Anyone who has regularly read my coverage of the arts over the years knows how much of an advocate I am for emerging artists and how important it is for me to acknowledge their talent and provide them with exposure. Recently, while attending the Indianapolis Opera Ball, Nov. 4, as a guest of co-chair Nancy Thompson, I was seated next to Shannon Christie, singer in the IO’s resident opera program. Christie, a 23-year-old soprano with a classical music, musical and dramatic theatre background, completed her Bachelor of Music in vocal performance at the University of Indianapolis in 2016.
Christie will be playing various small roles in IO’s production of “La Traviata,” Verdi’s universal tale of desire, love and redemption and one of the most beloved operas of all time. Opening the IO’s “Season of Delights,” the production will be presented at the Tarkington Theatre at the Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel, November 17, 18 and 19.
As Christie and I chatted throughout dinner, I realized that our paths had crossed several times previously. The first time we met was when she lived right down the street in my Irvington neighborhood. One day while walking by her home where she was sitting on the porch, we struck up a conversation and I discovered that she was a theatre/music student and knew some people we had in common. At that time, she reminded me that she had waited on me several times when she was a server at The Cabaret at the Columbia Club, which I regularly attended to review shows and even further back than that. In 2012, I saw her perform as a high schooler when she appeared in a Summer Stock Stage’s Production of “A Chorus Line,” which I reviewed. About her I said, “Shannon Christie excelled at capturing the sarcasm and tough exterior of the hands-on-hips veteran dancer Sheila, who hides her vulnerability and fears as she comes to terms with her age.”
During dessert, Christie, along with her fellow resident artist singers, sang several arias from “La Traviata”to showcase their program and to entice those assembled to see the production itself. Upon establishing our history together, it occurred to me that it was incumbent that we continue our association by way of an interview which I requested of her that same night. Later that week Christie and I met an an Irvington coffee house to talk.
As I was writing this story I reached out to her U. of Indy vocal teacher, Dr. Kathleen Hacker. to determine what kind of student Christie was. “Shannon has been one of my hardest working students, ever. She always gives 150%. She loves to sing and she is at home on the stage. When we worked together, she was on point, focused on her task every. single. minute. She has the talent, the intelligence, the looks, the ambition, and the spirit for a performance career. A career in the performing arts is not something that can be assured, but if she stays true to the disciplined personal work necessary to hone and maintain her craft, she should do quite well.” she added. Indicating that “Christie has known that performing is something she has wanted her entire life.” Hacker proclaimed “Shannon is incredibly enthusiastic, highly creative and her work ethic is infectious. When there is a job to be done, she is the consummate team player. Remembering your colleagues and making them look good is one of the most important secrets to a long life in the performance world.”
Here is a an edited transcript of my conversation with the promising young performer.
How did you find your way to Indianapolis Opera?
I began doing theatre when I was eight years old. I studied vocal performance as an undergrad at the University of Indianapolis and graduated in May of 2016. Then, I auditioned for the young artist program, the main stage and the chorus and ended getting the young artist program. Those of us in the artist program play comprimario roles in “La Traviata.”
How are rehearsals going?
Rehearsals are going well. We have had about a week and a half of rehearsals for “Traviata.” It has been tons of fun. I have learned a lot. It’s been great to watch Emily Birsan who plays Violetta, Gregory Turay who plays Alfredo, and Christopher Burchett who plays Germont. As a new member of the company, it’s been amazing to observe the rehearsal process.
How often do you rehearse?
We have rehearsed every day for the last week and a half. We had one down day. Right now, the show is in Evansville, so our parts and those in the chorus are being played by one there. So, we have a week off as the young artists, where we have gone back to young artist responsibilities like performing “Three Little Pigs,” which is our children’s program outreach. Then, we will go straight into dress rehearsals.
Why did you choose opera over musical theatre?
I knew my voice was always suited more toward classical musical theatre and that I wasn’t going to be the next big belter on Broadway. I originally thought about going into undergrad for musical theatre but my voice teacher Steven Rickard suggested I attend U Indy to study classical music and get underlying basic training and technique until I figured out what I wanted to do. I ended up clicking with Dr. Kathleen Hacker, my voice teacher. I loved it and saw a career in opera after studying with Dr. Hacker for four years at U Indy. It’s an interesting experience being in a small pond such as U Indy because you are offered tons of experience and opportunities that you wouldn’t necessarily find at a larger school
What were some of those opportunities?
We did Bizet’s “Dr. Miracle” senior year so it reversed every other year. The theatre department would put on a musical one year and then the music department would put on an opera the next year and it went back and forth. My sophomore year, we presented “Kismet” which is a classical musical theatre opera. In the off-years we also did opera scenes, so l got a lot of exposure that way, doing scenes for “Così fan tutte,” and “Rigoletto.”
What operas have you seen?
I have seen a few. Our opera class went up to Lyric Opera in Chicago and saw Ren ée Fleming in “Capriccio” and I saw a few others there as well. I had the opportunity to go out to Seattle to see a friend who is with Pacific Music Works and saw “Tales of Hoffman” at the Seattle Opera Center.
Have you seen a MET opera yet?
I haven’t. Krista, one of the other resident artists, lives in New York and I am already planning my trip out there. She’s the mezzo.
What have you learned in rehearsals?
This is my first experience with a professional opera company. I have learned a lot about the rehearsal process in general. It is interesting to see Emily play a role that she has never fully staged. She’s sung it before, but has never done it before in a fully staged version, so it is interesting getting to see how she’s working through all her internal monologue because when you are working with material in a different language, it’s a different process than what you are used to with a musical theatre piece in English. Our music director, John Truitt, works so quickly and efficiently, so that’s amazing. You must constantly be on point. Our comprimario roles are small ones, throughout. I am the only one of the four of us young artists that appears toward the end. I am in a lot of small scenes. The joke is, that because I play the maid, I enter on stage, am told to leave and I leave often until Violetta dies. The other three comprimarios are extensions of the chorus and play specific characters, so I am the only one that is idle for a very long time before I pop up. It’s interesting having to learn to sit for a long time then be on point when you must.
Are you given advice from the pros you’re working with?
Yes, and I am a sponge. I think that is what has gotten me to where I am and that will keep me moving forward. I want to sponge everything. I look at everything as a learning opportunity so at the opera ball, we sang two excerpts from “Traviata.” I sang Violetta, a part I am not playing, so I had to learn those quickly. And Emily was present. No pressure. But it was fun, even though it was a very difficult part of the opera. It’s at end of Act 2 where Violetta has been scorned by Alfredo and she sings “Alfredo, Alfredo, you’ll never know how much I love you.” It is very emotionally driven. Emily graciously offered to give me a coaching, which helped amazingly.
It sounds like the pros are generous?
Yes. That’s part of being an opera singer. You know where you’ve come from. You must build up to where you are, so you don’t forget where you have been. Emily personifies that attitude.
Does the diva stereotype exist?
It does exist, but it doesn’t apply to Emily. In fact, she gives me a hug. When I walk into rehearsal, she’ll say, “How are you doing?” When you have been in a position where you have people above you treat you poorly, especially if you are in the young artist program, you learn that is not how you want to treat your colleagues. She embodies the best qualities of a colleague. She knows we are young artists and wants to build us up and help. It is so great to have that kind encouragement.
Are you driven?
You must have a thick skin to get by in any arts field because it is such a vulnerable place to put yourself into to fulfill a role. You must have a thick skin to be able to move forward.
Do you take criticism well?
I try to. To be able to succeed in singing or acting you must be able to take criticism. Constructive criticism. You must be able to hear what they are saying and then relate it to what you are doing. As far as voice lessons, teachers are not they are not there to criticize you. They are there to help you.
Do you take direction well?
I would say that I do. I have. Since I started at such an early age it has always been ingrained in me. I am also very aware of my body and aware of the sensations when I am singing. I do take direction well.
Are your parents supportive?
My parents are very supportive. My dad was a theatre minor. We did a few shows together when I was a kid. He hasn’t done anything lately, but we were in “The Fantasticks” together at the Belfry with Jordan Donica who is in “Hamilton.” Jordan played the boy Matt and I played Louisa, which is a funny.
How does it feel working with a professional opera company?
It feels great. It feels like the next stepping stone in my career. It’s amazing being the only resident artist without a master’s degree. It’s unique because young artist’s programs are something you do after your master’s.
Are you going toward your master’s?
I am trying to figure that out. I don’t know yet. I am working on that. There are so many options. I am trying to narrow it down. Of course, Indiana University is the best in the country. CCM has a great program and there are tons of schools on the east coast that I have been looking at.
What is your long-term goal?
My long-term goal is to keep performing and to continue making those post-grad school steps toward a career in performance. I think one of the things I learned from this process is there are so many ways to put together a career. Of course, I would like to go as far as I can in my career.
What are some roles you would like to sing?
It is hard when you are a young singer to knowing where your voice is going. One of my favorite roles is Olympia in “Tales of Hoffman.” She sings the “Doll Song,” which is a fun coloratura soprano song. There are just so many.
You are a coloratura soprano?
I am so young now. Right now, I am singing more soubrette repertoire, but I don’t know post- master’s where my voice will go. It could go more dramatic or lyric or it could go more coloratura, so it is hard to hold myself to a part. As far as a fun musical theatre part, I would love to play Carlotta in “Phantom.” I think that would be so much fun.
What can people expect from “La Traviata?”
“Traviata” is a tragic love story about a courtesan named Violetta who falls in love with Alfredo but is asked to give up her love for him to maintain his reputation, his sister’s reputation, and his family’s reputation. However, Violetta is very sick. I don’t want to give a spoiler, but eventually they get back together, but her sickness has taken over.
What can you tell people who have never experienced opera; why they should come?
It’s going to be like something you have never seen if you have never experienced opera. It’s a different language, but there will be subtitles projected above the stage. If you have never been to an opera, make sure you familiarize yourself with the story. It’s a full experience. You are going to be all-encompassed. At least that is our goal. So, let yourself absorb it.
For tickets and information about “La Traviata” call (317) 843-3800 or visit www.thecenterfortheperformingarts.org