Next month, Austin, Indiana, native Michael Brandenburg will perform in the Canadian Opera Co. co-production of Arabella in Toronto. Listening to the beauty in his tenor voice and seeing him perform on stage, one would find it hard to believe he nearly let crippling stage fright stop him from his dreams of singing on the stage.
“I had originally started university as a voice student, but I quickly found my stage fright to be overwhelming — couldn’t sleep, upset stomach, and even getting rashes,” Brandenburg said when recalling how he started his path in opera.
The stage fright was so crippling that he changed his course of study to science after only a couple of weeks as a voice student.
“I had always loved and excelled at the sciences in school and wanted to pursue a career as a marine biologist growing up so, with the stage fright becoming so overwhelming, I switched my major after only two weeks,” Brandenburg said.
He followed his other passion in science through his undergraduate studies and into his master’s degree coursework all while keeping his unique tone quality and atypical tenor voice grounded to vocal lessons and university choir performances. By performing in the shadows, Brandenburg was able to blend — as much as he could with his exceptional voice — into the crowd without having the spotlight focused heavily on him.
“I was avoiding becoming an opera singer because, as a rather strong introvert, I was afraid of the attention the career would bring me,” Brandenburg said.
After finishing his master’s degree at Ball State University, Brandenburg grew stronger and learned how to handle the social anxiety of performing on stage. The Scott County native and the 2005 Austin High School graduate knew he could not deny the gift he had in his voice or his passion for music.
“I also knew that I could never live with myself if I didn’t accept the challenge that presented because of my undeniable passion for singing,” Brandenburg said. “I am the kind of person who, when I recognize I have skill or interest in something, I pursue it with all my capacity, and this was an area in which I knew I had an unusual amount of potential but wasn’t pursuing because of personal hang-ups.”
Brandenburg applied to the prestigious Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, a university that produces six opera productions per year, more than professional opera companies do each year. Studying at the Jacobs School of Music and accepting the Jacobs Fellowship meant Brandenburg would have to move past the one thing keeping him back — his stage fright.
“It was an opportunity to grow and challenge myself in a way — and to a degree — I never had before by tackling what is my biggest personal weakness: my social anxiety,” Brandenburg said.
The work as a Jacobs Fellow paid off for Brandenburg in 2013, after less than one semester as a music student. He was selected as a grand finalist at the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. On one of the largest stages in the world at Metropolitan Opera House with a famous conductor and with a full orchestra, Brandenburg gave a performance of a lifetime. The Metropolitan Opera National Council uses the nationwide audition to find new and emerging talent in the field.
“I remember I was terrified and felt so out of place, singing at the greatest opera house in the world with full orchestra and a famous conductor. The experience was surreal to me, and I will never forget it,” Brandenburg said.
When his name was announced that he had won, Brandenburg did not even realize the honor he had just received.
“When they called my name announcing that I had won, I walked onstage not realizing I had won and thinking they were just having us all come out for a final bow before announcing the winners,” Brandenburg said.
From that point, Brandenburg went to win the grand prize at The George London Foundation Competition, win the Emerging Artist Award at Opera Index Vocal Competition, and win the Bel Canto Competition in Chicago. He was also a Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist at the Washington National Opera. He spent the last season performing in Ireland, Chicago, and St. Louis.
“We all have hopes and dreams, but nothing happens unless you take action and follow through, no matter how difficult things may get,” Brandenburg said.
Despite the successes and challenges, Brandenburg uses the life lessons he that were ingrained into him while growing up in Scott County.
“People in Scott County are genuinely friendly and caring for one another. I have become accustomed to strange stares from people in my travels when I greet others on the street with too much sincerity. A bit a friendliness is nothing to be taken for granted, and I think Scott County has that in abundance,” Brandenburg said.