Johns Hopkins Gazette: November 13, 1995

Moonlighting Serenade: The Double Life of Virginia Drake

Mike Field
Staff Writer

     By day she is a friendly, though appropriately
mild-mannered, librarian, toiling in near anonymity in the
cataloging section of the Milton S. Eisenhower Library. Yet when
the sun goes down, she lives the life of a sophisticated society
belle, sipping champagne and dancing until dawn. 

     Other nights, she is one of a frenzied mob in fabled
Beijing, howling for the Prince of Persia's death. Or a noble
woman in the court of Ramphis the king, waiting for the Ethiopian
army to invade. Or a Druid priestess witnessing ancient rites in
a sacred oak grove.

     Virginia Drake's moonlighting career as a chorus member for
the Baltimore Opera Company allows the 21-year veteran of the
Eisenhower Library to lead many lives. Yet no matter how exotic,
none are quite as unexpected as the career trajectory that has
taken the quiet young woman born in the suburbs of Lancaster,
Pa., from singing in the choir of her Presbyterian church to
belting opera on the boards of the Lyric Opera House.

     "I didn't start singing until relatively late," says Drake
of her upbringing in a household she describes as "musical, but
not classically so." Her mother played piano and her father was a
capable tenor, but opera was not part of the family's musical
oeuvre. Although she sang in the church choir from the second
grade onward--and later took minor roles in high school musicals-
-when Drake went off to school at Goucher College in the early
1970s it was to major in French, not music.

     She graduated in 1974 and took a position as a
searcher/typist at the Eisenhower Library, the first job she was
offered after college. She's been there ever since, eventually
working her way up to head of copy cataloging, a department with
nine staffers who catalog approximately 90 percent of the titles
entering the library each year. "It's minutiae a lot of the time,
but if you don't pay attention to details you destroy an access
point," she says in a remark that--characteristically--applies
equally well to her singing and cataloging careers. 

     Drake sees many parallels in the two occupations, or at
least in the processes involved in each of them, and makes
frequent references from one to the other. Yet it took a family
crisis to bring her second avocation to life.

     "When my father died in 1979 there was sort of a hole.
Something needed to be filled," she says of the events that led
her to opera. "That was after the Peabody had associated with
Hopkins, so I had toyed with the idea of taking voice lessons. My
friends who had heard me sing kept telling me I should do it.
Finally, they practically dragged me down there to register. I
took an afternoon shuttle during my lunch break, went in and sang
something like America the Beautiful and started taking private

     Drake studied with Peabody instructor Serafina d'Giacomo,
attended opera workshops and took classes in music theory.
Although her singing lacked the kind of theoretical grounding
four years in a conservatory would have provided, her natural
aptitude with languages and the quality of her lyric soprano
voice quickly won her some performance invitations and additional
opportunities for further studies. Within four years, she was
taking private lessons with renowned Czech soprano Eva Likova in
New York and singing professionally as a member of the Washington
Opera chorus. 

     "I started by taking classes, and the next thing you know I
was sort of doing it," is how she describes her rapid transition
from woman who could sing to woman making her opera debut as a
chorus member in Bellini's La Sonnambula.

     Nor did it stop there. From the chorus she progressed to
oratorio singing and then on to "art songs," the German lieder
and French chansons that are typically the mainstay of a
classical singer's recital repertoire. Less than 10 years after
beginning her formal training, Drake found herself in a spotlight
on stage with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, one of two
featured singers at a summer concert at Oregon Ridge.

     Yet she claims she never really got nervous along the way.
"Whenever I walk out, there is that split second where I think,
'Oh my God, what am I doing here?!'" she says. But the moment
soon passes. "You tend at that moment to forget all the things
that have gone into the performance to justify its existence. But
that split second of panic makes the adrenaline flow. As soon as
you walk out on stage you know why you're there. Anyone who walks
out on stage and says they don't like to hear the audience greet
them is crazy."

     Drake has performed with the Laurel Oratorio, the Annapolis
Chorale, the Baltimore Choral Arts Society and many other local
and regional groups. She has played the occasional small part and
understudied several roles in Washington, yet even at her busiest
she never seriously contemplated ditching her day job. "There
were times when I considered singing full time, but never
seriously enough to do anything," she says. "Perhaps part of it
was being afraid of finding out just how good I really am, but
part of it is it wasn't what I really wanted to do. I've enjoyed
balancing two careers. Each makes me better at the other. If I
had only one or the other, I somehow think life would be less

     It is hard to imagine an uninteresting version of Virginia
Drake. She quit singing with the Washington Opera Company in 1989
when her mother got sick and she was needed in Pennsylvania. "For
all those years I was on the MLK Boulevard headed for Washington
at 5, rehearsing till 11, for five or six months out of the
year," she says. "I loved it. I never batted an eye. And I made
lots of good friends in the city. But after my mother died and I
could return to singing, I had to admit I really didn't miss the

     She did not go back. Instead, she auditioned and won a role
in the chorus with the Baltimore Opera, a company she says
"clearly doesn't have as much money" but she believes matches the
Washington Opera in professionalism and performance. To augment
her new performance schedule she started giving recitals.

     Drake has performed solo here, in France, Holland and, most
recently, at Harvard's Villa I Tati in Florence, Italy. On Nov.
26 (just after the Baltimore Opera's Merry Widow closes) she will
give a recital of the works of Purcell, Mozart, Schumann and
others at St. Mark's Lutheran Church in Baltimore.

     "I'm calling the performance What Can We Poor Females Do?: A
Politically Incorrect Recital," says Drake with a twinkle in her
eye. "The centerpiece of the performance will be Schumann's
Frauenliebe und Leben." The work is a cycle of eight songs that
chart a woman's life as she meets, marries, bears children and is
betrayed by the man in her life. "It's horrifically politically
incorrect at one level, because it seems to suggest that a
woman's life is entirely dependent on her man," Drake says. "But
at a deeper level it's all about human love. That's what the
music speaks to." The program's title is actually derived from a
song, What Can We Poor Females Do? written by Henry Purcell,
which Drake will use to open the recital.

     In the past several years Drake has tried to put together at
least one recital every year, in addition to her choral work with
the Baltimore Opera. In Europe she tries to sing almost all
American compositions--"I feel it's something that perhaps we can
do better, or at least understand better," she says--but here in
the States she feels free to sing whatever part moves her. One
moment she may portray a grand countess, the next a simple
peasant girl. For Virginia Drake, singer, it's all in a day's

     "I lead a little bit of a Walter Mitty existence," she says.
"I spend my days hidden in the back of the library pushing my
little cart around--I don't even sit at the reference desk out in
the public area. Then at night I do this other thing. I was at a
Merry Widow rehearsal the other night and the thought suddenly
occurred to me. 'Here I am standing center stage at the Lyric
Opera House. What am I doing here?' "

     She pauses a moment to reflect, and smiles. "Loving it," she
says, and laughs the secret carefree laugh that only a society
belle who drinks champagne until dawn can know.

     What Can We Poor Females Do?: A Politically Incorrect
Recital with Virginia Drake, soprano, and James Harp, pianist,
will be performed on Sunday, Nov. 26, at 2 p.m. at St. Mark's
Lutheran Church, 20th & St. Paul in Baltimore. Admission is free
and open to the public.

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