CARMEN Balthrop figured it all out at age 8 when she learned she could make her voice do different things, she had a fast ear and the Metropolitan Opera sounded exciting on the radio Saturday afternoons: She'd sing for a living.
A little more than three decades later, it's all working out fine for her in opera, recital and music class halls from Europe to China. But a person can't be too sure what's next.
So, Balthrop, a soprano who lives in Mitchellville, Prince George's County, teaches voice at the University of Maryland and in master classes, still goes to Philadelphia for two-hour lessons in technique with her teacher Vivian Wagner, paints, sketches, does needlepoint, plans to act on the dramatic stage and with her husband Patrick Delaney raises two daughters.
"I tell my students at College Park singing is a wonderful career but always be ready to go in another direction if things don't work out. The important thing is to set your own goals and try to meet them with integrity, self-esteem, confidence."
Balthrop sings the role of the peasant girl Micaela in Georges Bizet's "Carmen," the opening production of the Baltimore Opera Company's 40th season at the Lyric Opera House at 8:15 p.m. Saturday. She was much appreciated here in May 1988 singing Bess in George Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess."
If the opera world rated its productions like the movies, "Carmen" might lead the NC-17 list: no children under 17. In and out of the lyrical Bizet melodies and Spanish mystique of cigarette smoke, fateful cards and castenets sways the sexy Carmen.
Balthrop, much as she seems to be in her Maryland life, is the symbol of constancy as the blue-robed Micaela who loves the army corporal Don Jose no matter the fool Carmen makes him.
Indeed the singer feels Micaela is far more than garnish in this bowl of gazpacho.
"Most directors consider her just a messenger carrying news about Don Jose's mother. But she is a strong person, coming with a good deal of passion for him.
"She's a peasant girl who endures the teasing of soldiers in the strange city of Seville to love him. She endures the threat of cruel mountain thieves and robbers. She sees his loss of self-respect in yearning for Carmen. Her love never goes."
From a scene minutes later, Balthrop hums a few sweet and sad notes . . . a high B down to an E and back up to an A to show the emotional boomerang effect on Micaela's feelings. The notes come easily.
Balthrop grew up in Washington, the daughter of government employees who nurtured her music interest. While at Roosevelt High School, she sang for the D.C. Youth Chorale and saw her first opera from the balcony of the National Theater -- excerpts from "Carmen."
Balthrop tried to take her first voice lessons when she was 16. "Frederick Wilkerson told me I was too young, come back. I did, when I was 17. He grounded me in posture and breathing. I stood up against the wall and just breathed."
She received a bachelor of music in performance at the University of Maryland, College Park, and a master's in the same at Catholic University in the early 1970s.
Balthrop's forte is her variety -- operas, orchestral pieces, songs. This had led her to singing in Samuel Barber's "Knoxville Summer of 1915" in Shanghai and performing in Monteverdi's "The Coronation of Poppea" in Venice and a 22-city tour with "Porgy and Bess."
"I'm not a type," she says happily. "I've eluded that. Singing just opera would put too much stress on the vocal cords. Last May I did the Verdi 'Requiem' for the first time. In the next six months, besides teaching, I'm doing masters classes in South Carolina, Poulenc's 'Gloria,' Brahms' 'Requiem' and, in September-October in 1991, Liu in [Puccini's] "Turandot."
She counts as musical influences Leontyne Price "for the sheer beauty of the sound," Elizabeth Schwarzkopf "for the finesse and polish" and Dame Janet Baker for her versatility, dividing her time between stage and concert hall.
Balthrop's Micaela is her third Baltimore Opera appearance. Before Bess, in the early 1970s, the late "Bob Collinge gave me my start here as the off-stage high priestess in 'Aida'."
Bizet's opera after 115 years remains a winner with its distinct melodies, real people, anticipation of feminism, believable libretto and resulting drama and tension.
The setting is Seville and nearby mountains about 1820. The cigarette girl and gypsy Carmen wins the passion of the army corporal Don Jose. His love for Micaela fades. Carmen finds a new love in the bullfighter Escamillo. With fateful results she discards Don Jose:
nTC "You can never make me love you again. No one can make me do anything. Free I was born, free I die."
"Carmen" has been produced by Baltimore Opera six times in its 40 years. The current production of four performances will be in French with William Yannuzzi's English captions over the stage.
The set was designed here this summer by Soledad Salame, a Chilean-born painter and sculptor who lives in Reservoir Hill. She emersed herself in the music and libretto to create what she describes as a "presentational" approach.
The remaining three "Carmen" performances at The Lyric after Saturday are at 8:15 p.m. Oct. 17 and Oct. 19 and at 3 p.m. Oct. 21. Tickets are $15 to $70. Seats are available for all performances.