I haven’t been to the Metropolitan Opera in years, due to the pandemic. In the past, I went once or twice a year. It’s a great treat.

In early January, Mary and I took our 16-year-old grandson to see Aida. He had never seen an opera. What a thrill for him and us.

The role of Aida was performed by Michelle Bradley. She is a newcomer but is already a huge star on the international opera circuit. She is African American. She was born in Versailles, Kentucky, a town of 10,000 or fewer people. She graduated from Woodford County High School, then graduated from Kentucky State University, then studied vocal performance at Bowling Green State University.

The town of Versailles, small as it is, used to have three high schools. One of them was for Blacks only, even though the town’s Black population is tiny, about 6%. After the Brown decision, the three merged, and the Woodford County High School opened in 1963.

The publication of the San Francisco Opera interviewed the phenomenal new star:

At school, she was the girl with the crooked teeth, the one the other kids teased and taunted. To spare herself the bullying, she kept her mouth shut.

Michelle Bradley

“I didn’t talk at all until I got home,” soprano Michelle Bradley explains. “I was getting picked on a lot at school. And so I just stopped talking. Until I could get braces, I just didn’t talk in public.”

But in the afternoons, before her parents returned from work, Bradley would retreat into her sanctuary: her bedroom’s walk-in closet. There, with the door closed, Bradley would sing, without fear that anyone would hear her or judge her.

One day, though, her singing would no longer be a secret. One day, it would grace stages around the world, making her one of today’s most buzzed-about up-and-coming opera stars.

Growing up in Versailles, Kentucky, Bradley remembers her mother received free CDs in the mail, with songs from Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, and The Clark Sisters, a gospel group from Detroit. Bradley loved them all. But there was one singer who inspired her the most: superstar Whitney Houston.

“She was my idol. That’s who I was trying to be as a little girl,” Bradley says.

In those early years, she would tally the ways she and Houston were alike—they shared a birth month, a Zodiac sign—just to feel a little closer to the superstar. And when the movie The Bodyguard came out, with Houston in the starring role, Bradley watched it over and over.

But trying to sing big, powerful ballads like Houston did in a closet made discretion difficult. Bradley had three brothers, two older and one younger. And like many a pesky sibling, Bradley’s younger brother was all too eager to spill the beans on his sister’s secret hobby.

“Mom, Dad, Tammy likes to sing in the closet! Tammy likes to sing in the closet,” she remembers him shouting, using the name she’s called at home.

Even with her parents, Bradley only spoke when spoken to. She was shy. Her parents could hardly believe she had a secret pastime singing. They called her into the living room and asked her to perform something. Naturally, Bradley chose a Houston song: “I Love the Lord” from The Preacher’s Wife.

“After that, my parents had me up singing at church services and everything else,” Bradley says. “It just started from there.”

Bradley had shown musical talent even from a young age. At Kmart, while her mother did the shopping, an 8-year-old Bradley would park herself in the aisle with all the musical equipment: “That was back when they had all the keyboards sitting out and had them all plugged up. Ooh, that was fun!”

She had no problem finding the keys to play the theme songs for kids’ shows like Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock. “I really don’t know how I did it,” Bradley says. “I loved my little cartoons, and so I would hear that and then I could sing it or play it. I just needed to hear it, and I had it.”

Neither of Bradley’s parents had studied music, but both loved to sing. They had met during the civil rights movement in the 1960s, two of the first Black students to integrate their Kentucky high school. Bradley’s father passed her mother a note that read, “I want to be your man.” They sang together in church choirs ever since they started dating.

It was with their help that Bradley started to overcome her shyness. Her father, a police officer, was a deacon at Polk Memorial Baptist Church. Her mother continued to sing in the church choir. Bradley started by learning to play services with the church pianist. By high school, she could carry a whole service.

And when, at age 14 or 15, she started singing in public, Bradley’s parents were always there, cheering her on. “Honestly, that’s who I would focus on when I was singing. I would look at them if I got nervous. So that helped me a lot. They helped me a lot.”

Soon, Bradley had the confidence to sing at school pep rallies and Christmas parties. “When I started doing that, when I started singing at school, people stopped picking on me. I was going from, ‘Hey, a crooked-tooth girl’ to ‘Hey, can you come sing for us?’”

It was the start of something great. Bradley would go on to graduate from the Metropolitan Opera’s prestigious Lindemann Young Artist Development Program. Her voice won her awards galore—from the Leonie Rysanek Award to the grand prize at the Marilyn Horne Song Competition—and she toured Europe, performing in great opera houses from Berlin to Vienna to Paris and beyond.

Now, she’s taking the U.S. by storm. This past fall, she starred as the heroine Liù in the Metropolitan Opera’s Turandot, and in March, she makes her debut with the Lyric Opera of Chicago as the title character in Tosca. Then, she joins San Francisco Opera for its Centennial Season, making her inaugural appearance in the company’s Dialogues of the Carmelites.

Bradley frequently visits Houston, because that’s where her voice teacher, Lois Alba, lives. When the pandemic closed down everything, including opera, she stayed with her family in Versailles for eight or nine months. She practiced at Kentucky State and the local church.

During that time, she got requests to sing virtually. She found that the best acoustics in the house was in the bathroom. So she would get dressed up in her regalia and sing at an angle that didn’t show the toilet.

When she was in high school, she thought she might one day be a music teacher or choir director. But in her freshman year at Kentucky State, her voice teacher, AndrewSmith, told her she had the voice to sing opera and encouraged her. She “just fell in love with it.” He showed her Turandot on a VHS, the first opera ever for her and she was immediately transfixed. Mr. Smith also gave her a CD of Leontyne Price, and Michelle was star struck.

It was like when I was a little girl listening to Whitney Houston, except this was an opera singer. I heard that voice and I don’t know what inside me said, “That’s me. I can do that.” But hearing one of the greatest voices of our time, I said, “I can do that too.” I still, to this day, don’t know where that came from. Or maybe I do know where it came from. But that was really my first thought: that I can do this. I can sound like that. It’s like I found a home.

From Versailles, Kentucky, to the Metropolitan Opera!

What a remarkable story, and what a wonderful voice!