While the singers’ final notes still lingered in the air, all four celebrity judges on the season premier of NBC’s hit contest show, “America’s Got Talent,” were already on their feet, applauding.
Judge Mel B., of Spice Girl fame, spoke first.
“I did not expect that,” she said. “You made the hairs on my arms stand up.”
With that, Ashley Renee Watkins, a New Orleans native, and Olanna Goudeau, of Texas, officially progressed to the second round of competition — and they did it in a very unlikely way.
They sang opera.
Now in its ninth season, NBC’s top-rated summer series chronicles the search for the top talent in America: dancers, magicians, acrobats and now, it seems, opera singers.
“When I first told Ashley Renee about the auditions, we laughed so hard,” Goudeau said. “Our first thought was, ‘No way would they want opera singers on that show.’”
But the more they thought about it, the more sense it made.
“People assume opera singers look a certain way,” said Watkins. When both she and Goudeau stepped on stage — stylish, modern young African-American women — they knew the audience was in for a surprise.
“We had the opportunity to totally bust those myths, get our names out there and maybe expose some people to a different genre,” she said.
In just a few minutes, they did all three, while also managing to earn accolades from unlikely sources, including celebrity shock jock Howard Stern.
“Something interesting happened for me,” said Stern. “You transformed this theater into an opera house. It was amazing. Really amazing. You truly lifted our spirits.”
Goudeau and Watkins know all about lifting spirits through music. Both began singing in church around the age of 4 — Watkins at New Orleans’ St. Luke AME Church and Goudeau hundreds of miles away in Port Arthur, Texas.
Their paths crossed while both were attending Dillard University’s music program.
Neither grew up dreaming of becoming an opera singer. For Goudeau, her first introduction to the genre didn’t come until middle school, and for Watkins, it wasn’t until even later — in high school.
“I was taking choir at McDonogh 35 Senior High School … when I was first introduced to the classical sound,” Watkins said. “I didn’t even know it as opera at the time. All I knew was that what I was comfortable singing was different from those around me.”
After singing together throughout college and graduate school, the two women formed their own performance business – ACTE II, LLC — in 2013.
The NBC tryouts were an extreme exercise in patience
“We arrived at 10 a.m. and didn’t get the chance to perform until about 10 p.m.,” Watkins said.
The duo battled pre-performance jitters by playing the popular song “Happy” on Watkins’ phone in a continuous loop and dancing for hours.
But in the end, even all the dancing was not enough for Goudeau.
“Right before we walked on stage I just lost it,” she said. “I was convinced I was going to slip in my heels, people were going to hate us, and the judges wouldn’t like us.”
Then they walked on stage, and, like magic, the anxiety was gone.
“We are stage animals at heart,” Goudeau said. “When we stepped out there it was home.
“All I could think is that we worked so hard for this, and it’s going to be awesome.”
After sailing through the first round of competition, the duo was thrown into “Judgment Week,” an intense, one-week process where the 100 acts that make it through tryouts are whittled down to 48.
Is ACTE II in that number?
Well, the process has been pre-recorded, but not yet televised, and the contestants are sworn to secrecy regarding its outcome.
“We just tell people to keep watching,” Watkins said. “If we’re on, we’re going to really need the support of everybody in New Orleans.”