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Aspiring Stars Join Chicago Program

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There’s a training program in Chicago that’s so elite, it accepts a lower percentage of people than Harvard. The Ryan Opera Center is an arm of Chicago’s Lyric Opera that develops rising young singers. And getting in can increase the chance of becoming a star someday. Chicago Public Radio’s Lynette Kalsnes follows one of the aspiring singers through her first season.

Katie Leemhuis is surrounded by boxes on a rainy April day. She came here from Indiana University, where she got her master’s in music. She moved here only days before starting her new job as a mezzo soprano at the Ryan Opera Center.

The stakes are high. If she does well, by the end of a few years, she’ll likely have dozens of auditions, a manager and maybe even some roles lined up. But first, she’s got to unpack.

LEEMHUIS: I’m nervous, but I’m excited. It’s a big, big, big opportunity, especially to be young, 25, just getting out of my master’s degree, and it’s kind of like having a mini job. You know, I want to make a good impression. I intend on working hard. And hopefully that’ll lead to jobs later on.

The first day at the Ryan Center starts with the usual tedium -- introductions, security badges and of course, the tour. It culminates on the Lyric Opera’s stage. The singers wander to the edge of the stage and look up into the glittering gold theater.

KALSNES: What do you think?
LEEMHUIS: Wow. It’s exciting, it’s big.
KALSNES: Have you guys seen it from this angle before?
IRVIN: Yes, our finals were here. But it’s still really damn cool.

The last time bass baritone Craig Irvin and Leemhuis stood here, it was last fall, final auditions. About 400 people a year try out for the Ryan. Only about a dozen make it.

The program’s director is Gianna Rolandi.

ROLANDI: You can listen to 40 people in a day, and they’re all good. And you’re writing good, and possible, and possible. Then one of ‘em will come in, and the mouth will open, and everybody sits up, and the hair stands up on the back of your neck, and you don’t even write anything down. And there it is.

Those like Leemhuis who make the cut get paid to take voice lessons, learn about great singers of the past and attend master classes with some of opera’s living legends.

After several months of training, the members become understudies and even play roles at the Lyric.

ROLANDI: The time between say, college or grad school, and then really being able to support yourself full-time is a terrible, terrible sort of no man’s land, to try to find an agent and to get auditions, and we provide a bridge.

Katie Leemhuis’ path to this moment started 25 years ago.

LEEMHUIS: My parents used to put me to sleep when I was a baby to the classical station. And I actually sang, I would match pitch before I ever spoke a word. And my parents said, hmm, maybe we should put her in some kind of music. (Laughs.)

They did. First it was the church pre-school choir. Later it was the Columbus, Ohio, children’s choir. Then came high school musicals.

KALSNES: Can you even remember a time you weren’t singing?
LEEMHUIS: No, even when I was little I’d sing to myself while I was playing with my Barbies. To be honest, no, I always sing.
KALSNES: Did you make up the songs?
LEEMHUIS: Yeah, I’m a little embarrassed to say so. Sometimes I recorded ‘em. Now I don’t think I have any, so don’t get excited. (Laughs.)

Leemhuis’ love of music goes back generations. One of her grandfathers, was a machinist, who’d tune into the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts every week. A few years ago, Leemhuis discovered this tape of him singing.

Leemhuis’ grandfather died, without knowing his granddaughter would become an opera singer. For the next several months, Leemhuis attends voice coachings once or twice a day.

There are German diction lessons, and rehearsals for hours at a time.

OK, we all know the reputation of opera singers as divas. At the Ryan Center, that doesn’t exist. In the dressing room, before a small, private performance of “Marriage of Figaro,” the women warm up. They tighten each other’s corsets. They even help style each other’s hair.

KALSNES: Describe to me what you’re doing to your hair right now
LEEMHUIS: I’m destroying it, and I don’t think deep conditioning is going to help. I’m teasing my entire head. It’s going to be kind of a weird couture. My opinion of Marcellina is she wants to be like the contessa, whose hair is perfect, but she doesn’t quite reach that.
KALSNES: I’m just watching you, and all I can think of is, Ouch.

Then it’s performance time.

Originally, Katie Leemhuis had her sights set on Broadway.

LEEMHUIS: Actually, I auditioned at six undergraduate schools after high school for musical theater. But ironically, no one took me for that, they all took me for voice. So, it could be because I couldn’t dance. (Laughs.)

So she ended up here, trying to advance her career as an opera singer. She represents the next generation of the art form.

LEEMHUIS: I can’t even tell you how many times people ask me, “Well, what do you do?” I say, I’m an opera singer. “Oh, I’ve never been to an opera.” I think go, go, go experience it just once. It’s really amazing. You can see one of the classic operas, and just fall in love with it from that one opera.

All of the Ryan members hope to have careers as opera singers. But they all realize it’s not going to be easy. It’s going to mean a lot of travel and moving every few months.

Despite the challenges, Leemhuis looks forward to a long career in opera.

LEEMHUIS: I’m excited to do that, but I hope that I can have everything else that comes along with life and not just the career.
KALSNES: For instance?
LEEMHUIS: Marriage, kids, you know, a big house with a yard, that’d be nice. I’m a Midwestern girl, so I want all those things. But I love what I do. And I’m really happy doing it. I think as long as I stay happy, that will be the most important thing.

Finally, it’s opening night at Lyric Opera. A maintenance worker vacuums the red carpet, and a ballet dancer twirls around on the sidewalk.

Leemhuis arrives at the stage door carrying her ball gown for later on. She’s just two hours away from her debut in “Manon.”

LEEMHUIS: I’m thrilled. I’m thrilled to be here and be a part of of it. I’m just really excited. I feel all the preparation has gone really well. This is it. It’s going to be fun.

Leemhuis takes the stage in long green robes, with a tight corset. And she unleashes the voice she’s been developing since childhood.

I’m Lynette Kalsnes, Chicago Public Radio.

NOTE: “The Marriage of Figaro” excerpt courtesy of Ryan Albrecht, Audio Engineer, Senyah Sound.

“Manon” excerpt courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago and 98.7WFMT.
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