Musician, teacher, actress reflects on talent born versus talent developed

Mary Lou Basaraba has a storied career in the entertainment industry. A native of Canada, she expanded her network of opportunities after moving to LA. (Courtesy Mary Lou Basaraba)

This is the second of an ongoing series dedicated to the accomplishments of Mary Lou Basaraba. She serves as the director of Music Ministries at Grace Lutheran Church, Chorus Master at Temple Akiba, both in Culver City, and Resident Chorus Maestra of the Golden State Pops Orchestra.

Can you give an example or two of a popular artist who was born with immense talent vs. a performer with (let’s say an ‘ordinary’ voice) but who compensates with in other ways.

MLB:  There are so many stories of people who are exceptionally talented who never really ‘make it’; who just can’t get over the hump of missed opportunities, or the lack of the right people pushing them forward, and others who are less naturally gifted who get all the way to Vegas via Reality Shows because of  a relatable background, clever marketing but, only a modicum of talent.

I personally know many singers, actors and instrumentalists who showed  tremendous potential as young people, won huge scholarships to important schools, looked like they were really going to fly, but, found themselves 10 and 15 years later without the big contract that would have catapulted them to that big stage of fame and fortune.

And, others who are fairly capable but, certainly not exceptional, but, they somehow find themselves with thousands of Social Media ‘followers’. 

Such is the odd nature of ‘success’ these days.

Of all your amazing talents, which comes most natural to you?

MLB:  This may sound odd, but I think my gift of curiosity has been the most significant in the eclectic course that has directed my life. I was always motivated by the opportunity for a new experience. Along with that is my distinctive voice, initially evident in speaking and eventually in singing.

I have a very low speaking voice that showed up when I was very young and it brought me unexpected opportunities as early as 12, when my piano teacher opened opportunities to actually teach piano.

I was also the conductor of the children’s chorus at my family church at age 12 and I believe that my voice was a very significant aspect in adults taking me seriously at that young age! I entered University in Bachelor of Music studies at McGill, one of the most prestigious schools in Canada, when I was only 16. I didn’t know that these things were unusual, only that the supervising mentors said that I could do it, so, I walked through those doors without doubt. 

In my early 20s, I was working as an usher at a professional theater, met media critics at the opening night parties who opened opportunities for what became a national broadcast career for me that eventually brought me to Los Angeles. It was my voice and curiosity that made an impression on people looking for women to promote in the media at the time when there were almost none.

When I won the position of co-host of “Super Pay Cards,” a 130 episode American game show that was shot in Montreal, the New York producers told me that it was my voice and ability to deliver introductions with power, range and great diction that caught their attention.

In fact, I had already been hollering my head off since I was a kid in sports and on the pool deck as a swim coach. But, that’s another story!

Which talent have you worked hardest to develop?

MLB:  Basically, it has been my voice, as a broadcaster, singer, coach and, now as a director.

After having had many wonderful opportunities fall into my lap as it were, in my younger years, I finally became truly capable of producing a singing voice of operatic proportion and amplitude. I had sung in many high profile situations while in Canada, but when I came to LA I started studying singing seriously again and it was clear that it was time to really focus on developing that.

I subsequently had a 30-year career as an opera singer and symphonic soloist based in Southern California that took me all across the continent  and even to a European opera house.

About two weeks after I established residence in LA, I returned to Montreal to audition for what became the most successful nighttime drama in Canada at that time. It was about an international hockey team and I was cast as the coach’s wife, all scenes shot twice, once in English and again in French. 

I had suddenly become more talented with an LA address!

Eventually, the producers learned that I had started a new artistic focus in opera and they developed my character as an opera Diva in Geneva. 

The show had been picked up in Europe and was now being co produced in Switzerland. They actually booked the Grand Theatre de Geneve, where we shot a very dramatic scene with me singing the opera aria featured on stage there that week.

And if you could pick only one talent, which would you choose?

MLB: I think I found the musical skills that were right for me. At 8 years old, I had a visceral response to a neighborhood friend at the piano  and started begging my mother for lessons which I started a year later.

I think those lessons and the things I’ve shared about my voice, musical gifts and curiosity have shaped my life in the most exceptional and blessed way. 

Although they are now gone, I thank my parents every day for my piano lessons which at many phases of my life have made it possible for me to make a living at the piano, including now as a coach and director with so many organizations.