Marilyn Mims will look you in the eyes, her own brimming with tears, and tell you how she struggled to the top of the opera ladder: how she became a leading lady at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.
But what she will not tell you is that her resolve, strength and tenacity are beyond that of many people you will meet. Mims found her grit growing up the youngest of six children in southern Mississippi. But her Christian upbringing taught her humility and faith, and that is something she said she uses every day as vocal artist in residence at Palm Beach Atlantic University.
"Students have to realize that there's a power much greater than any of us and they must give control to God. No matter how much they work or dream, it's really in God's hands," Mims said. "You have to be the disciple in your schoolwork and your professional work that you want to be in your spiritual life."
Mims began to show interest in music at an early age, and a piano teacher at her elementary school singled out Mims. "She recognized my potential. It was the teacher who went the extra mile," Mims said. "She didn't care if she got paid. She gave me the lessons regardless."
She said she now enjoys giving students the same opportunities she had growing up. One of her fondest memories of the opera is her first, a performance of Midsummer Night's Dream seen on a fifth grade field trip. "It captured my fascination," Mims said. "The sets were so elaborate, and I just knew I wanted to be a part of that."
She takes her students to operas, hoping to spark in them the kind of emotion she felt as she watched the spectacle of the opera at such a young age. "God gave me a voice, and he gave me drive, and intelligence and a sense of taste," Mims said. "It's my job to identify these students and guide them."
Mims received her bachelor's degree from the University of Mississippi, where she met her husband, Lloyd Mims, now dean of the School of Music and Fine Arts at PBA. "I still find it funny that I met him in opera workshop, and now I teach opera workshop here," Mims said, laughing.
For graduate studies, Mims attended Indiana University to study with Virginia Zeani, an opera great famous for her portrayal of Violetta in Verdi's La traviata. "I knew I wanted to sing Violetta. It was my dream to sing her," Mims said. "I knew I could if I studied with Zeani."
Mims began to learn the bel canto technique of singing. Bel canto, Italian for "beautiful singing," focuses on breathing and strength to produce an effortless, powerful voice. She entered competitions, using her voice to make a name for herself. One competition focused on allowing budding opera singers to vie for an audition with the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.
"I thought to myself, 'I'm going to try to go all the way with the Met Opera auditions,' " Mims said. “I wouldn't give up. It was years of frustration." Mims worked for years, and on her ninth audition, the final year she was eligible to compete, Mims won her regional competition and was sent to New York to vie for a place with the Met.
Once in New York, Mims faced a new challenge: her self-proclaimed "workaholic" ways had weakened her, and she was diagnosed with tonsillitis. She was told she would not be able to go on.Instead of going home, Mims went to speak with Rise Stevens, the woman in charge of the auditions.
"She told me it wasn't the end of the world," Mims said, crying. "I told her it was." Mims made her case to Stevens, who told Mims to return the next day. When she entered Stevens' office the next morning, Mims was given the news that would change her life: she could return the next year to compete.
"Never let anybody close the door in your face," Mims said of the experience. "I had to learn the hard way that you can't be all things to all people. God made me strong, but he also made me human." When Mims returned the next year, she moved effortlessly into a place in the finals, and from there to a place on the stage.
Throughout her career, Mims won a Grammy for Best Opera Recording, sang on five continents and finally got the chance she'd always dreamed of: singing Violetta. "It was the kind of education I couldn't have gotten in a classroom. It was out on the stage, in the trenches," Mims said. "I earned my doctorate on the stage. I was standing on my stage, defending my dissertation from memory."
Mims retired from the stage in 1995 after a battle with endometriosis that left her with little strength to sing. But the bright side, she added, was that she became pregnant at the age of 42 with her daughter, Virginia, named for Mims' mentor.
Mims said through it all, she trusted God and knew that at every point, she was where He wanted her to be. When God called her to PBA, Mims knew it was another opportunity for her to use her experiences for His glory.
"I'm here to change students' lives," Mims said. "And that's as big a rush as singing at the Met."