip inspires aspiring opera singer to be her best

| Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018, 12:48 p.m.

Robyn Long dreams of someday taking the stage at The Metropolitan Opera in New York City as a solo artist.

She knows she has a long road to get there, but she’s determined and driven.

Long, 26, of Jefferson Hills, spent most of July in Italy at the Bologna International Opera Academy where she trained under some of the top singers in her field. The nearly 30 singers at the academy came from Argentina, Puerto Rico, England and Asia to learn. Long said she was the first African American to participate in the program.

“It showed me there’s more out there and don’t limit yourself to what you think your only options are,” Long said.

The 2009 Thomas Jefferson High School graduate has been singing since the age of 5.

She calls it the “typical story” of a little girl learning to sing in church and performing in school chorus.

At 14 years old, Long performed in the Miss Black Teenage Beauty Pageant at Soldiers and Sailors. That was when her family began to notice her talent and stage presence — even though Long came in fourth runner up because, she laughs, she didn’t answer any of the questions.

As a high school junior, Long took her first professional vocal lessons at Civic Light Opera.

Somewhere along the way, she realized singing had to be her career. It makes her feel free.

“I feel like I’m expressing myself and telling a story to the audience,” she said. “It just feels like you’re at home, like it just fits.”

Long received her bachelor’s in vocal performance from Clark Atlanta University in 2014. She jokes that her teacher will say “that’s where she turned into a diva.”

She had a choice between classical, jazz and gospel music. She figured why not “try my hand at classical?” She loved it.

The mezzo-soprano took on church jobs after graduating.

She returned to Pittsburgh in 2016 for family support when she had her daughter, Denver, who loves to sing just like mom.

Long began attending Duquesne University for her master’s in vocal performance. She has one semester left.

A teacher at Duquesne told students about the Bologna International Opera Academy. Long submitted videos of herself singing arias in German and Italian and was selected for the program.

She never worried about the cost, which totalled $4,000, plus the flight.

Instead she put her feet to the ground and made it happen.

She visited everywhere and everyone, just showing a video of herself performing. Donations rolled in from $700 on a GoFundMe page to a $2,500 grant from the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council. The mayor of Clairton, where her family is from, helped secure funding and the nonprofit TJ Arts donated the money for her flight.

Long had visited so many places sharing her story and asking about funding that several people recommended her as a great person for TJ Arts to help support, said executive director Karen Suszynski.

TJ Arts, which has been around for nine years, works to support and enhance the arts for all 3,000 West Jefferson Hills students. Typically, that comes in the form of scholarships and support for current students.

However, Long’s drive to make it in “one of the most difficult arts professions that exists” made her stand out, Suszynski said.

“For her to try and make a go of it in this area, she does need sponsors,” she said.

Everything Long already has accomplished and her dedication in this “rare career path… suggested to us that this is a very deserving TJ graduate trying to do something extraordinary in the art,” Suszynski said.

If Long makes it in this field, it’s going to be “a big deal,” she said. “She deserves a shot at it.”

Getting the support of the community meant everything to Long, she said.

“That felt like, ‘OK, Robyn, you might just be onto something. You might just be good,’” she said.

Getting to learn alongside the best from across the world was an incredible experience, Long said. She did feel pressure, she said, being the first African American in the program.

“I felt like I had to prove something,” she said.

The program included one-on-one classes, coaching and learning how to interpret the stories. Teachers also helped with language and pronunciation of the Italian operas.

For Long, the trip made her determined to come home and work harder.

There was a competition where she only made it to the semifinals. She wants to go back, just so she can compete in the competition again and make it to the finals.

“It really made me want to work harder,” she said.

Long knows she’s probably going to have to perform a bunch of “small roles” before she breaks into the bigger scene. She hopes to travel and sing in operas across the world.

But for now, she’s willing to perform at weddings, churches and anywhere a singer is needed.

Stephanie Hacke is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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