My Closet of Characters

Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

To most people, a costume is a few layers of carefully constructed material that conveys a character or historical period. To me it is a vessel of teleportation that permits me to explore the personalities of flirts, cowards, evil geniuses, and witty comics. My best friend has a trophy shelf above her bed, while I store scores of music on my bookshelf and a bevy of characters in my closet. Maria from the “Sound of Music,” Despina from “Three Little Pigs”, a Spirit from “The Magic Flute,” and a few other despots, rascals, and scoundrels wait patiently among my day-to-day jeans and overabundance of striped t-shirts. When I step into a costume, I am no longer Elle Ventana Knowlton.

I am an opera singer, as my grandmother proudly brags to her hairdresser, her priest, and the cashiers at the Piggly Wiggly. Every Sunday of my childhood, my Nana and I held a weekly baking adventure where we’d exchange our speaking voices for robust operatic tones.

“Pass me the whiiiiissk,” she’d belt.

“Here it iiiiiiiiss,” I’d reply with exaggerated mezzo vibrato.

When I was eight years old, she shuttled me down to the Steinway shop in Milwaukee, and four hours later I was the proud owner of a baby grand. “She has a gift,” she boasted to the overly friendly salesman, as I beamed at the flawless black and white keys. Seven years later, she still flies to Santa Fe to take credit for every performance I give, taking home and framing the program. According to her, she “pried the voice out of me.”

I love gazing out into a crowd of people—my grandmother and family in the front row—but more than that, I adore putting on a costume, leaving Elle behind, and emerging as a different persona. I learn from my characters’ mistakes and steal their best qualities from them. Maria from the “Sound of Music” taught me to be on time and speak my mind. I harnessed her courage when I challenged my vocal coach’s abrupt decision to cancel production of Mozart’s “Three Little Pigs” when a performer quit. We had already learned our parts, the set was built, and I wanted the show to go on, so I found her a new singer. As little pig Despina, I learned not only to expect the unexpected—but also to hire a professional to build my house!

In “The Magic Flute” I played an ethereal spirit guide, and since I’m just an ordinary being, I learned the importance of asking for help. In order to tackle my math homework with bravado, I’ve spent many a lunch reviewing algebraic formulas and untangling trigonometric functions with my math teacher.

After I sang Verdi’s “Va Pensiero” I was infected with a passion for the language that followed me from the stage to a summer Italian class and even to the streets of Santa Fe. After a macchiato one morning, I walked through Cathedral Park and heard a violinist busking to a familiar melody, “Che diavolo (what the hell).” I couldn’t resist, and standing beside a complete stranger, I broke out into song for a crowd of skaters and tourists. As I walked away smiling, and leaving a few extra dollars in my accompanist’s fedora, I imagined exploring old and new characters on a semester abroad in Florence. On the inevitable days when I’ll suffer from culture shock or struggle with the imperfect tense, I can see myself making a stage on a cobblestone street corner and singing the songs that have shaped my character, centering me back to my core.

As my teacher Kathleen says, “Music never leaves you. It’s always at your fingertips.” I approach life with an ever-optimistic attitude and excitement, knowing that I’ll always be able to harness the powers of the characters, tucked quietly in my costume closet, waiting for the right moment to reappear.

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