by Halcian Pierre
Your first impression of Glenda Collens is of a beautiful woman that is deeply focused and determined. Her smile is catching and her voice, that signature tool that she wields like a skilled craftsman and uses to deftly coax other voices to come to the fore is a major part of her identity, an identity she almost lost and found again. When you ask the question, the gutsy singer and vocal coach tells you right off the bat that her life is music. “I’ve never worked in an office,” she confessed, laughing. “This... what I do here, this is me. It’s a good life. I work for myself and I am very proud of that.” As resident Voice Coach and Musical Consultant, Collens was an Associate Casting Agent for Disney's The Lion King, hosting the Disney team on their last casting call in Trinidad. She had the pleasure of having eight voice students cast in lead roles in London, Toronto and Germany. “The most recent one was two weeks ago,” Collens explained. “She’s in the middle doing her CAPE exams when she got the call from Disney, ‘Will you come, are you available? We want you right now.’ She did her exams on Wednesday, and by Friday she was on a plane. The girl is now touring with The Lion King production in the UK, along with Kwesi Jeffers.”
Her vocal and musical achievements are too numerous to include in this space, but for those who don’t know, Collens is also a Cacique award winner (Best Original Music) for the play Dansé staged at Queen's Hall and the Cherri Drama Festival, Chierri, Italy. In 2005, Mrs Collens was Musical Director, Voice Coach, Choral Director and Conductor of Jesus Christ Superstar at Queen's Hall. In 2006, Peter Minshall asked her to compose and sing an operatic air for her portrayal of the Singing Hart at the Queen's Park Savannah for his last Carnival presentation The Sacred Heart. She produced, directed and sang in the musical Swing Out Live in 2006, staged at the Little Carib Theatre. She collaborated with Rapso group 3 Canal in their Carnival productions, singing the role of the Diva. She teamed up with the group from the show's inception till 2008, including the Young International Performers Festival “Play Mas” in Hamburg Germany. In 2008 she was asked by 3 Canal to assemble and coach a 30-voice choir, compose and arranged four part choral music to back them up in their Carnival production Shine. She sang her familiar role of Diva for the last time in this production.
Trinbagonians however, recognise her as a judge in the popular talent show Digicel Rising Stars, along with Michael Salickram and Johnny Gonsalves. She is also the Artistic Director of MEDEA Voice Studio and MEDEA Productions (launched in 2006), and she fronts the musical band of the same name. She possesses a BA in Vocal Performance from Boston University, but long before then, her first entry on stage was at age seven on the Aunty Kay Radio Talent Show. A laughing Collens said, “I remember singing Row Me over the Tide. Actually, it was Lisa Wickham’s mother, (the principal of the primary school I was attending) who got me on the show; she heard me singing and said, ‘We have to get you on this Sunday!’ My second music performance was probably at age 13 for the Mayaro Music Festival; and I was singing as a soloist with the school choir. It was fabulous, I had a good time. So it was from a very early age I was singing. And my mother would tell you that I came out of the womb singing. I would say I was making noise!” (More laughter.) It was that very ‘noise’ that got her noticed, and her musical training was in operatic singing. In the 90s, she offered a full scholarship to Boston University. Things were going extremely well... until tragedy struck. “I contracted TB of the larynx,” a sombre Collens said, shaking her head slowly. “It was very strange. Was it irony? I don’t know. I had been doing opera for a long time; the prognosis was that I would never sing again. It actually took six months to diagnose me. First they thought it was a severe flu, then they said bronchitis, then pneumonia, then they started treating me for asthma. Nothing was happening, I wasn’t getting any better. They did a barrage of tests, including a skin test, where they put the germ under your skin to see if you have a reaction. Well, my reaction was so positive that my entire forearm looked like Popeye.”
Collens was immediately quarantined and placed on a cocktail of drugs for over a year, slowly being weaned off as time went by. “The doctors scare you. They say, ‘If you do not take these medicines as prescribed, if you get a relapse, there is nothing we can do for you.’ So I had to take them, and then they put me on steroids, which was what actually did the damage to my voice. Singing on steroids just messed me up, so that was the end of that.” Her pain was absolute. She “lay on somebody’s couch and cried for a year” that somebody was her teacher, and she credits them with giving her the psyche to stay positive and keep singing in her fourth year at college. She even went on auditions and was successful, but her body, already weakened by her illness, couldn’t cope.
“That kind of singing takes a lot of air, so I was dizzy all the time. I’m aware that that is part and parcel of it, but I couldn’t recover. It just took too much, so I had to give it up.” Always a fighter, Collens returned home intent on finding her voice again, a process that took her nearly five years of discovering and accepting her new vocals. When she sings now, it’s intense, raw and sexy. (“I’m working it,” she says with a smile.”) She has learned to let go of her inspirations Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman and Teresa Stratas, and embrace the stylings of Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone and Jill Scott. But she refuses to call her new sound jazz. “You know, the funny thing is, people (fans, musicians) have labelled it as jazz, but I don’t think I do jazz. However, what I do now, that outlet, being here and making that music... that is what has saved me. It’s funny,” she said. “I had gotten frustrated trying to get musicians to work with me; all the musicians knew me as a classical singer and I was trying to convince people that that’s not what I do anymore. They asked, ‘You sing jazz?’ I’m like, ‘No I don’t sing jazz, I just sing, I want to interpret it in a way...’ and they’re insisting on jazz, and I’m insisting ‘No, that’s not the way’. So the band came about because I wanted to have my own voice and interpretation. I learned to play piano to accompany myself and my husband Shane started playing bass with me and I got a drummer and that’s how the band started. Today its members Rene Coryat (drums), Vanessa Aberdeen (bass) and Wayne "Lion" Osouna (djembe) sharing the stage and I can’t tell you how amazing it is. Now, musicians see me doing it and they ask, ‘Can I come play for you?’”
With her music leading the way, Collens also keeps busy taking care of (and loving) her husband and 12 year old son while getting in some daily exercise; the couple are members of Road Runners of Trinidad and Tobago. Daily, she teaches vocal training to eager singers and vocalists at their studio in Cascade and she is eagerly looking forward to another stint on Digicel Rising Stars later in the year. All in all, Collens has literally come ‘through the wire’ and is now burnished with new mettle. As she puts it, her thing was all about being a working musician. “You see, with the voice that I have now, I had to find voices where I could say okay, this is what I want to continue doing and I have to find people and voices that I can emulate and build from here. Like, with the band, I do my own version of Jill Scott’s Golden. That was one of the first songs I re-interpreted for me, and that was a trust issue as well, re-interpreting someone’s work. I said, ‘This is how I want to do it. I like how you do it, but I’m hearing myself doing it THIS WAY.’ That’s how the music for the band is evolving as well. I pay homage to the songwriters and musicians, but I have to do it my way.”