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Emmy Rossum: Rising Star

by Hillel News | Feb 4, 2008 |
Emmy Rossum.
Emmy Rossum.

by Ellis Nassour

She isn't your typical 21-year-old star. Whereas other up-and-comers her age would be taking every film or TV role offered to establish an identity with the public, Emmy Rossum, after three high-profile movies in a row, has been focusing on Inside/Out, an album on Geffen Records that reflects her ingenuity.

Rossum is stunning, both in appearance and voice-a voice first heard around the world in Joel Schumacher's $40 million film adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera. This, her breakthrough starring role, was won after beating out hundreds of young women. The part catapulted Rossum onto the red carpet world of Hollywood celebrity; she was subsequently nominated for a 2005 Golden Globe Award and attended the Academy Awards wearing a stunning red Ralph Lauren gown.

Phantom was, by no means, her first foray into the musical arena; however, it was a once-in-a-lifetime launching pad for the 18-year-old leading lady. She traveled extensively and landed on the covers of leading fashion and celebrity publications.

Rossum, who has been singing professionally since she was 7, is the first to warn against the expectation of hearing that same Phantomesque, incandescent soprano on this newly released collection of original songs she co-wrote, which took over a year of preparation. After Phantom, and roles in Roland Emmerich's sci-fi blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow and Oscar-winner Wolfgang Petersen's upside-down thriller Poseidon, Rossum wanted to do the unexpected.

"Classical music will always be dear to my heart," she says, her trademark brown curls tumbling over her shoulders. "It was exciting to have the world stage after I created the role of Christine on film. As an actor, you're in a film to achieve the director's dream and vision. With my album, I was so fortunate to have it the other way around-to have people helping me achieve my vision and my dream."

Her philosophy is aptly summed up in the lyrics of Rossum's stunningly sung "Slow Me Down," written with Stuart Brawley and Bridget Benenate:

"Rushing and racing and running in circles,
Moving so fast, I'm forgetting my purpose;
Blur of the traffic is sending me spinning;
I'm getting nowhere.
My head and my heart are colliding--chaotic;
Pace of the world--just wish I could stop it.
Try to appear like I've got it together,
I'm falling apart.
Save me,
Somebody take my hand
And lead me..."

It was Rossum who grabbed herself by the hand and took the lead.

While promoting Phantom, she was approached by several record labels to make an album in the "popera" style similar to Sarah Brightman, another diva associated with Andrew Lloyd Webber and whose soprano voice has led her to great fame.

Cover of Inside Out.

Rossum had other ideas. "I didn't want this album to be like, 'Look what I can do.' People had heard me hit the high E in Phantom. Though I'll use that range to occasionally add different colors, I wanted to create a kind of music that would allow me to use my voice as another instrument. I wanted to discover how much you can do without instruments and what the boundary of the human voice would be."

Geffen Records was the label that offered her the type of freedom she was seeking to explore in music-and in herself. "They gave me precious time and weren't worried about capitalizing on the moment and having me rush something out that wasn't the best quality. They thought in terms of the long run." It was a big gamble, but it's paid off handsomely.

"You create something," she explains, "and you want to share it with as many as possible. I wasn't thinking in terms of box office numbers but how many people I could reach. It's a privilege to be given such an opportunity, to have so much trust put in me and my goals. I approached what I've done with tremendous planning."

She calls Inside/Out very personal and somewhat autobiographical. Her fear of abandonment and a longing for closeness can be heard on several songs. The title track deals with "the scars everybody has, and the fear of showing them. It's about opening yourself up and letting someone see the real you. 'Slow Me Down' is about trying to find a respite from all the craziness in the world."

Ingeniously, it's made up of more than 150 parts and harmonies, every one of them sung by Rossum, including the parts that would be played by guitar and piano.

The young singer radiates a vibrant innocence, but speaks with worldly experience. "Everything I sing about in these songs," she points out, "has happened to me. They are issues I wanted to talk about, things I've been through myself; and I wrote about them with a deep honesty. I talk about what people my age might be going through, such as struggling to find yourself, trying to find love, direction, purpose."

Musically, she feels the album isn't limited to 20-somethings. She believes it has the depth to appeal to different generations.

And her musical sensibilities run a wide gamut. "I wanted to include everything I love about music," she says. "And I put my heart and soul into it. The album is 100% me. I invested a lot in it because I wanted it to just be me. In the movies, I've always felt like one piece of the puzzle. But this is my baby. I got to write, direct, produce, and star. It was the most fulfilling thing. It's everything I've always wanted to do. I wanted to attempt to create a new sound that's unique to me. It's something new. You can't categorize it."

She explains that the album is about figuring out the real Emmy Rossum. "I'm not a halfway person. I go all the way, all out. I feel everything intensely. That can be an asset and a problem. But the joy is that for the first time I'm not speaking someone else's lines. I'm expressing myself and it's the most open I've ever felt. However, because it's all me, it's scary."


"Yes. I didn't want it to be confessional or self-indulgent, just honest. Some of the lyrics are ruminations and some are imagination. I'm not so different from most people in that we have similar experiences in our life journey. I tried to tap into that and write about things that are universal. My goal is to touch people of all generations. We all want to be loved. There are times when everyone is scared, when we experience feelings that are high and that are low. I tried to expose myself in those terms."

Rossum made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera, where she was a valued member of the children's chorus for almost six years.

Being so immersed in the world of the classical, Emmy came late to pop music. "I was 13 before I heard a drum, a guitar, or anybody belting out a song," she admits. "When I finally did, it was amazing to me."

Her listening tastes run from Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, and Sarah McLachlan to Evanescence and R. Kelly.

Writing lyrics and composing music was also something new and finding the right people to work with was daunting. "It was the longest part of the journey," she admits. "It was like blind dating, although I haven't done that much blind dating. You work with someone and you don't know if your musical sensibilities will blend. When you are doing lyrics that are very personal, you want to work with people who understand. I was fortunate to find wonderful collaborators. As far as composing, the nitty-gritty is that, with all the lyrics spinning in my head, I sat at the piano and played around until I found the chord structure and melody that sounded like the feeling I wanted to capture."

Rossum, a born-and-bred New Yorker, is the only child of now-divorced parents. Her mother, Cheryl, is a corporate photographer and her father, who worked in the world of finance, left Cheryl when she was pregnant. Rossum never met her father as a child.

"Mom sacrificed a lot by working a lot of different jobs to have the wherewithal to put me through school. I am definitely my mother's daughter! Mom never did anything in the conventional way. She's a pretty free thinker and an independent woman. She has traveled all over the world, sometimes hanging off helicopters, laid down on the runway as the first 747 landed, and doing all sorts of adventurous and dangerous things to take pictures. She was always up for the challenge. It seems I've inherited that."

With her mother frequently traveling, Rossum was often left to her own devices. She spent most of her very early years sitting on the couch listening to classical music and jazz piano. But, except to occasionally burst into song, she wasn't aware of the voice hiding inside. She was attending Manhattan's Upper East Side Spence School when her music teacher discovered that she had perfect intonation. She suggested Rossum audition for the Metropolitan Opera's Children's chorus. For her audition, children's chorus director, Elena Doria, asked her to sing "Happy Birthdayu-not once, not twice, but many times and in 12 different keys. She scored a perfect 10 and became a chorus member at age 7.

"If I had been in a different school or had another teacher," she supposes, "it's possible I wouldn't be where I am. A lot of life is fate, then comes the hard work and being in the right place at the proverbial right time."

Rossum performed in more than 25 operas in six different languages under the baton of James Levine and alongside opera giants like Plicido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti. She appeared in Tosca with Pavarotti and was directed by Franco Zeffirelli in his production of Carmen, in which Domingo co-starred.

She didn't have a lot of playtime, "since I was at the Met, rehearsing, rehearsing, rehearsing. They laid down rules: a privilege to be here and you are to be on time!,' 'You are to be prepared!,' 'You are to perform as an adult, which is why you are not treated as a child.' 'You are treated like a professional, so you should act as one.'

"It was demanding, but it was an incredible launching pad. I have never forgotten those rules and that's the way I have acted on every movie set. I've tried to be as prepared as be and then, when the moment comes, just let it rip!"

Being at the Met was a full-time job. Rossum was often performing five nights a week and twice in a day. "When I wasn't rehearsing, I was doing homework—sometimes during intermissions! It was wonderful that the opera intermissions are so lengthy."

She learned to sing in six languages, "but I wasn't able to speak the languages or remotely carry on a conversation. You didn't need to know every little adverb, especially when you're a part of the children's chorus; but I got to the point where I had a full grasp of the emotional content of what I was singing."

Recalling the $5 she earned per performance, she laughs. "There were horses that were getting paid $150!"

Then came a big decision. "I was missing school about 40 days a year for rehearsals or performances. I was still getting As, but finally the school inquired if Plácido and other artists would mind if rehearsals were held after school hours. I said I didn't think that was possible. I was asked to choose between going to conventional school and working at the opera. Singing and music was my passion and I knew even then it was going to be something I'd want to do the rest of my life. Mom let me leave school after seventh grade and I studied with tutors and over the Internet through classes with Stanford University."

As far as becoming friends with the great opera stars, well, that wasn't so easy. "Pavarotti was an extremely nice person, but I never got to know him. I was only in operas with him once or twice. Of course, I was in awe of the power of that wonderful tenor voice of his. It was Plácido who would come over and spend time with the children. He's a lovely man and quite outgoing. I adored him and have very fond memories of him pinching my cheeks and making me laugh!"

At age 12, she left the Met. "It wasn't something I particularly wanted to do. I just got too tall for the children's chorus." As she has often found out since, every experience in life leads to another. "When I was in those water tanks while making Poseidon, I was surprised that my vocal training actually came in handy. I was able to hold my breath and swim underwater for longer periods because I had built up such good lung capacity."

She is enrolled at Columbia University, where she's studied art history and French and intends to take philosophy. She's also a superb cook, having taken lessons at London's Le Cordon Bleu. She calls herself "a spiritual person, but I'm not especially religious."

Rossum actively works for Global Green, whose mission is to "work with governments, industry, and individuals to create a value shift toward a sustainable and secure future," and Youth AIDS, where she's gone into schools to discuss the importance of safe sex and getting tested for HIV.

Rossum says she wants to live her life as normally as

possible. "I stay clear of the celebrity lifestyle for the most part. I do my own laundry and shopping. I don't go to restaurants where celebrities hang out and I don't date celebrities. I live a private and quiet life as much as possible."

She says she'd never be comfortable with superstar fame-being a star with a coterie of people around her makes it difficult to be approached. 'That's one of the drawbacks of success," she advises.

"It's not what I want, which is why I don't have an assistant, personal trainer, chef, or handlers. I just try to be myself. I do everything. It's just me."

Being raised by a single mom taught her a lot of life lessons.

"Tough love was a strategy that my mother utilized, and it really helped me know where the boundaries were. I learned a great deal about having a strong work ethic. I also had to rely on myself and I became strong and self-reliant. I felt very empowered.

"When I look back on my life, I want to be most proud of the kindness, love, and loyalty that I expressed more than any success I may achieve."

Reprinted with permission from Lifestyles Magazine.

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