If you think you hear what sounds like opera singing while strolling around San Mateo, it might not be the radio.
San Mateo’s own Brett Ruona has sung with the San Francisco Opera Guild, Silicon Valley Symphony, San Francisco Conservatory Opera Theater and others. By day, Ruona works as a recruiter for a bank, but practices music from her home or the San Francisco Conservatory in her spare time. Ruona studies with mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook, head of the voice department at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
“Singing and musical instruments are like sports or anything else; one must practice to keep in shape,” she said. “I try to stay in shape and visit my teacher and coaches especially when I have a singing job coming up.”
Ruona considers her musical mentors to be Cook and graduate school teacher Nikki Li Hartliep.
“Both have believed in me and helped to guide me in life and music,” Ruona said. “They are both wonderful artists in their own right and are strong, inspiring women.”
Originally from Fresno, Ruona received her bachelor’s in music from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo in 2002 and went on to get a master’s of music in voice from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in 2005. Ruona was trained classically, but also sings jazz and musical theater. She has sung at events at San Francisco’s City Hall, conferences in Bill Graham, weddings in the Bay Area and in the wine country.
“I started singing at a very young age and knew the full words to songs even when I wasn’t saying much, apparently,” she said. “My mother, grandmother, grandfather and aunts love to sing and we all sang together in my family at every family gathering. Yes, I know that sounds cheesy, but it was very fun.”
She likes singing Gilbert and Sullivan and Rodgers and Hammerstein, things that singers sometimes refer to as crossover, meaning their songs span more than one genre. Ruona has many favorite songs, but some of her favorites are Brahms’ Requiem, Mozart operas and early music, including Bach and Handel.
Although she enjoys singing, she opted not to do so full time. She is grateful to have other skills to help her be financially stable and fulfilled in other ways professionally.
“My advice to aspiring singers is to always keep the joy in singing,” she said. “Trying to make a living and build a career as a singer or musician is extremely difficult; if not impossible. I lived in Manhattan for a while auditioning and while it was definitely fruitful in some respects, it was wearing on the soul and tremendously difficult financially for me personally.”
She noted one can only “piece it together” with gigs here and there for so long and that lifestyle never appealed to her long term.
“Some people thrive off of it and find it exciting — those are the people who must do music as a career and they will find a way to make it happen,” she said.
There is still joy in singing to Ruona though.
“Singing is a wonderful way to communicate poetry, music and emotion — you really are a vessel to communicate what the composer and poet had in mind and also do some creative thinking to come up with your own interpretations,” Ruona said. “This is what I love the most. To think you are keeping music from so long ago alive, and then new music to audience’s ears, is wonderful.”
Ruona also likes living on the Peninsula.
“I lived in San Francisco for a few years and then moved to San Mateo,” she said. “I need sunshine, so that is why I chose the Peninsula.”
She has toured nationally with the Gilbert and Sullivan revue Savoy Express. In addition to singing and performing, Ruona enjoys teaching private voice lessons.
For more on Ruona, visit brettruona.com.
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