Sometimes I can be a diva," Paula Newberry says shrugging bashfully, with only the tiniest hint of wickedness flashing in her eyes. She's not about to say how, of course. But for all her protestations, the lifelong Memphian doesn't seem to be anything like your stereotypical soprano. For starters, she's positively petite, a characteristic that belies her powerful lungs. Her speaking voice is so soft and melodic, it's impossible to imagine that, when in the mood to do so, she can rattle even the highest rafters. And wonder of wonders, she's shy.
"In my opinion," Newberry says, "a true diva is someone who sticks to exactly what the composer wrote. You have to be a servant to the composer and you have to serve the music. If you do that, then you can't go wrong." By all outward appearances, the effectiveness of the young singer's rather humble recipe for success would be difficult to refute. She's performed all over the world, from Mississippi to Austria. Her recital on Sunday, November 9th, at the Beethoven Club is just a warm-up for her debut at New York's Carnegie Hall in December. And just how did the Memphis singer get to Carnegie Hall? You guessed it: practice, practice, practice.
"Actually, I booked the show [at Carnegie] myself," Newberry says. "Of course, they don't just let anyone perform there."
According to the singer, the New York concert was an inevitability. It was something that she had to do both for herself and for her father who passed away in 2001 while Newberry was performing in Salzburg.
"When you audition and you audition and audition and audition, you get to this point where you have to say, 'Okay, enough. It's time I took my career into my own hands. I'm going to do this myself, and I'm going to make [the audience] come to me,'" Newberry says confidently. "And, you know, before I perform I talk to my dad. And when I get to New York I can actually say to him, 'I did it. Your baby girl made it. She's at Carnegie Hall.' It's like a dream."
Newberry didn't start her formal voice training until she was 13, but her talents made themselves obvious much earlier.
"When I was 2," Newberry says, "my mother knew that I was musically inclined because I used to be antsy and really uneasy [at church]. I always wanted to get to the organist's pit. I couldn't wait to feel the music and start tapping my feet." It was after a vocal performance in church that the organist suggested that the 12-year-old singer begin professional training. "That's when I was introduced to the classical repertoire," she says, "and I've been singing it ever since."
According to Newberry, singing became a way of life. Sometimes she used her voice as an instrument to honor her family; sometimes she used it as a weapon.
"If my brothers did something that made me mad," she says mischievously, "I would sing at them. I would get loud too! As loud as I possibly could! Eventually they would learn. Eventually they would leave me alone."
It was after hearing Leontyne Price, the vocally astounding African-American singer whose raw talent battered away at long-standing cultural barriers and who dominated the classical stage from the 1950s through the 1970s, that Paula Newberry decided she would become a professional singer. She took to practicing on the patio, emulating her favorite singer in the backyard. She would pretend that the grass was her audience. "And I would sing," she says. "And I would say, 'I'm gonna make it, Mama. I really am. I'm gonna make it.' I would say that over and over again."
Newberry says she prefers the concert stage to performing in operas, though she has done both. And she prefers the classical repertoire to popular standards and spirituals. But she does it all.
"Before my father passed," she explains, "he used to come to all of my concerts. You see, his mother sang opera, and I didn't know this. I just thought the family had been brought up in Mississippi. But every time I sang opera it reminded him of his mother."
In spite of her preferences, Newberry's forthcoming recital, which is also a fund-raiser for her Carnegie Hall appearance, will include not only selections by Mozart and Bellini but also a number of holiday songs and such spirituals as "Steal Away Jesus" and "Balm in Gilead." She performs the songs because audiences love them.
"I used to shy away from singing spirituals," she says, "because I thought it was kind of stereotypical. But they seem to be what people relate to best. It gives balm to the soul. Most people go around with a smile on their face, but they are hurting inside. The spirituals touch that healing place inside of them. It touches your soul. It's like going to church."
Paula Newberry performs at the Beethoven Club (263 S. McLean, 274-2504) 3 p.m. Sunday, November 9th.