WESTMINSTER — Music, whether singing it, playing it or listening to it, has alwaysbeen a part of her life.
"As a kid in school, I always sang," said Elaine F. Conover. "I sang in the church choir. In high school I played the clarinet and was in the band, but I wasn't that good.
"I tried to take piano lessons, but it's so hard, I never did learn that."
She enjoyed listening to a variety of music -- tunes of the 1940s, and later, light rock "that had a melody and words you could understand."
The 40-year-old physical therapy assistant at Fairhaven, a continuing-care retirement community in Sykesville, started getting into classical music only when she began singing with the Baltimore Symphony Chorus in 1974 (which she sang with again in 1988), and later with the Choral Arts Society of Carroll County from 1977 to 1988.
Last year, after four years of auditioning, the soprano was asked to sing in three performances of the Baltimore Opera Chorus' 1990-1991 season.
"It's sort of a dream," she said. "I don't have a music degree, and (in the opera), a lot of people have a degree in music.
"It's an avocation for them, and with me, it's a hobby.
"The competition is very great in the Baltimore Opera Chorus -- it's a more professional level," she said. "With the opera company, you haveto be reauditioned every other year and your contract asks you to sing certain productions at the beginning of the year.
"You're singing what they ask you to sing."
Conover is also one of 100 singers in the Baltimore Symphony Chorus, a volunteer organization, and a member of the Concert Artists of Baltimore, a professional chamber musicgroup founded by BSC conductor Edward Polochick.
In spring 1989, Conover's name was placed on a list of people to call when Opera Chorus regulars could not do a show.
Last May, she was asked to fill in for a singer who dropped out of "Otello." That fill-in performance was followed by the contract for 1990-1991.
Conover sang in GeorgeBizet's "Carmen" last fall and will perform in Verdi's "Masked Ball"in March and Puccini's "Madame Butterfly" in April.
In between, she sang choral parts in the symphony's December Holiday Pops and Christmas programs and will perform in a Mozart concert later this month.
Needless to say, Conover loves to sing.
She also loves to act,performing over the past 10 years with September Song, Western Maryland College's Theater on the Hill, Young Victorian Theatre Productions and Concert Artists.
"It's fun to be on stage and be dressed in costume, to sing and see if you can portray that character accurately," she said. "And with opera you have the opportunity to sound good."
But Conover says her singing is just a sideline.
"Physical therapy is what I was trained to do, and the singing was a hobby," she said. "I took voice lessons when I was in my early 20s, then quit to have a family.
"Then, a few years ago, I took lessons again."
Asked if her three-plus octave soprano voice is a natural talent, she answered modestly:
"I guess that's it. I was born with the voice and developed it with lessons."
Conover first took voice lessons in the early 1970s from Phyllis Frankel in Baltimore County. For the last five years, she has been studying voice with Frederick Petrich of Kingsville in Baltimore County.
"I had the time (after getting married in 1971), so I took the voice lessons to see if I could make myself sound better. And that's why I took them again in the fall of '85.
"I kind of hit a mid-life, 35, 'Is this all there is?' thing."
She and husband, George, 40, have two daughters: Kelly, 15, a sophomore at Westminster High, and Cheryl, 12, a seventh-grader at East Middle.
Her family, she says, is the reason she doesn't want a singing career.
"I'd miss too much -- I miss too much anyway. You have to give up a lot of family things," she said.
Singing opera professionally would require too much time away from home, she said.
"It's hard to make a lot of money at it," Conover noted. "I'd have to audition in all the major opera cities around the country and have to accept anything I was accepted for and be away a couple of weeks at a time."
Conover said the competition would be keen.
"It's especially hard for sopranos because there are so many sopranos," she said. Conover said she was thrilled to have been accepted by the Baltimore Opera Chorus and Concert Artists.
As a singer in the chorus, Conover isn't paid as much as the lead singers in the opera, but it's at least gas money to cover rehearsals and help with the voice lessons, she said.
Rehearsals can take from two to five evenings a week, depending on how close the group is to the performance, she noted.
With opera, singers have to pay close attention to their parts, more soeven than in the symphony, she said.
"You have to really be on your toes," she said. "If you make a mistake, you tend to stand out, soyou have to know how to blend your voice.
"You have to think about the interpretation and feeling of the music."
With the Concert Artists, Conover gets to have a little more fun.
"I like the mixture (of singing and acting)," she said. "You have the fun of acting andthe intensity of doing it just right."
For her, symphony is simply singing. Conover noted she was hired there on her first try two years ago "because there are 30 sopranos, and as long as you can read music. . ."
For now, Conover says she is content. Not only is she able to do something she always has enjoyed, but she's also getting paid for it.
"As far as I'm concerned, once you start getting paid, you're professional," she said. "But I don't think they'll start selling records of me like Pavarotti or the other big names."