CalArts grad and popular Santa Clarita Valley singer-actress-dancer Marie Wise-Hawkins has won the $25,000 grand prize in a national singing competition staged by the Dallas-based Romano’s Macaroni Grill restaurant chain. And she says it’s dramatically changed her life.
“I’m so incredibly happy,” Wise-Hawkins said back home in Canyon Country last week. “Now, I can finally finish my debut record. It’s a dream come true — I can use the money to further my career, and it’s just incredible.”
A singer and hostess at the Romano’s Macaroni Grill in Stevenson Ranch for the past year, the vocally versatile lyric soprano with a four-octave range earned her BFA in Classical Voice from California Institute of the Arts in Valencia in 2010.
Now 24, Wise-Hawkins has been singing, acting and dancing (and especially loves swing dancing) since she was a toddler, and has fronted her own bands (country, bluegrass, country-rock, Western) since her teens. Just in the last couple of years, she earned rave reviews starring in hit local Canyon Theatre Guild productions of the musicals “Always…Patsy Cline” and “The Marvelous Wonderettes,” among others.
Wise-Hawkins entered Macaroni Grill’s “Opera Sing-Off” competition in January, and posted a video of her singing the aria “O Mio Babbino Caro” from Puccini’s 1918 opera “Gianni Schicchi” on the contest’s official Facebook page. She was just one of more than 150 singers representing 212 other Macaroni Grill restaurants around the country to enter the competition.
“We had to go around to tables and pass out the ‘Opera Sing-Off’ cards,” she said. “We sang songs for our guests in the restaurant, and we also passed them out to family and friends. I basically posted it all over the Internet just to get my family and friends to vote for me, wherever I could. Even my whole church was voting for me (laughs). It was incredible.”
By the time voting ended in early February, Wise-Hawkins was the top vote-getter in the West (the largest of the chain’s six sales regions) and earned a trip to Dallas for the “Opera Sing-Off” finals on March 15.
“That wasn’t possible without all the support of Santa Clarita and all the family and friends who voted for me,” she said. “I am so grateful to everyone who voted.”
Before she left for the “Opera Sing-Off” finals, Wise-Hawkins wisely brushed up a bit back at her alma mater. to which she maintains close ties.
“I was last-minute coaching with Maria Fortuna Dean, my operatic vocal coach at CalArts, and it all paid off,” she said, “She’s an incredible soprano. Maria is one of my biggest inspirations, and she’s very proud of me. And Tali Tadmor, my accompanist, was the one really supportive of me at CalArts.”
The day of the finals at Macaroni Grill’s Dallas restaurant, Wise-Hawkins felt honored to be among other very talented singers from all over the country.
“There were singers who have performed in opera houses all around the world, and there was a girl in a doctorate program,” she said. “There were students pursuing master’s degrees — and I only have my bachelor’s degree from CalArts in classical voice. I was just honestly so honored to be there and just be working. With all these singers there, everyone was so incredibly sweet, and we were all so supportive of each other.”
The contest’s judges — including Dallas Opera Artistic Director Jonathan Pell and top-level, opera-loving Romano’s executives — watched and heard each finalist sing live, then made their final choices.
“We each sang, a 10-minute maximum time limit, and we were judged on a scale of 1-10 in three categories — for voice, audience engagement and creativity,” Wise-Hawkins said. “I sang my favorite aria, ‘O Mio Babbino Caro,’ and had a lot of fun performing it.
“Then (the judges) had the top six finalists stand in a row, and they announced the top three,” she said. “The second runner-up got $3,000, the second place winner got $5,000, and first place got $25,000. When they called me first place, my jaw dropped, completely. I was shocked I’d won, because everyone was so incredibly talented. I felt really lucky. It was an honor to perform for such an esteemed panel of judges.”
Wise-Hawkins also thought it was a privilege to meet Phil Romano, who founded the chain of restaurants that includes the Stevenson Ranch branch where she works, and Norman Abdallah, Romano’s CEO and president, top guy in Macaroni Grill’s corporate food chain.
Reflecting her eclectic musical tastes — country (as in portraying singing legend Patsy Cline), classic rock (as in The Wonderettes’ ’50s and ’60s girl-group pop), classical (her operatic training and restaurant job) — the first thing Wise-Hawkins wanted to do after returning to Canyon Country was buy tickets to see classic rock group Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers in L.A. in June.
She went online the moment tickets went on sale. “But they sold out in a matter of minutes,” she said, so she missed out. That was a big disappointment to her. To paraphrase TP, she’s truly an American girl, raised on promises — in her case, though, many of them fulfilled, with more to come.
Petty disappointments aside, Wise-Hawkins’ future is very promising. This week, she’s heading to Nashville, where from early-to-mid-April she’ll star in an Actors Point Theatre production of “The Marvelous Wonderettes,” acting-singing the lead role of Betty Jean with Catherine Birdsong, Chelsea Reynolds and JJ Rodgers co-starring. “That’s going to be a blast,” she said.
Home in California in late April, “I will be back in the recording studio finishing my ‘Lovin’ in Vain’ album, my Patsy Cline tribute record, with Pete Anderson. It’s country,” she said. Anderson, and award-winning musician and producer, is perhaps best known as a guitar player on 20 Dwight Yoakam albums between 1986-2003, and as a session ace with a long list of credits ranging from Roy Orbison and Buck Owens to Asleep at the Wheel and The Meat Puppets. Anderson has also produced more than two dozen country compilations since the mid-1980s.
“I’m also going to be coming out with my own little EP of original music,” Wise-Hawkins noted.
In May, she is slated to tape a special edition of SCVTV’s “House Blend,” a local music and interview television program hosted by this writer, for broadcast and Internet streaming in June. The show will feature Wise-Hawkins singing four songs, touching on a variety of genres.
Wise-Hawkins has another goal for the summer. “I hope to be performing in my favorite musical, ‘Les Miserables,’ at the Santa Clarita Performing Arts Center at College of the Canyons,” she said. “I love the role of Eponine. I’ve played her before (in a production while attending Canyon High, pictured below right) and would love to play her again. Thanks to my classical vocal training I believe I could be a dynamic Cosette as well. That was actually the musical that got me started with classical singing.”
The first English-language musical stage adaptation of French poet and playwright Victor Hugo’s classic 1862 novel opened in London in 1985, and premiered on Broadway two years later. Since then, “Les Miserables” has been seen by more than 65 million people in 42 countries, has won more than 100 international awards, and is the world’s longest-running musical, according to its official website.
Wise-Hawkins said she loved the 2012 movie version.
“I’ve seen it four times and can’t wait to get my DVD,” she said. “I had the honor of attending a special screening at the (Motion Picture) Academy and was deeply inspired by the Q&A with director Tom Hooper, Hugh Jackman (who played lead character Jean Valjean) and Eddie Redmayne (Marius Pontmercy).”
On July 25, Wise-Hawkins will warble a country set as the opening act for country artist Peter Brandon at The Muck (Muckenthaler Cultural Center) in Fullerton. “He’s so talented — those tickets are going to go fast,” she said. (Call 866-411-1212.)
“It’s crazy, I know — you see me singing country music, and then you see me doing this opera thing,” Wise-Hawkins said. “It’s like I’m living (in) two different worlds, for sure. I have to say, classical voice is honestly the hardest thing you can sing, and I am so thankful I got classical training. It has helped me as an overall singer, no matter what I’m singing. I just love performing on stage, doing theater and opera and country. It’s my life. I’m incredibly happy.”
What’s her best advice for other aspiring young singers?
“I honestly feel that if you work hard enough for something, you can have anything you want,” she said. “If you just put your mind to something, then you can do it. I never in my life thought I would ever get a bachelor’s degree in vocal performance, in opera. That was actually one of the biggest challenges for me — just learning classical voice and getting through the vocal program at CalArts. That was just such an achievement for me, and I just feel like anything is possible.”