Relaxing at his parents’ home in Waxahachie over Christmas break, Sterling Horning has been taking advantage of his “down time” between semesters.
“This has been a much needed break,” he said, noting between class work and rehearsals he has been going non-stop for the past several months.
“I love it, though. I really love what I do,” said the 2012 Waxahachie High School grad.
Now a junior at Texas Christian University, the vocal performance major recently landed his first role in the department’s annual opera scheduled Feb. 24-28. He also landed his first “paying opera gig” in the Fort Worth Opera Chorus in the production of Mozart’s “La Traviata,” with performances scheduled April 24-May 10 at Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth.
“Opera has opened a new world for me,” he said. “It’s much different than the musical theater roles I’ve been in. It’s very challenging, especially having to sing in a foreign language. One of the great things about being at TCU is that I’m surrounded by so many talented people who are passionate about their craft. I’m constantly challenged to improve because I want to deliver the best performance I possibly can.”
The son of Rob and Colleen Horning, he credits WHS teachers Andy Reynolds and Gail Stutts Harrell for not only putting him on the path of his chosen career field, but through their guidance, put him in a position to earn a scholarship to TCU.
“Had it not been for Mrs. Harrell and Mr. Reynolds, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to go to TCU,” Sterling said, noting that opportunity has opened so many doors, including the opportunity to perform with Andrea Bocelli when the TCU Choir was selected to perform with the Italian tenor during his concert in the Metroplex.
“That was amazing,” he said, leaning back on the sofa as he shared every detail of the experience from beginning to end, barely pausing long enough to take a breath.
Confident and determined, his passion for performing was clearly visible in the inflection of his voice and in his body language and gestures.
“I love performing,” he stressed multiple times during the interview. “This is my chosen career. This is what I’m going to do for a living. There is absolutely no doubt about that. None whatsoever.”
While confident, the 21-year-old also displayed a humbleness, a trait he said keeps him grounded — and keeps his life on an even keel.
At such a young age, his list of awards, stage credits and performances are impressive.
Mention those and Sterling smiles, then shrugs his shoulders.
“I’m very, very grateful for the opportunities I’ve had,” he said. “But I’ve worked hard for every one of those opportunities. God has blessed me with a gift and I want to spend the rest of my life using that gift for others. But I’ve put in hours of practice to make sure I hit that perfect note and deliver a song in a manner that the audience feels the passion and is moved by the performance.
“The great performers make it look easy,” he said. “But there are very few performers in the world who can walk on a stage cold and nail it right off the bat. There is a lot of work that goes into being a great performer. I’ve certainly paid my dues to get to where I’m at right now, and I’m still paying my dues. And, while I’ve had success, I’ve also had rejection and failure and having to realize I wasn’t good enough.
“That keeps you grounded. It keeps me motivated. It challenges me to constantly improve,” he said, noting that every time he watches a great performance on stage, he realizes how much more he has to learn. “I don’t want to say that I have to be the best, but I’m driven to be the absolute best that I can be. And I know I haven’t yet reached my potential.”
At the TCU Opera in February, Sterling will be singing in German as he performs in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” The opera is a form of Singspiel, which combines both spoken scenes and musical numbers. For the TCU production, Sterling said the spoken scenes will be performed in English while the musical numbers will be performed in German, just as they were written by Mozart.
While still in rehearsal for “The Magic Flute,” he is also practicing for April’s production of “La Traviata,” while still carrying a full course load and holding a position in multiple TCU choirs.
Certainly on an upward trajectory, he vividly recalls how his journey began during his sophomore year at WHS when he went to the Fine Arts Center to watch his friend who was performing in a school play.
As he sat in the audience and watched the action on stage, two thoughts came to mind: “I can do that.” And, “that looks like a lot of fun.”
The next day he went to Mr. Reynold’s office and asked if he would put him in the school’s theater program.
“I told him I could do it and he wouldn’t be disappointed. Right then and there, just based on what he saw in me, he told me to go get the paperwork and he would sign it,” he said. “That first day, he told me to go to Mrs. Harrell’s office and asked her to help me find a song. I was scared because I had never sang on stage, but it turned out well.”
While he began his lessons in acting under the directions of Mr. Reynolds, through his work in choir with Mrs. Harrell, he found his voice.
“They taught me so much,” he said, citing incidents where they pushed him to reach his potential.
“I can’t thank them enough,” he said. “They saw my potential and knew how to motivate me. They were more than my teachers. They were part coach, part director and part parent. Because of them, I’m where I’m at now.”
Relating a story from his senior year at WHS, Sterling said Mrs. Harrell urged him to try out for All-State Choir. He didn’t want to do it. He was performing in all of the school’s productions and going out for UIL One Act Play. It wasn’t something that was high on his priority list.
Mrs. Harrell wouldn’t let it slide. She insisted.
Sterling relented, going on to earn All State Choir honors.
As fate would have it, his selection group held a work study performance at TCU. In addition to meeting and being mentored by TCU students, he also met several of the professors and the department head of the vocal performance department.
Which led to Sterling receiving a scholarship to TCU.
“Had it not been for Mrs. Harrell, I never would have had that door opened for me,” he said, pausing to reflect that he’s learned the two main keys to success are hard work, and the ability to meet people and develop friendships.
“You know the saying, ‘It’s who you know’?” he asked rhetorically. “It’s so true, but not in the way that most people think. I think back to all the people who have had an impact in my life and have helped me. It’s because I put myself in a position to meet them, become friends with them. It’s the relationships that are important.”
Listing off a number of names, he shared a story about each one. Famous and not-yet-famous performers. Former TCU classmates now making a living on stage. Some of the relationships led to auditions that led to roles. Some led to offers to “crash on my sofa if you want to go to New York for an audition.” All however, have led to Sterling’s unyielding desire to hone his craft. To keep improving. To be the best performer he can be.
“I will make my living on stage,” he said again.
“For me, it’s not about the need for fame or fortune,” he said, then gave a wink and added that he “will be successful.”
“For me, it’s about moving people with my performance. That’s why I do it,” he said. “When you do it right, it’s an incredible feeling to look out in the audience and see that you brought out feelings of joy and laughter and made them feel, even if just for the short time you’re on stage, the magic of music and drama.”
Looking ahead, Sterling said he plans to perform as much as he can during his studies at TCU, all the while constantly learning and constantly improving his craft.
While life after graduation is still “a long ways away,” he said he is contemplating grad school in pursuit of a career in opera.
“That’s not a fair question,” he quipped. “My life right now is pretty much one show, one semester at a time.”
Sterling Horning will make his first official opera performance at TCU in “The Magic Flute,” with performances scheduled Feb. 24-28.
He will also perform with the Fort Worth Opera Chorus in “La Traviata” April 24-May 10 at the Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth.
Sterling Horning performing with the TCU Frog Corps