We had the good fortune of connecting with Lily Smith and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Lily, what role has risk played in your life or career?
I am a 23-year-old opera singer: risk is akin to my career. What is so risky about singing opera? Well, it’s one big gamble and instead of playing your money, you’re playing your life. How many years are you willing to give to the pursuit in the hopes of one day making it on a big stage? In many ways, this is similar to what professional athletes experience, except that even fewer spots exist at the top.
Risk 1: “The odd one out”. It’s easier to be popular in school as a great soccer player than as an aspiring soprano. The first risk I took was to latch on to this odd passion and decide that people would need to get behind the idea or get lost.
Risk 2: “No safety net”. I decided to apply to only three universities – all amongst the best music programs in the country. No safety schools. I told myself that if I wasn’t accepted to the best programs, there was very little chance I was cut out to make it further down the road, so why delay the deception. Thankfully, I was accepted to Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music. I used the same risky logic when the time came to apply to graduate schools. I had no idea what I would do if I did not get in anywhere, but I needed to know that I was still in the running, and getting into USC was my confirmation.
Risk 3: “Investing with no guarantee of return on investment”. I graduated from Northwestern University in 2019 with a dual degree. Most of my friends went on to work at jobs that provide them generous incomes, health insurance, etc. Meanwhile, despite a bountiful scholarship, I am currently spending money to complete a Masters program at USC’s Thornton School of Music. I practice every single day, I juggle various side hustles to afford rent, tuition, and life. But, no amount of effort I put in can eliminate the risk factor – at the end of the day, there is no guarantee of a successful career.
With risk, you have to give up a lot before you can hope to gain anything. And, the harder part – you have to live with yourself if the reward never comes.
Please tell us more about your art. We’d love to hear what sets you apart from others, what you are most proud of or excited about. How did you get to where you are today professionally? Was it easy? If not, how did you overcome the challenges? What are the lessons you’ve learned along the way? What do you want the world to know about you or your brand and story?
I am a soprano, which means I sing opera and I sing in the highest part of the vocal range! Have I always loved opera? Certainly not. My piano teacher – a young soprano – gave me my first voice lesson when I was 8 years old living in Paris, France, where I was born and raised. She said I was really good and I liked that, so I kept singing. At nine years old, I moved to the United States. I worked really hard to learn English and do well in school. I also played sports – I was one of the top ranked tennis players in North Carolina. I didn’t know who Luciano Pavarotti was, or who had composed La Bohème, but I continued to find so much thrill in singing opera. By the end of high school, singing was the only path that intrigued me, so I decided to go for it.
My first year at Northwestern went well, at least on paper. I earned good grades, did everything that was required of me, made friends, etc. However, I did not have a break-through with singing.- it still did not feel like my whole world. But then, something happened that changed my relationship with music drastically. Summer of 2018, I was traveling throughout Spain with my family and I decided to put myself through the ultimate test of musicianship. In the middle of a shopping street in Sevilla, I turned on my speaker, and began singing opera.
Singing in the street made me understand that it’s not only about technique or prestige, and it certainly is not about me. In reality, it’s about what my voice can do for others. In 2019, I was singing in a park in Chicago when a woman came up to me to tell me that she had just lost her mother, and never thought she’d be able to smile again so soon. Last December, I sang in front of a painter’s art exhibit in Sénégal, and he found himself so inspired that he made me my very own painting using the music to guide his brush strokes. And just last week, a four year old girl emailed me to tell me that she watches my opera videos and wants to do the same thing when she grows up. It doesn’t matter what language the songs are in, or what country I am singing them in – somehow the music finds its way into people’s hearts. That’s what matters, and that’s why I sing. I really believe I have found my purpose.
Since that first experience in Sevilla, I have been completely devoted to the pursuit of my dream. My experience thus far in has taught me that a big part of succeeding in this field is learning to take rejection, and keep your chin up. It’s the last man standing that will make it. So here I am, unsure of what the future holds but ready to give it my all, full steam ahead.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
I moved to Los Angeles less than a year ago in the middle of a global pandemic so this is a tough question! To show a friend a good time, I’d want to highlight what makes California an innately great place to live – i.e all the outdoor activities that big cities don’t usually offer. First, I’d take my friend out to one of the many delicious restaurants in the city. I have a soft spot for Italian food, so we’d go to Hollywood and eat the best Neapolitan pizza I’ve ever had stateside at L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele. Then we could hit up one of the popular areas such as Main Street, Abbot Kinney, or downtown Culver City for some post dinner drinks and a fun atmosphere. The next day, we could go to Massilia in downtown Santa Monica where they offer lots of options for a tasty brunch. We could spend the afternoon shopping on third street and playing spike ball on the beach. Later, we’d go to Jamesons on Main Street which is always packed and has an irresistible happy hour deal. To close out the day, I’d love to go home and cook a big dinner out on the rooftop grill. On the final day, we would drive up the PCH to make our way to Malibu and hike one of the scenic mountain trails. Then, we’d go to El Matador beach to relax and tan for the afternoon. I’d close out the weekend with a pretty sunset picnic in the hills or on the beach.
Because I moved to LA amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, I have not gotten a chance to explore any of the museums, sports stadiums, or even the night life. Maybe once I become more familiar with it, I could incorporate more into plans for future visiting friends!
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
My shoutout easily goes to my parents and my older brother. I come from a family of writers and tennis players. I have tremendous admiration for each of them, but when it comes to music….well… there isn’t much to work with! Nonetheless, throughout this entire journey, my family has always made me feel supported. What is even more remarkable is that their constant support comes with zero pressure to succeed. This permitted me to develop a relationship with my singing where it is and has always been 100% my undertaking, which also means it will be my own failure or success.
Another person who certainly deserves a lot of credit for helping me get to where I am today is my undergraduate voice teacher, Professor Kurt Hansen. Rather than constantly being on my back, he let it be all up to me. Either I would find the passion and motivation within myself. Or, I’d fail to find the necessary drive and I’d know that the dream had run its course. This approach furthered the development of an extremely healthy relationship between me and my art.