I was a waitress. Then I got a lead role at the Met. Now I’ll sing at your house.

I was a waitress. Then I got a lead role at the Met. Now I’ll sing at your house.


norman lebrecht

November 03, 2013

The Swedish-American soprano Erika Sunnegårdh got her breaks the hard way. In a candid confession, published exclusively below, she describes the struggle that so many singers endure to reach the footlights. Erika made the front page of the New York Times. Now, she’s seeking support on Kickstarter for a signature album. Music needs to go, she says, where music is wanted. She’ll give house concerts, if asked, to donors.

Watch and, if you can, click on ‘K’ below and chip in.


I’m Erika Sunnegårdh. I used to be a student, a waitress, a personal assistant, a teacher and a church singer and then, one remarkable January afternoon, at the not so tender age of 37, a last minute audition got me my big break.

I booked my first professional job singing in an opera. 18 months later, after lots of auditions and first trembling steps in the “business” of music, I made my Metropolitan Opera debut in Beethoven’s Fidelio. It was April 1st, and the star got sick. On 24 hours notice I stepped onto the Met stage and sang to 4000 people in the house, and 11 million on the radio and I landed on the front page of the New York Times. It was an incredible day and it changed my life.

That was seven years ago, and my life and how I spend my time, still sometimes moves me to tears. Mine is a blessed profession. One that takes everything you think you have to offer, and then it asks you for even more.

One of the places I feel the most at home singing, is with the Malmö Symphony Orchestra in Sweden. I sang my very first Tosca with them, and have had the pleasure of doing a variety of projects with them for over 8 years now.

A while back we were tossing around the idea of recording together, and to my surprise, the orchestra management offered to partner with me by giving the orchestra’s time for free. All I had to do was finance and produce the recording.

There are two things I believe deeply: The first is that artists should get paid for their art and the second, that once that art is paid for, it should serve the community.

After being given an orchestra, I invested a lot of my own money towards hiring the other artists and funding the production, and, I sang my little heart out! But most importantly, I made the decision to offer the album in its entirety as a free download on my website. Why? Because music needs to go where music is wanted. And some of us are able to spend more on our love of music than others.

The album includes some of the greatest soprano repertoire by Beethoven, Wagner and Richard Strauss. These three composers depicted women in radically different ways and the women, or sometimes adolescent girls, on this album fascinate me.

So now I’m asking those of you who CAN pay for music to do so.I have set my goal at a level I think is achievable. It’s only a part of the actual cost, but it would go a long way towards making my personal investment more meaningful.

In return for your participation I can offer you anything from a signed CD to a house concert, or your gift of a performance, masterclass or event to your community.

Please give what you can, and I promise I will continue to match your every dollar with all I’ve got – through this album, and hopefully many more to come!


  • cztph says:

    wow.. I am so impressed by this. I will dig into my pocket and see if i can help out. Bravo

  • Mike Schachter says:

    Amazing, and very Scandinavian. Will follow up!

  • Ben says:

    Not sure how I feel about her approach. Seems a dual strategy of working for nothing and begging for donations. I like her comment that music needs to go where it’s wanted but the reality is that if people want it they ought to be willing to pay for it. Or perhaps the unfortunate reality is that the public is satisfied with the dozens/hundreds of recordings and free youtube videos of standard repertoire operas and simply have no need to purchase another. In that case, giving the album away just for the exposure may be a smart move. I still find that vibe of singing for house parties to be demeaning to an artist (count that as one of the many reasons I quit the business.)

    • Martin says:

      The unfortunate reality is that when singers/bands publish music via traditional ways, the money poeple are willing to spend end up in many pockets and only very little goes to the main artists.

      Kickstarter helps musicians to cover for the cost of CD/DVD/MP3 production without having to give away high percentages of their potential income to record companies.

      I have supported quiet a few projects. Some turned out to be very nice, others were rather disapointing. And in two cases I’m waiting for the final product for ages – in one case probably for good.

      Unfortunately many musicians treat crowdfunding like charity sites, i.e asking for $5 for a download of a track or $30 for a CD download – and of course fail.

      In this advertised project here you get the whole CD for a fiver, while later you’ll pay around $10. So I guess she’ll find a few takers. Maybe even me, despite hearing her sing makes me wanna say “tötet dieses Weib” – and as someone else will sing my thoughts on this album, I might indeed chip in too.

      • Martin says:

        $5 seems to be a bargain. The more usual going rate for an album download for Kickstarter project seems to be $10.

        And Norman, shall I ever meet you, you pay the drinks. Your article here just made me back this project and two others:


        Quiet cool, multi-culti people (from Russia, China/Vietnam and Canada/Egypt) doing music oldie style.


        Decided to back after about 30 seconds into the song in the video, but couldn’t press the “continue” button, as I wanted to finish listening to the song.

        I’m sure there are more projects worthy of your support. Maybe some clarinet music by a Us-Serbian composer (I think it’s played to fast for my liking) or horn concertos by a Montreal Symphony hornist (I think the rewards are too expensive)?

        Another project I helped backing recently has been funded, but there are stil a couple of days left:. https://wemakeit.ch/projects/cd-wie-im-fluge Swiss pianist Luisa Splett will record some interesting, seldomly heared pieces, i.e Lose Blätter by Hermann Goetz.

  • David says:

    It seems generous and all, but I think it furthers the notion that we as artists should just be happy giving and making art, and that compensation is not important. And in today’s atmosphere of cutting funding, reducing benefits, diminished or non existent job security, I’m not sure this is an especially welcome approach.

  • great good luck Erika! I’m in!

  • Jonas Jäthing says:

    I must be blind, I don’t find any information about how to pay/contribute