University of Kentucky Opera Theatre began in 1955 under the direction of voice teacher Phyllis Jenness and Phillip Miller, director of the UK Symphony Orchestra. Since then, it has risen from relative obscurity to its position today as one of the leading opera programs in North America, largely because of the boundless energy and vision of its director, Dr. Everett McCorvey.
Since Dr. McCorvey's arrival at the University of Kentucky in 1992, the program has begun attracting national and international attention. However, UKOT reached new heights and firmly established itself as one of America's premier opera programs with the February 2009 performance of Our Lincoln at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. (See Our Lincoln: Behind the Scenes) The show was one of the first major national events marking Lincoln's 200th birthday. Six months later, UKOT students were front-and-center once again, representing the Commonwealth and the University of Kentucky at the Alltech FEI European Jumping and Dressage Championship at Windsor Castle in England. They also sang at venues in Ireland as part of boxing legend Muhammed Ali's tour of his native land. (See Photo Gallery)
Dr. McCorvey credits a talented faculty that works as a team to help students achieve their potential as singers, scholars, and citizens. It includes sopranos Dr. Noemi Lugo, Dr. Angelique Clay, Dr. Elizabeth Packard Arnold, and newly hired Endowed Chair of Voice Cynthia Lawrence; bass Dennis Bender, and McCorvey, a tenor. Lexington's own Gregory Turay is UKOT's first Artist in Residence. Classical Singer's 2009 Vocal Coach of the Year Cliff Jackson heads up a team that includes coaches Stephen Penn and Tedrin Blair Lindsay, plus Nan McSwain and Bill Cooper. Dr. Jefferson Johnson, Director of Choirs, and Lori Hetzel, Director of Women's Choirs, round out the vocal performance teaching staff.
UK Opera Theatre performances take place at the historic Lexington Opera House in downtown Lexington. McCorvey moved performances there in 1994 because, as he says, "Opera should be performed in an opera house." Lexington's beautiful and newly renovated facility is the perfect size to accommodate young operatic voices. Students also gain experience working with its professional union crew.
Since 1993, UKOT has put on It's a Grand Night for Singing, a cabaret-style production at the UK Singletary Center for the Arts in June. It is one of Lexington's most popular concerts of the year, and its six performances at the 1,500-seat concert hall sell out every year.
The Climb to the Top
"We have an opera program because most major-league voices in the world want to sing opera," McCorvey says. And to attract the best young artists in the country, you must have a high-profile. UKOT took a giant step in that direction in 1999 when a donor established the first endowed chair in voice. McCorvey wasted no time recruiting the person he wanted for that position--Gail Robinson-- one of the most powerful and influential individuals in the world of opera. "Gail was the head of the Young Artist's Program at the Metropolitan Opera, and that's where everyone wants to go," McCorvey explained. Robinson also directed the Metropolitan Opera auditions. She held the endowed chair until her death in October 2008.
In 2000, the Lexington Opera Society sponsored the Metropolitan Opera District auditions held for the first time at the University of Kentucky. A gift of $30,000 from Lexington philanthropist Lucille C. Little funded an additional three years of the competition. The Lindemann Endowment Fund, the Ralph and Ann Mason Endowment Fund, and the Lucille C. Little Endowment Fund that were established over the course of two years put the program on solid ground.
UKOT began making recordings, starting with Aaron Copeland's The Tender Land in 2002. Kentucky Educational Television produced and aired Impressario, a documentary about McCorvey, UKOT, and the American Spiritual Ensemble the same year. UKOT also recorded a CD entitled Gershwin, featuring selections from It's A Grand Night for Singing.
The following year, LOS leaders Louise Shouse and former Lexington Mayor Pam Miller joined forces to create the Lexington Opera Society Community Endowment for Vocal Studies. A second Lucille C. Little endowment followed in 2004, and in 2005, Dr. George Privett and Nawana Privett of Lexington made the lead gift that established the endowed chair that McCorvey holds.
UK Opera Theatre collaborated with the San Francisco Opera's Merola Program to present and record the world premiere of Thomas Pasatieri's The Hotel Casablanca on Albany Records. Other collegiate world premieres include A Street Car Named Desire, The Little Prince, and in October 2009, River of Time, the story of Abraham Lincoln's boyhood in Kentucky.
UKOT's most pressing needs today include funding for the second phase of renovations to the Schmidt Vocal Arts Center, which includes much-needed rehearsal rooms, scholarships for students, and additional faculty members to teach and coach the 125 students enrolled in the vocal performance program.