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An aria of her own: Potomac Falls’ Nikole James finds her voice

Nikole James, holding her dog Parker, gives a sampling of her voice during a recent interview. Times-Mirror/Anna Harris

For a 3-year-old Nikole James, Saturdays meant visits with her grandma, Mildred James, while her mother worked. Grandma James exposed her to music and song.

“We’d always spend the whole day together and she would teach me little songs, but [“Amazing Grace”] was the first one I remember her teaching me,” said James.

Ever since, music has been a larger part of James’ life. From singing in choir at school to belting out tunes in the house, she loved to use her voice. But it wasn’t until middle school that she seriously thought about training. Now, James prepares for her senior year at Potomac Falls High School with four-and-a-half years of opera training under her belt.

“I’ve always loved to perform,” she said. “I’ve always done really artistic extracurricular activities. I do dance, I figure skated, I did ballet … I enjoy [opera] a lot because you get to act at the same time, but you also get to sing and I love connecting with the songs and putting it in perspective to a part of my life.”

It started in the seventh grade. James’ chorus teacher approached her parents with the idea for her to get formally trained. James had always loved acting, singing and dancing, but, until this point, her parents believed she would follow a passion in figure skating. 

“I was somewhat surprised,” said her mother, Linda James. “She’s always been the type of child who is so devoted and so disciplined in whatever she really sets her mind to … We never really saw it coming, in a way. She had said she was into figure skating ever since she was teeny-weeny.”

Through her training, James developed an interest specifically in opera. Despite their surprise, family and friends remained supportive of the coloratura soprano’s endeavors, attending her performances and celebrating with her in her success.

But James’ biggest enemy has been herself. Her nerves would plague her whenever she thought about going on stage.

“There are times when I haven’t even wanted to go out because I just said ‘no, no, no, I can’t do this.’ That was probably my biggest struggle, because even as I started to get a little better about it, I’d still get nervous on stage and mess up or feel that [the performance] wasn’t my best.”

Her voice teachers, Kay Willet and Peggy McNulty, were instrumental in helping her to overcome this fear.  Once she did, she felt she could portray herself on stage the way she wanted the audience to see her. She no longer worried about being disappointed in herself for letting her nerves get the better of her. Taking the advice of her teachers, she tries to see every situation as an opportunity.

“[They told me] to take every opportunity that I have as just another experience,” she said. “If you go to an audition or a competition and you don’t do well, don’t get upset about it. Just think of it as another experience.”

Now James relishes every opportunity to walk on stage and sing before the masses. And she has sung before her share of audiences, participating in multiple programs and competitions. In the Bland Vocal Competitions, she placed first in the regional levels and second in the district. She earned first place the advanced high school category at the Northern Virginia Music Teachers Association Voice Achievements competition.

More recently, she was accepted to the Washington National Opera Institute for Young Singers, a prestigious three-week summer program for singers serious about pursuing a career in opera. While there, James and 29 other students from around the nation participated in workshops and advanced classes in music technique and history.

“We did it all but the highlight of it was performing on the Millennium Stage,” James said. “I’d never been to the Kennedy Center except when I went to auditions. It was beautiful, and it was just amazing to be able to do that.”

The big voice echoing through the Millennium Stage comes out of an unassuming young woman. The youngest of three, James said fighting and arguing between her and her siblings was not part of her upbringing, as the age gap between she and her brother (30) and sister (28) made them more mentors than peers in her eyes.

According to her mother, James was and continues to be compassionate and laid-back, singing at Inova Loudoun Nursing and Rehab where both of her grandmothers once stayed as patients. Both grandmothers were supportive of James’ singing both before and after her interest in opera.

Now James plans to apply to various conservatories, pursuing her dream of singing either in the Metropolitan Opera or on Broadway. But the passion for the music itself shines past the achievements and awards. She wants to make others enjoy opera as much as she does through the power of her voice.

“I want to be able to make people tear up, and I want to connect with the audience,” she said. “... And every song has a meaning. It’s not just words to a tune … Singing is comforting. Whether it’s the worst day or the best day, music always just makes me feel better.”

 

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