With her dazzling soprano voice, Melissa Zapin has captivated audiences all over America with her performances as The Countess in Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro, Desdemona in Verdi's Otello, Musetta in Puccini's La Boheme, Liu in Puccini's Turandot and Micaela in Bizet's Carmen.
She's appeared at Carnegie Hall, sold out Feinstein's cabaret room, and performed — at the specific request of Donald Trump — at the illustrious Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida.
This week, Zapin is in Savannah, playing one of her all-time favorite roles: Teacher.
Along with singer/songwriter Dina Fanai, Zapin is a Savannah Children's Choir Artist-in-Residence for 2013.
"Four schools a day!" laughs the affable Zapin, on the phone from her home in New York. "I hope I don't lose my voice!"
Not likely. During her reign as Miss Hawaii 1996, Zapin — she was Melissa Ann Short then — participated in musical mentorship programs nearly every week of the year, on the islands and on the mainland.
Yes, you heard correctly. Melissa Zapin was Miss Hawaii, and at the Miss America pageant that year, she finished in the Top Ten, and won the swimsuit and talent competitions.
For the latter, she sang an operatic aria.
See where we're going here?
"I needed to pay for my college, and my mother, unfortunately, was unable to pay for a university," Zapin explains. "I had heard about the Miss Hawaii Scholarship — if you won the pageant, you would get a full-tuition scholarship to Hawaii Pacific University.
"My dream was New York City and the opera. That's all my ambition in life has been since I was a little girl. But I knew I wanted to educate myself, and the only way I could afford it, from what I found, was to enter this pageant."
Zapin enjoyed the experience immensely, and not just for the doors that opened up for her, musically. "I got to meet all these incredible girls; what I realized is that we're all very similar, we're all trying to do the same thing," she says. "It does remind me of the opera world a little bit — the pageantry — it coincides. You get all dressed up."
And because Miss Anystate has to do a lot of public speaking, the gig prepared her in another way. "I have the experience of being in front of people all the time, speaking, performing," she explains. "It's been very easy for me. So I thank the pageant for that. Because I know a lot of opera singers who are like 'I can sing, but don't ever ask me to speak onstage.'"
Her husband is SiriusXM Senior VP Ross Zapin, a frequent guest on his pal Howard Stern's radio show.
None of this would matter much if Zapin couldn't sing — but she can, as the Savannah Choir's guest artistic director, tenor Keith Miller, clearly noted.
"Keith and I have the same voice teacher," Zapin recalls. "We met at a function, and he said 'I want to hear you sing.' So I auditioned for him for a job in Crested Butte, Colorado, to sing in an opera. And he's like, 'You know what? I think you might be good for this mentoring program with kids in Savannah, Georgia.'"
Along with her mentoring duties, Zapin will perform at Nov. 16's "A Night in Vienna," the annual fundraising concert for the young vocal ensemble's spring trip overseas (next June, they'll be going to Vienna and Prague to perform).
Zapin's stage-mates will include Metropolitan Opera mezzo-soprano Sandra Piques-Eddy, tenor Tommy Wazelle, Fanai (a former singer and musician with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra) and Miller, a bass/baritone from the Met.
Like so many opera singers, Zapin is comfortable moving between the big arias and lighter material from Broadway and the Great American Songbook.
Her heart, however, is in opera. She still takes voice lessons and trains relentlessly.
"I never hear 'Oh, she's a former beauty queen, how could she possibly sing?'" Zapin laughs. "Sometimes, what I get is 'Oh, she's skinny! She must not be able to sing.'
"But I've always been mindful of my body. I'm careful about what I eat. I work on the voice and the body. Be healthy, that's my thing."