Opera student following in Orson Welles’ directorial footsteps

Posted on: 9/12/2013; Updated on: 2/7/2014
By Steven Powell, 803-777-1923

Senior Kate McKinney, an aspiring professional opera singer, came to USC from Denver because she knew the music program here could propel her to center stage. And it has – her first leading role came as a junior, performing the part of Laurie in Aaron Copland’s opera “The Tender Land.”

A Magellan Scholar grant is broadening her musical education even further, opening up another world with the opportunity to direct portions of Copland’s only other operatic composition, “The Second Hurricane.”

“Directing is a completely different beast from performing,” said McKinney, who has been taking voice training since the eighth grade. “It’s exciting to be learning a totally different side of music.”

Her Magellan experience began with a very different destination than the director’s chair, though. McKinney set out to study the effect of the city and state of New York on Aaron Copland’s music – and like many research efforts, it evolved considerably in the journey.

“I fell in love with Aaron Copland because I was taking an American music class last semester,” said McKinney. “I was also doing ‘The Tender Land’ while taking this class, so I was really involved in learning about Copland – he’s fascinating, just as a person, and his compositions are beautiful.”

McKinney planned to work on her Copland research as she attended a monthlong vocal program over the summer at the Manhattan School of Music. “Unfortunately, the program took so much time,” she said. “There were constant rehearsals and performances, which were just wonderful for me as a performer, but it was hard to get a good grasp on the research.”

She was also realizing that her topic was simply too broad to pursue, and she began to refine it. “I realized that I knew almost nothing about the first opera that Copland wrote, ‘The Second Hurricane,’ ” McKinney said. “It’s a children’s opera, and there hasn’t been a lot of research on it, so I decided to make that my focus.”

Her time in New York became a pilgrimage of sorts, starting with a private tour of Copland’s home in upstate New York. Guided by renowned pianist Michael Boriskin, who is the artistic and executive director of the Copland House, she was able to see where Copland lived and worked for the last 30 years of his life. Now home to a prestigious residency for composers, the setting evoked a deep response in McKinney.

“That was a really emotional experience,” McKinney said. “I just missed Aaron Copland – he died in 1990, and I was born in 1991 – and that’s the closest I’ll ever get. I got to touch his piano, see his work space and learn so much more about him.”

She also interviewed Michael Barrett, the director of the New York Festival of Song. “He, along with Leonard Bernstein’s daughter, revived ‘The Second Hurricane’ in 2000,” McKinney said. “He talked about how they had revised the libretto and did some other work to make it more appealing to modern audiences.”

Ellen Schlaefer, USC's director of opera studies and an associate professor in the School of Music, has been instrumental in helping guide McKinney’s Magellan research process. With Schlaefer’s support, McKinney decided to direct a sampling of scenes and music from “The Second Hurricane” with a small group of area children.

Schlaefer is eminently qualified to help in that area: she heads FBN Productions, Inc., which sends an “Opera for Kids!” troupe on tour every spring, bringing opera to children throughout the Southeast for almost 20 years. “She is just wonderful – a great director and mentor,” said McKinney.

With Columbia-area students as a talent pool, McKinney will begin auditions for “The Second Hurricane” soon after Nov. 10, the final night of performances of Leonard Bernstein’s operetta “Candide,” a USC production in which she has the role of Paquette. After working with the children throughout the fall, she plans to take the showcase of Copland’s first opera to several area venues, including two churches where she works as a singer. The Magellan grant will cover costs for costumes, set design, accompanying musicians and any other expenses that the performances might entail.

She’ll be walking a path very similar to one once trod by another artistic luminary of the 20th century. “The Second Hurricane” was first commissioned by the Henry Street Settlement in New York City in 1937, and the director of that production was, like McKinney, an artist just a little older than 20: Orson Welles.


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