Opera singer Maegan Pollonais has battled the same tired stereotype since she left Trinidad in 2008.
Some Americans misunderstand Caribbean music and underestimate the rich cultural experiences of Caribbean people. The success of a 1956 song by Jamaican-American crooner Harry Belafonte is partly to blame.
“People think you’re from the Caribbean and all you sing is ‘Daylight come and me wan’ go home,’” Maegan said. “It’s not like that. We sing Beethoven. We sing Handel. We sing Mozart.”
Pollonais, 29, will graduate from Ball State this December with a doctor of arts degree.
In her four years on campus, she performed in eight University operas. While a student, the mezzo-soprano also won the Art of Opera portion of the 2017 international Great Composers Competition, based in London. This January, she made her professional debut, singing the witch in Hansel & Gretel, staged by Saltworks Opera in Virginia.
Back home, the Trinidad and Tobago Newsday has hailed Maegan for her “shimmering, clarion vocals” with equal parts intensity and sweetness.
Her story is proof that while many Caribbean people have embraced classical music, the Euro-centric world of classical music has been slow to reciprocate. Maegan hopes her career can help give a voice to parts of the world sometimes overlooked in the genre.
“The point is, I want to diversify classical vocal music.”
The singing Olympics
Maegan came to the United States to attend the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, about 100 miles south of Montreal.
She had spent her formative years in community youth choirs and missed singing. So, for fun, she auditioned for a campus choir.
Maegan more than made the cut. In fact, the choir director told her she had the talent to be a solo performer and should enroll as a music major at the university, specializing in opera.
Maegan graduated with a double major in sociology and music and a double minor in criminal justice and theater. She then attended Bowling Green State University in Ohio, where she won a prestigious scholarship and earned a master’s in music.
No matter how big the venue, all opera performances are unamplified. Not only must opera singers hit all the notes, they also must be able to sing loud enough for the folks in the back of the hall to hear them clearly. Maegan has that kind of voice.
Maegan calls opera “the Olympics of singing.”
“I lay my heart on the stage,” Maegan said. “I leave everything out there when I perform. Go big or go home.”
In teaching Maegan, Mei Zhong, professor of voice, appreciates her “avid appetite for learning and self-improvement. She has the talent and personality to have an influential career as a professional singer.”
At Ball State, Maegan will graduate with a unique doctoral degree that combines her two seemingly divergent passions, singing on stage and helping young people.
The degree is a DA, or doctor of arts in music. It requires students to choose a primary and secondary focus. Maegan chose performance (opera theatre) and educational psychology.
“It’s an unusual pairing,” she said. But Maegan’s life mission involves more than opera. She wants to help young people, especially those from underserved communities, develop their full potential.
She’s already gotten started through the University’s Office of Inclusive Excellence, where she has served as a graduate assistant for PhD Pathways, a mentoring program.
PhD Pathways pairs undergraduate and graduate students from underrepresented backgrounds with faculty, professional staff, community professionals, and distinguished alumni. The goal is to develop talent to make the future of academia more diverse.
Sociology professor Melinda Messineo, who worked with Maegan in PhD Pathways, called her fearless and “the embodiment of inclusive excellence.” Her heart, Messineo said, is as big as her voice.
Helping others find their voice
Maegan loves opera from Italy, France, Germany, and England. But, she also believes there is room for classical vocal music that represents a more cross-cultural perspective.
One of her favorite composers is fellow Trinidadian Dominique Le Gendre. In 2016, Le Gendre composed Songs of the Islands, a groundbreaking classical song cycle with Caribbean folk influences. Maegan performed the cycle on campus in 2017, marking its international debut.
Maegan has also written her doctoral dissertation on the song cycle. She argues that it deserves increased exposure in the world of classical music due to its beauty, musical complexity, and representation of Caribbean history.
Maegan hopes to make a career singing in the United States. She would serve as a proud representative of the potential for Caribbean artists and music on the world stage.
However, she also has plans for her home country.
Eventually, she wants to return and develop an after-school enrichment program focused on the performing arts for children from underserved communities. Like PhD Pathways, it would develop talent and promote diversity in a career field from the ground up.
“My ultimate passion is to help people find their voice, literally, through music, but also in the sense of: What is it that you want to say in this world?”