Ten Minutes With Betty Jones
Betty Jones has been singing all her life, but never envisioned her voice would one day take her around the world. An internationally renowned opera singer, and Wilton resident, she launched her operatic career at 41, after singing for many years in the Wilton Congregational Church choir. Since then, she has performed leading roles with major American and international opera companies.
You come from a musical family. Growing up in New Jersey, my parents and I would sit on our front porch and sing spirituals. They both played the piano. When people came to visit, Dad would go to the piano, and I’d start singing “hot ginger and dynamite ...”
But you studied art in college. Yes, I went to Sarah Lawrence College as an art major; I love to paint, sculpt, and draw. While there, I played Bess in a college production of Porgy & Bess. When the school heard me sing, they gave me a music scholarship.
What did you do after college? After graduating in 1951—I was one of Sarah Lawrence’s first black graduates—I got married. We moved to Wilton in 1954, and our kids Jeff and Janet were born. I sang alto in the Wilton Congregational Church choir and got involved in the Wilton Playshop. If I hadn’t moved to Wilton, I don’t think I would have become an opera singer.
Why is that? The choir director arranged for me to sing for Georgiana Schenck Gregersen, a former Wilton resident and prominent voice teacher at the Mannes College of Music. After listening to me, Georgiana said, “Your voice is very beautiful, but you don’t know technically how to sing.” I started going into New York City to take voice lessons with her.
What was your first opera? Linda Cabot Black, another Wilton resident and founder of the Boston Opera Company, arranged for me to audition for Sarah Caldwell, the company’s artistic director and conductor. Sarah gave me two small roles in Charpentier’s Louise.
Where else have you performed? Since my debut in Boston, I have performed in operas all over the world—including the San Francisco and Seattle Opera companies, the Chicago Lyric Opera, and the New York City Opera.
Your favorite role? I always say, “When I sing a song, I love the song I sing,” but it is probably Aida; I always enjoyed that role.
Singing opera is physically demanding. It is an aerobic exercise and can be grueling. I do 100 crunches a day. You have to unhinge your jaw, keep your body very straight, and make a hole all the way down, like you have an elevator inside.
Do you do anything to protect your voice? I am very careful about avoiding drafts. I don’t smoke or drink. And I exercise to stay in shape.
Do you still perform? No, I just turned 83. Now I give voice lessons. I still have a voice in there.
Any advice for your students? I tell them ‘making music is like making love’; you give the audience joy when you perform for them.