In this installment of “After Hours,” a series about faculty and staff with fascinating hobbies or side jobs, meet UCLA staffer Michelle Drever. Many Bruins have already heard her. As one of the winners of UCLA Staff Assembly’s first talent show, she amazed thousands of Bruins attending the Aug. 9 All-Staff Picnic when she performed “Nessun dorma,” an aria from Giacomo Puccini’s opera “Turandot.” She earned thunderous applause and even a few tears.
Michelle Drever singing "Nessun dorma" at the All-Staff Picnic. Photo by Judy Lin.
Name: Michelle Drever
Day job: Administrative assistant in the Dean’s Office at the Anderson School of Management.
Second life: Drever has performed in musicals ever since she was 9, continuing in high school, college and in community theater. After attending the Manhattan School of Music in New York, she took a break for several years, but saw Staff Assembly’s talent show as an opportunity to get back in the game. “The staff picnic was my largest audience to date. What a way to reintroduce myself back into performing. To sing for my colleagues was wonderful, and I was so excited.”
Funniest moment at the picnic: “I got a marriage proposal from a total stranger after the performance,” Drever said. The man blurted out, “Are you single? Can I marry you?” Flattered, Drever replied, “Single, yes, but not quite ready to get married!” She’s modest about the attention. “I really cannot take credit for that. Puccini has that effect.”
On the road: Drever’s apartment complex has strict rules about noise. “So my car is the only place where I can really get into it. So when I was practicing ‘Nessun dorma,’ I’m driving down Sunset Boulevard during the peak of afternoon traffic, and I must look like quite the fool with all my rapid hand movements and facial expressions.”
Humble roots: Drever comes from Woodland, a farming town of 55,000 people about 20 miles east of Sacramento. She grew up watching classic movies and old movie-musicals, which she thinks is how she started singing. “Judy Garland was a staple in my house — ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ of course, but more so ‘Meet Me in St. Louis,’ ‘Easter Parade,’ ‘The Harvey Girls,’ and ‘In the Good Old Summertime.’ Those were my favorites and I just enjoyed singing them.” Drever’s old-movie roots seem reflected in her crisp enunciation and occasionally by a charming old-fashioned phrase.
Hear Michelle Drever's stunning performance of "Nessun dorma" in this Staff Assembly video of her at the All-Staff Picnic.
Break-out role: Red Riding Hood in “Babes in Toyland.” When she was 9, Drever decided to audition for the musical at her local theater. “I had never performed before, and my parents don’t read music, so we didn’t know what to do about an audition song,” particularly how to provide sheet music at the audition, Drever said. “But everyone knows ‘My Favorite Things’ from ‘The Sound of Music,’ so we just watched the movie until I learned it.” She got the part, her parents got her a music teacher, and Drever continued in community theater from there.
A terrifying start: Drever had never lived away from home, even for summer camp, when the girl from a small farm town made a dramatic move to New York City to attend college at the Manhattan School of Music in 2001. About a week later, the Sept. 11 attacks happened. Though she was never in danger, it was “terribly frightening,” she recalled.
Witnessing the city recover: “It was quite terrifying to be in the middle of that, but it was amazing to see the courage, and to see the city stand up again on its own two feet. One of the first things to take a hit was the theater district, because people weren’t going to the theater. So I bought a ticket to the ‘Phantom of the Opera’ for the first day the theaters reopened. The theater was half full. It was very sad. But at the end — and all the productions on Broadway did this — the cast sang ‘God Bless America.’ It was amazing. It was very stirring.”
Hear Drever sing "Love Never Dies" in the first round of Staff Assembly's "UCLA Has Talent 2012" contest.
A turning point: During Drever’s long break from performing, she felt like she’d diverted from her path and gotten “lost in the woods.” Returning to a stage changed that. “For far too long I was content with watching the game from the grandstand. Not anymore. That’s why the performance at the picnic meant so much to me. It was my chance to escape from the woods. I got to sing for you, and it was so wonderfully liberating.”
Did you notice? “I committed a cardinal sin. That aria is for a tenor, and I’m a soprano. I hope I have not scandalized any classically trained staff or faculty. I was aware I shouldn’t be doing it, but it’s just too beautiful not to sing. I had to.”
First moments off the stage: Drever waved to her Anderson colleagues in the crowd, who surprised her by making posters with her name to cheer her on. “They are the best. I was so stunned and touched.” Her dad traveled 400 miles from Woodland to see Drever sing, and, as soon as she bowed, she ran off the stage and gave him a hug. Her first phone call was to her mom, who snuck out of a work meeting to hear how the performance went. “My family is very tight-knit. I could not function without my parents and my sister. I talk to my parents every day. I’m a true millennial that way.”
Dream roles: “Ever since I saw ‘Phantom of the Opera’ at the Curran Theater in San Francisco when I was a little girl, I have been dreaming nonstop of playing Christine Daaé. For my non-operatic dream role, I’ve always wanted to play Velma Kelly in ‘Chicago.’ The role is just so unlike me. I’d love to put on a brunette bob and all that 1920s garb.”
Favorite roles she’s performed: The title character in “Peter Pan,” Maria in “West Side Story” and Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz.” “I cherish my performance as Aldonza in ‘Man of La Mancha’ the most. Aldonza changed me. She was the antithesis of an ingénue if there ever was one — aggrieved, bitter, weary and, worst of all, utterly without hope. She was saved by Don Quixote and his impossible dream, of course, but portraying her journey out of hell was cathartic for me, and I reveled in it.”