Her voice is her instrument: Bennington native Katherine Beck an opera star on the rise

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An operatic singer and Bennington native, Katherine Beck is, by her own admission, incredibly lucky.

At a young age, she was introduced to classical music in her hometown. While attending The School of Sacred Heart, at age 12 she joined the Bennington Children's Choir, where she learned about classical music from director Kerry Ryer-Parke.

Up to that point, she loved Alicia Keys and Beyonce. But suddenly, she said, "I was really into classical music." It was in that choir that she "got into singing, and singing well."

But this mezzo-soprano, or medium-low female voice type, is more than just lucky. At just shy of 30 years old, this mezzo-soprano — or medium-low female voice type — has played "Cherubino" in Mozart's Marriage of Figaro with the Arizona Opera Studio in Phoenix, as well as a key role in Rossini's operatic version of Cinderella that she performed at 10,000 feet altitude while traveling with Opera Colorado from Denver.

But for all her success away from home, Beck remembers Bennington well. Some of her most vivid memories of her childhood involve nature. It's what she loved most about living in Southern Vermont. The house she grew up in with her family in the Shires overlooked cornfields and woods, with rolling mountains all around her. She loved playing in the snow in winter and catching frogs at a nearby pond in summer.

Beck began taking lessons from Ryer-Parke and sang in choir and pops in high school at Mount Anthony Union High School. After graduating in 2008, she started undergrad studies at the Crane School of Music at the State University of New York at Potsdam. One of her biggest influences was Deborah Massell, an associate professor of voice at the university.

"She's a polished and professional artist," Massell said of Beck in an email.

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When Beck arrived at SUNY-Potsdam, she was a "beautiful work in progress" who showed flashes of greatness, but "her voice was still slightly uneven," Massell said. But "her talent began settling and releasing with focus and freedom."

The university is also the alma mater of New York Metropolitan Opera performers Rene Fleming and Stephanie Blythe, who was another early mentor to Beck.

Blythe told her, pointedly, "I think you have something special. And if you want this career, you can have it."

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Beck decided to pursue a master's and graduate certificate in vocal performance from the University of Southern California in 2014. There, she worked to perfect her movement and breathing techniques, as each is an integral part of great opera singing, she said.

"Opera singers are their own instruments," she said. "It's very taxing. ... We carry our instruments around with us at all times."

Elizabeth Hynes, a member of the vocal arts and opera department at the USC Thornton School of Music, said about Beck, "Her vocal sound .. to me has a beauty that is unique both in its amber color and its natural warmth. ... Her sound, along with her dramatic instinct, immediately connects to her audience."

Like many singers in graduate-level study, Beck auditioned for the Young Artist Program. That allowed her to shadow professionals while still being coached and trained as an operatic singer.

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"Young Artist Programs can be really beneficial," she said, "but are extremely difficult to get into."

Once in though, it's invaluable, she said. "It gives the singer a home company, conductors, singers and musicians all in one place" as well as firsthand experience.

She's called Denver and Phoenix home, and had stints in Santa Fe and Pittsburgh, where she was in the Pittsburgh Festival Opera. Her next home will be Chicago, at the Ryan Center for Lyric Opera. It's one of the "big five" operas in the United States, along with companies in Houston, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Would Beck have made it this far in opera had she not been from Southern Vermont, and Bennington in particular? While she loves the natural simplicity and beauty of her hometown, she wanted to see other places and meet people different from her.

"I enjoy in people the very things that make them different. I study what makes people different so I can find what brings them together," she said. "Performance does that. Singing brings a little joy to people's lives, and I think we need more of that these days."

Dru Hiram Clyde contributes to Southern Vermont Landscapes from Pownal.


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