By Fletcher Word
The Truth Editor
The Toledo Opera will present “Celebrazione del Coro” – a celebration of some of classical opera’s greatest choruses and arias – on April 21 and 23 at the Valentine Theatre and one of the visiting artists will be Christine Lyons, a critically acclaimed soprano who has been repeatedly praised and honored for her artistry by numerous critics and publications over the last decade.
An Atlanta native who has had a hugely successful operatic career, Lyons came to embrace such a career relatively late in life and by means of “a happy little accident,” she recalls.
Music, however, has always been part of her life. Lyons started playing the piano at the age of four and continued for a number of years as she also took up other instruments and did well enough by the age of 12 that she was winning state-wide competitions.
When she entered high school, however, she had to make a choice about how to continue her interest in music. The school told her she had to decide between band or singing. She decided “to take a chance and joined the choir,” she says.
That switch paid off immediately. “I started getting solos right ff the bat and when I auditioned for school musicals I was getting the leads.” She was also feeling the energy from audiences on stage that provides so much feedback to performers.
Lyons continued singing throughout her high school years and when it came time to think about college she decided to continue singing and focus on musical theatre. She applied for a scholarship to Carnegie Mellon and received a full ride but was told when she arrived that he would be learning much more than the theatre roles she was used to – she was about to enter the classical music arena and learn a range of music in a variety of languages.
After a summer at the schools before freshman year, she had the opportunity to sing for the mezzo soprano Mimi Lerner, then head of the voice department at Carnegie Mellon.
When Lerner asked the incoming freshman what she was going to school for, Lyons told her musical theatre. Lerner told her “no, you are not … you are going to study opera. You have something I can’t teach but I’m going to teach you the rest.”
Lerner informed Lyons that she had a special gift and she wanted to help the young girl learn how to use that gift. The full scholarship would be thereafter changed to study opera.
“I didn’t grow up hearing Black opera singers anywhere,” says Lyons. “Growing up in Atlanta, I don’t even know how I could have known that Black people sing opera.”
When Lyons graduated from Carnegie Mellon, she headed off to New York, acquired an agent and auditioned for the musical theatre stage, television and movies. She wasn’t quite sure if she was ready to pursue opera. “The voice needs time to marinate,” she says of the challenge she faced with her not quite fully-developed vocal muscles.
However, after about five years, she felt she was indeed ready. “All right, all right, this has been fun but …” She sought out the famed Denyce Graves, a mezzo-soprano, for voice music lessons. Graves is another in a long list of Black women opera singers that have graced the world stages for decades – from Marion Anderson, to Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle, among others.
“You have the ambiance, the soul, he essential ingredients to sing opera,” Graves told the young Lyons. “She taught me the ropes.”
Both Lerner and Graves proved to be accurate in their assessments of the youthful Lyons’ ability and potential. Lyons has gone on to an outstanding career, acclaimed for performances such as Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, Puccini’s Mimi in La Boheme, Handel’s Alcina and Massenet’s Manon.
This 22-23 season, Lyons joined the San Francisco Opera for the world premiere of John Adams’ Antony and Cleopatra, the Maryland Opera for Lucia di Lammermoor along with her appearance here in Toledo.
She has garnered praise from a variety of opera publications such as Opera Magazine and Classical Voice America and won the top prize in competitions such as the Mary Truman Art Song Vocal Competition in New York, the Greda Lissner Foundation, the Vocal Art DC Discovery Art Top Song, among others.
With the Toledo Opera’s “Celebrazione del Coro,” Lyons will be performing a scene from Cavalleria Rusticana by Mascagni and an aria from Turandot by Puccini.
That Puccini aria is a particular favorite of Lyons. “Right in my wheelhouse,” she says.
“It’s a gorgeous aria, it shows so many different colors of Puccini, with the harps playing delicately, a long silvery floating – it’s one of the most gorgeous things I have ever heard in the operatic canon.”