Sing a Scholar's Song: Maria Lazarova

As director of classical voice at Orange County School of the Arts, Dr. Maria Lazarova says the skills she inculcates into her charges—many of whom go on to prestigious schools such as Julliard and Indiana University—aren't necessarily specific to the classical-music industry. Take self-confidence, for example. “You have to be able to put your best self forward,” she says, “even if [it's] not an audition situation. It could be a board room; it could be a sales job. You have to know that the person you're projecting is you.”

She says it from experience. Lazarova was born in Bulgaria to two engineers. Under a program designed by Communist dictator Todor Zhivkov to win the trust of the Third World by sending its best and brightest to improve living conditions, her family was sent to North Africa when she was 6 years old; her father led a project to build a power plant in Libya, and Lazarova went with the rest of the family to live for three years in Algeria, where her mother taught. Hoping to escape the Iron Curtain regime, the family learned French, and then applied for refugee status in France at a time when Eastern Europeans, even white-collar workers, were viewed as the human effluvium of a failed system of economics and government.

A family friend who lived in Orange County sponsored them for refugee status in the United States instead. Though going to the U.S. was an alien concept for Cold War-era Bulgarians—”We might as well have been going to the moon,” Lazarova says—they established a foothold here and began to work to make their lives better. As a student living in an economically disadvantaged part of Anaheim, Lazarova received a one-year scholarship to study voice for half an hour each week with the Pacific Chorale; she's still heavily involved with the group and continues to study with it. As her parents started to make more money, they started to be able to afford to send her to study music.

However, it was to be an amusing hobby, not a career. Lazarova enrolled in pre-med at Cal State Long Beach, then started to work in mortgage processing before looking to her voice for an escape from that soul-deadening job. She quit and went to USC's Thornton School of Music, from which she received master's and doctorate degrees. Determined to not spend her life doing something she hated, Lazarova cast about for jobs in music, specifically those involving teaching. She applied for and was hired as the director of the Classical Voice Conservatory, tasked with creating the 13th conservatory at Orange County School of the Arts in 2009, and diversifying the school's opera program to include all classical vocal music; she also runs a private voice studio in Santa Ana and gives voice lessons at Long Beach State on the side.

Over the past five years, Lazarova has created Orange County's premier vocal school for youth, wearing every possible hat in the process. “I work six days a week, and I don't have a secretary,” she says. “I do it all myself.” That includes unglamorous, low-profile tasks such as organizing homework and collecting permission slips, as well as such high-profile work as producing the school's annual opera (this year, it's Cinderella).

“I couldn't read music until I was 18 years old,” she says. “That influences everything I do to prepare these children. I want them to get an earlier start than I did.”

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