By Rosalia Gutierrez-Huete Miller, Culture Editor, MC/MPA ‘12
The room was dark, except for the brightly lit stage. Amidst a conglomeration of musical instruments parked along the sides of the packed room, close to the stage, was a small-frame woman holding her guitar, getting ready to perform. Allison Shapira was about to make history at Club Passim’s Open Mic night.
As a Mid-Career student, I met Allison, MC/MPA’10, at coffee break during our Summer Course last July. She works for the Center for Public Leadership, where she coordinates the Wexner Israel Fellowship Program. Later, in the fall, when I attended an HKS Communications Program workshop on public speaking, conducted by Allison, I discovered she is the founder of Global Public Speaking—a boutique public speaking firm, and that she teaches public speaking for the HKS Executive Program. It seems that every time I come across Allison, there is one more thing to know about her.
There was another revelation during Harvard’s Masquerade Ball this winter. There we were at the Ball, having fun, making fashion statements–the women, decked in silk and taffeta gowns and the guys looking dapper in their black tuxes, all hiding under gorgeous, beautiful, shiny, feathered and funny masks. Slowly, the room became silent and a voice was heard coming from the balcony, singing “The Music of the Night” from the Phantom of the Opera. As we raised our eyes to see whose amazing voice it was, you guessed it—it was Allison’s.
Shortly after we returned from winter break, I learned that Allison was performing at Club Passim’s Open Mic evening. Visions of long ago played tricks on my mind. I had missed Joan Baez singing at Club Passim (then Club 47) in the late 50s, and I wasn’t going to miss Allison Shapira’s. She performed two songs: an acoustic version of Howie Day’s “Collide”, and “Moscow Rules” by local singer/songwriter Kris Delmhorst—the performance was unforgettable!
I found Allison’s story so compelling that I asked her to share it with us.
“Ever since I was a child, I wanted to be an opera singer. I went to a performing arts high school in Sarasota, Florida and later studied at Boston University as a vocal performance major. There was nothing else I wanted to do rather than sing opera. But in college, I started to lose my passion for singing. It became a business, a vocation, instead of an art. And because the lifestyle is so stressful and so competitive, they always said; if you can see yourself doing anything other than music, go do it. And I could see myself studying EVERYTHING: astrophysics, international relations, foreign languages, dozens of other things. So I left opera for many years and worked in diplomacy, communication, and Middle Eastern affairs. (There’s a whole other side story about me realizing how much opera had in common with public speaking and founding a successful company teaching public speaking to others, using my operatic training). I was able to use my operatic training here and there, such as singing the National Anthem for the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park in September 2004 (the year they won the World Series!).
But opera was never what I sang in the shower. What I sang in the shower and what I always loved to sing to myself was what my parents listened to when I was growing up: American folk music, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie. I really love Joan Baez.
After so many years, I really missed performing, although I didn’t miss opera. So a few years ago, I started to sing Joan Baez “a cappella” at some open mics around Boston. But I realized that to be a true folk singer I would need to learn to play the guitar. So exactly one year ago, I borrowed a friend’s guitar, found online guitar lessons, and immediately fell head-over-heels in love with the guitar. It was always my dream to play at Club Passim’s Open Mic, on the exact same stage where Joan Baez got her start in the late 50s. So to play a few weeks ago was – for me – an incredible achievement, one I hope to repeat as often as possible. I’d love to be invited back to perform an entire concert, and I’ve even started to write my own folk songs, something I never ever in my life thought I would be able to do.
Playing the guitar and singing makes me feel more musical, more creative, more artistic than I ever felt as an opera singer. I’m completely independent – it’s just me, my voice, and my guitar – and it’s all about connecting passionately with the music – not about giving the perfect, choreographed, operatic performance. I love it and I love sharing it with others.
I’m hoping to perform my two favorite Joan Baez songs at the next Open Mic.”