• May 2010

Soprano Monica Yunus On Singing for Hope

By Hope Katz Gibbs
Editor & Publisher
Be Inkandescent Magazine

How does a girl from New Jersey grow up to become a rising star on the operatic stage?

That’s but one of the questions we asked Soprano Monica Yunus, the Juilliard School graduate who is the daughter of social worker Vera Forostenko and Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus — our Be Inkandescent Magazine Entrepreneur of the Month.

Behind the Scenes

Since she was a child, soprano Monica Yunus has performed extensively in concert, recital, and on the operatic stage. Engagements include performances at The Metropolitan Opera, Spoleto Festival USA, Glimmerglass Opera, the Al Bustan International Festival of Music and Arts in Beirut, Lebanon, as well as recitals in her native Bangladesh.

A social entrepreneur in her own right, Monica toured Bangladesh in 2004 with her father and saw first hand the work he was doing, giving poor rural women access to small loans so they could build businesses that supported their families and villages.

“It was a huge homecoming,” Monica says. “I got to see family members — including 25 cousins — that I had never met, and also learned about the part of my heritage that I didn’t know too much about.”

What was most amazing, she says, was to go to the villages and meet the women who are the Grameen Bank borrowers and who are really doing the work. “It’s one thing to get the loan — and another to turn it into a successful micro business. I got to look inside how their lives work, to travel around the country with my father, and to visit the hospital where I was born. It was a very overwhelming experience.”

Since then, Monica has traveled frequently with her father. “I like to joke with him that he lives on an airplane,” she says. “He has a relentless travel schedule, and it’s hard to keep up with where he goes. But I went with him to Russia, Spain, and France. It’s incredible to watch him in action.”

Sing for Hope

When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in August 2005, Monica knew she had to do something to help. With her close friend from Juilliard, fellow soprano Camille Zamora, she organized fundraising concerts with their colleagues from The Metropolitan Opera to raise money and awareness.

Soon after, they established Sing for Hope, a nonprofit organization that mobilizes professional artists to bring their work into schools, hospitals, and communities in need. It also is a resource for artists who want to use their art for charitable outreach.

The Spotlight is on Monica Yunus

We recently spoke with the opera singer from her apartment in Manhattan, where she lives with her husband of nearly one year — fellow opera singer, tenor Brandon McReynolds.

Be Inkandescent Magazine: First, congratulations on your marriage in June 2009. How is life as a newlywed?

Monica Yunus: It’s good to be married to someone in the same business who understands the demands of being an opera singer. We are doing great.

Be Inkandescent Magazine: Tell us more about your childhood and how you got interested in becoming a professional singer.

Monica Yunus: I was born in Bangladesh, but when I was four months old my parents got divorced. That was in 1977, and my mother, Vera, brought me back to the U.S. to live with grandparents in Ewing, New Jersey.

My grandparents were Russian immigrants, so I went to Russian school on Saturdays and learned to speak and write Russian and other languages including Italian, German and French.

My grandmother, Nina Forostenko, had a beautiful singing voice, and she’d take me to church every Sunday to sing in the choir with her. So I grew up with the arts from a very early age, and always liked to sing.

Be Inkandescent Magazine: How did you get interested in opera?

Monica Yunus: It started when I was pretty little and my mom and I would sing in the car. One day when I was about 10 she said to me, “Wow, you are really good at this. You can hit high notes that I can’t reach. Is opera something you might want to pursue?” So we decided to give it a try.

She found a retired opera singer named Kira Baklanova, and when I was 11 my mom hired her to give me voice lessons. Her former husband, Igor Chichagov, was also a singing coach and conductor. Eventually I got good enough to audition for the Metropolitan Opera’s Children’s Chorus, and I landed a spot.

It didn’t take long for me to fall in love with the beauty and power of the orchestra. It was overwhelming to a child to be introduced to something so huge. From that point on, I knew it was what I wanted to do with my life.

Be Inkandescent Magazine: What were your next steps?

Monica Yunus: Eventually, I got too old to be in the children’s chorus so I started competing in singing competitions. If I placed well or not, it gave me more ammunition to keep going.

I continued voice lessons, and the summer I was 13 went to the Boston University Tanglewood Institute. I also spent several summers at the Aspen Music Festival.

I have to give a ton of credit to my mom, who would drive me everywhere I needed to go. It was no simple feat, for in addition to working full time, she’d have to take me from New Jersey to New York several times a week for rehearsals and performances. It was a huge commitment on her part, and I am forever grateful.

Be Inkandescent Magazine: As a child, were you determined to go to Juilliard?

Monica Yunus: I was, and after finishing my Bachelor of Music degree in Vocal Performance, I got an MA in 2002.

Be Inkandescent Magazine: I understand you made your professional debut at the Palm Beach Opera in 1999, playing Countess Olga in Umberto Giordano’s Fedora, after you won the Florida Grand Opera Competition.

Monica Yunus: Yes, that was great. At the time, I was studying at Juilliard with Beverley Johnson, the woman who taught Renee Fleming. And, I was in school with a class of 10 singers and we all got along incredibly well.

Be Inkandescent Magazine: That’s where you met Camille Zamora, with whom you co-founded Sing for Hope.

Monica Yunus: That’s right. Back in 1995, Camille had done a benefit in Texas for a dear friend of hers who died of AIDS. It was called “An Evening of Art Songs and Arias,” and the money raised went to Houston’s Omega House AIDS where he had spent his final days. The fundraiser now happens every year and has become the largest annual AIDS benefit.

So after Katrina hit, I wanted to do something to help and didn’t know where to start. So I called Camille. We started Sing for Hope soon after.

Be Inkandescent Magazine: At your 2009 annual gala you honored your father, Muhammad Yunus, as well as Renee Fleming, Jane Fonda, and Lincoln Center president Reynold Levy. The money raised benefitted the 2000 students and 1500 hospital patients that your nonprofit now serves. Tell us more about the work your organization does.

Monica Yunus: We have three main programs including Art U!, which is a dynamic arts and leadership education program for underserved children in New York City. We provide classes with resident artists, and renowned guest artists also come in to perform and help at-risk youths learn to use the arts as a tool to renew and uplift their lives.

Our second program is Healing Arts, a hospital outreach program that provides performances at New York hospitals including St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital, Mount Sinai Medical Center, the Children’s Hearing Institute, and others. Our artists also conduct workshops that complement the healing process.

And Community Arts is our third program that raises awareness and funds for humanitarian causes and projects that dismantle barriers to arts accessibility. So far, our programs have benefitted charities including the Children’s AIDS Society, New York Cares, Habitat for Humanity, and Heifer International.

Be Inkandescent Magazine: That’s amazing. Your work has been honored in many ways, including last November when you were given the 21st Century Leaders Award in Doha, Qatar (see photo).

Monica Yunus: Yes. And I got to wear a Georges Chakra dress, which was also very wonderful. That got a lot of attention, and it’s always fun to get dressed up like that in such a beautiful gown.

Be Inkandescent Magazine: What’s next for “Sing for Hope,” and for your career?

Monica Yunus: “Sing for Hope” made its debut at the International Women’s Festival in Santa Barbara in March, which featured Geeta Novotny of the Los Angeles Opera and Carnegie Hall. And on May 7 we’ll be joining forces with Yale University to present an evening of songs performed by alumni from Yale — including Tony Award winner Ted Sperling (South Pacific) and Tony Nominee Mike Errico, and hosted by acclaimed actor Richard Kind.
Check our website for more great events.

Then, from June 21 to July 15, we’re also excited to be hosting an incredible project called Play Me, I’m Yours, which is an international project that has been touring since 2008.

It’s the brainchild of artist Luke Jerram, who has put street pianos in cities across the world — parks, squares, bus shelters and train stations, outside galleries, markets and on bridges and ferries. They are there for any member of the public to enjoy and make music. At the end of two weeks, the pianos will be donated to schools and community organizations.

This year, “Play Me, I’m Yours” will be presented in: New York City, London, Bath, Belfast, Pécs (Hungary), Burnley and Blackburn, Cincinnati, San Jose.

As for me, from May 29 to June 1, I’ll be performing in Philemon and Baucis at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, SC. And from June 18-20 I’ll be in L’elisir D’Amore
at the Opera East Texas.

Then I’ll be traveling to DC in September to perform with the Washington National Opera in Verdi’s Un Ballo In Maschera, from September 11 to 25. I’ll be singing the role of Oscar.

I am thrilled to be working with Salvatore Licitra, Frank Porretta, Luca Salsi, Timothy Mix, Tamara Wilson, Iréne Theorin, and Micaëla Oeste, with whom I will be alternating. It is being directed by James Robinson with Daniele Callegari conducting. I do hope everyone in DC comes!

Buy your tickets to the Washington National Opera here: www.dc-opera.org

Learn more about Monica Yunus here: www.monicayunus.com.

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