The story of soprano Angela Meade's "overnight success" at the Metropolitan Opera is well known: She wins the National Council Auditions, is hired as an understudy for Verdi's "Ernani," makes her debut when the leading lady falls ill — and a new star is born.
What's less well known, but just as important to that story, she says, is what happened two years earlier in that same competition: She lost.
It was 2005, and Meade, then a 27-year-old music graduate student at USC, had advanced to the semifinals in New York. Out of a group of about 20, half would be chosen for the final round with big cash prizes and publicity. Meade did not make the cut.
"I was feeling sorry for myself because I thought I had sung well," she recalled in an interview at the Met last week. "On a whim, I went down to Philadelphia and auditioned for the AVA (Academy of Vocal Arts). I remember thinking: 'I'm not any good, and if they don't take me, I'm quitting singing!'"
AVA did take her, and two years later she was back at the Met, where she made it to the winner's circle. Her triumph was captured in a feature-length movie, "The Audition," which documentary filmmaker Susan Froemke was making about that year's competition.
The day after the 2007 finals came an email from the Met with an offer to "cover" the role of Elvira in "Ernani" the following season.
Her one performance in 2008 was so successful it led to an entire run for this year's revival of Verdi's early opera, including a matinee on Saturday that will be broadcast in HD to movie theaters worldwide. She also got to follow Anna Netrebko in three performances of Donizetti's "Anna Bolena" last fall.
"As angry as I was the first time, it was a blessing," she said, "because when I came back I was much more polished, and 'The Audition' happened and then the Met contract."
One big difference was that in 2005, at the urging of her teacher, Bill Schuman, she refrained from singing what had become her showpiece audition aria: "Casta diva" from Bellini's "Norma."
"He begged me, 'Don't go out on that stage and sing that because it's very exposed and people will compare you to everyone who has ever sung it there,'" she said. Those predecessors on the Met stage included Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland and Montserrat Caballe.
The second time around, Meade insisted on singing it — and wowed the judges.
"I thought it really showed what I can do, what is special in my voice," she said. "It showed I have a long line, and I can sing legato, and I can sing pianissimo high, and I can sing coloratura and cadenzas, and all this stuff."
A lot of that same "stuff" will be on display Saturday when Meade launches into the famous aria "Ernani, involami" just a few minutes after making her first entrance.
"There isn't any time to warm up, so it's a little like coming out and singing your audition in your costume," she said. "But in an audition you expend all this energy and passion and you get to the end and they go, 'Thank you,' and you don't get any sort of release. In a performance, the audience loves you afterward. It's like getting a big hug."
Growing up in Centralia, Wash., the daughter of a forester, Meade was drawn to singing from an early age but had little exposure to classical music.
"I never really knew that I could make a living doing that unless I was a pop singer or country singer," she said, "and I knew my voice didn't naturally lend itself to that." It wasn't until college that she began singing arias, attended her first opera and discovered the true outlet for her gift.
Now, in her prime at 34, Meade is singing all over the world, with upcoming engagements from Boca Raton, Fla., to Berlin, Germany. And she continues to pile up the prizes; she was the recipient of the 2011 Richard Tucker Award for promising American singers, and just last month was named winner of the Beverly Sills Artist Award.
Oddly, because of the long lead time in scheduling, she'll barely be in evidence at the Met next season — just one performance as Leonora in Verdi's "Il Trovatore."
But the Met has big plans for her in the future: more "Ernanis" and "Trovatores," plus Alice Ford in Verdi's "Falstaff" and the title role in "Norma" with that "Casta diva" aria.