Holding My Breath–How I Fell In Love With the Performing Arts - Jesse Gonzales-Smith ’24

Tuesday, November 8, 2022

When the lights dim, I always hold my breath as the room becomes blissfully quiet, the notes of the opening song echoing through the theatre. Sometimes I don’t exhale until I’ve taken in every detail of the stage being revealed—the performers, the lights, the scenery. This is the story I’m going to become a part of for the next 2 hours, and I don’t want to miss a single detail. From Wicked to A Midsomer Night’s Dream to The Elgar Cello Concerto, I’ve found the time to escape into 24 different performances since August of 2021; plays in the park, musicals on Broadway, comedy shows at open mic nights, symphonies, operas, and ballets—I like to think I’ve sampled a bit of it all. 

But before August? The closest I had come to “the performing arts” was my little sister’s tap recital.

At the 2020 finalists’ weekend, several people mentioned “Intro to the Arts,” a Levine Scholar opportunity to attend shows in Charlotte free of charge. It sounded like a great perk of the scholarship, but I was more focused on spending four weeks in the woods than sitting through hours of classical music. After NOLS, “Intro to the Arts” still sat in the corner of my mind, forgotten as COVID-19 forcefully canceled all performances outside of Hamilton hitting Disney+. As the end of my freshman year arrived, however, I began to research Charlotte nonprofits to work with for my first summer experience. Drawn by the offer of exploring marketing analytics (ideal for a Data Science major like myself), I made arrangements to spend 5 weeks in July 2021 interning at OperaCarolina, Charlotte’s 73-year-old opera company. 

OperaCarolina lives in a two-story converted Victorian home near Center City. The welcoming environment, and even kinder staff, made coming into the office each day exciting. Bolstered by my enthusiasm, the staff allowed me to sit in on meetings outside of the scope of a marketing intern—staff meetings, of course, but also meetings about fundraising, operations, youth programming, and the minutia of putting on their first post-Covid performance. Nothing makes you appreciate something like seeing the work that goes into it, and with very little prior arts experience, I found myself enamored with opera. My newfound interest in preserving the performing arts and encouraging others to make time to experience them led me to purchase my first theatre ticket ever—a student rush ticket to Wicked, so far back that I could only tell the main characters apart thanks to Glinda’s sparkly pink dress. And the moment the curtains started to rise, I held my breath for the first time and traveled to Oz. 

While OperaCarolina sparked my interest, “Intro to the Arts” is what fueled my obsession. When Dr. Mike Richardson, a member of the Leon Levine Foundation’s Board of Directors and the mastermind behind “Intro to the Arts,” sent out the list of available shows to be ranked, I spent hours poring over my choices, too excited about them all to rank them in any order. As the semester went on, I would rush to respond to Dr. Mike’s emails about extra ticket availability, determined to pack as many shows into my schedule as he would let me. The diverse array of shows I got to attend introduced me to the many worlds of performance, each accompanied by a unique combination of scholars, alumni, and friends of the Levine program. One alumna who I met over egg rolls and edamame at Soho Bistro before seeing Charlotte Ballet’s 50th Anniversary Fall Works introduced me to the field that I now intend to become my profession. At another dinner, I sat next to a scholar outside of my year who has become one of my closest friends. It really doesn’t get better than this for any musical-lover (or someone who can-learn-to-love-musicals), and these experiences have given me much more than a collection of playbills and ticket stubs. I can say, without a doubt, that “Intro to the Arts” has become one of the highlights of my time as the Levine Scholar, and without my time at OperaCarolina and the program, I may have spent the rest of my life thinking that the performing arts wasn’t something I would enjoy. Now, I look forward to the evenings where I can’t help but hold my breath.