Vocalist to share her love of opera at Valentine’s Day concert

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published February 4, 2016

GROSSE POINTE FARMS — She may not have been performing opera yet, but Angela Theis began singing for audiences as a young girl.

As a member of the Blue Jean Babies, the Grosse Pointe Woods native said she and her cousins used to perform songs from “The Sound of Music” and holiday favorites in the living room of her late great-uncle, Dr. Vito Ciaravino, each Christmas Eve.

“Christmas Eve was how I got my start,” said Theis, now a member of the Michigan Opera Theatre Studio. “We were all expected to have great stage presence.”

Theis will be back in front of a hometown crowd — albeit in a more formal setting — when she and her fellow MOT Studio artists perform during a Valentine’s Day concert and dinner Feb. 14 at the Grosse Pointe War Memorial.

“We are doing lots of love-themed selections from opera’s greatest hits,” Theis said.

Theis, a soprano, was chosen from applicants all over the country for the new MOT Studio program, whose other members are mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis, tenor Joseph Michael Brent, baritone Jeff Byrnes, bass Brent Michael Smith and coach/accompanist Gordon Schermer. The resident-artist training program started this fall and features emerging opera talent, with the goal of helping these artists hone their skills through classes and performances with leading professionals, guest artists and coaches.

A middle daughter in a family of three girls, Theis remembers singing in her school and church choirs.

“I did grow up with music being a big part of my life from an early age,” she said.

The Grosse Pointe North High School Class of 2004 graduate said North was “very instrumental” in her professional development. Former North choir leader Eugene Rogers — now associate director of choirs and associate professor of conducting at the University of Michigan — brought in U-M graduate students to give the high school students voice lessons, which Theis started taking at age 16. She said Rogers also brought in soloists and choreographers who worked with pop stars “to give us exposure to all kinds of music, which was really important to me in my development.” With fellow North students, Theis saw her first opera — a work by Strauss — at the Metropolitan Opera Theatre in New York when she was a junior.

Theis studied business and music at the University of Notre Dame. A semester in Rome studying with an Italian tenor and attending opera performances sealed her career fate.

“I really fell in love with opera there,” Theis said. “That lit me on fire for opera, to tell (these) amazing stories.”

Theis next headed to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston for a master’s degree in music. While studying there, she starred as Gretel in “Hansel and Gretel” and played Zerlina in “Don Giovanni,” for which a Boston Globe reviewer lauded her “bright, bold and beguilingly sung” performance.

Theis has performed all over the world, including two solos in Austria with the AIMS Festival Orchestra and as a resident artist with the Utah Opera. She made a major splash back home when MOT founder and artistic director David DiChiera selected her to perform his compositions during his 2013 Kresge Eminent Artist presentation, and at his 2015 Art X Detroit tribute concert at the Detroit Opera House. 

Her many honors and grants include being selected as a fellow to study with Barbara Bonney at the Universität Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria; as recipient of both the Audience Choice Award and second prize in the 2013 AIMS Meistersinger Competition; and as a 2012 winner from Michigan of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. 

Famed American tenor Richard Leech, director of resident-artist programs for MOT, praised the promising young singer.

“These talented artists have become like a family and without a doubt, Angela is, at the same time, both the baby sister and mother hen of the group,” he said by email. “As with each of the studio artists, she brings a unique and exciting level of artistry. She is a beautiful, sensitive and communicative artist that is on the brink of the career that all young singers dream of. For her to find this next important step in her development here, in the inaugural season of the MOT Studio program, would certainly seem the work of fate. ‘La forza del destino,’ as we would say in the opera house. Grosse Pointe has so much to be proud of in their favorite soprano. They should know, however, that they will soon have to share her with the rest of the world.”

The young artists in the MOT Studio program are bringing opera to venues throughout metro Detroit, from the Macomb Center for the Performing Arts in Clinton Township to the Berman Center in West Bloomfield, in an effort to reach out to a broader audience.

“We are hoping to re-energize opera,” Theis said.

The War Memorial concert is part of that community outreach, and it promises to be a fun night out for couples as well as singles. Theis said this will be a great concert even for audiences unfamiliar with opera.

“This is an outstanding opportunity to hear these emerging, world-class vocal artists for the first time in our community,” said Brandon Faber, director of community engagement for the War Memorial, in a prepared statement.

Theis and the other MOT Studio artists will be performing Aaron Copland’s “The Tender Land” in March at the Macomb Center, and she’ll also be featured in “Macbeth” and “The Magic Flute” this spring at the Detroit Opera Theatre. Attendees of the War Memorial concert will get a sneak peek at “The Tender Land.”

From the drama and dance to the literature, lavish costumes and languages, Theis said opera has much to offer.

“It really can uplift the soul and inspire,” she said. “Even if you don’t know what they’re saying because (the lyrics) are in a foreign language, the music can be so powerful.”

There’s a universal connection underlying this music — a connection that Theis herself has come to understand in a profoundly personal way.

“My great-grandfather was an Italian (immigrant) who loved listening to opera broadcasts on the radio,” she said her grandmother had told her after Theis herself became an opera singer. “My grandmother hated it … (but) it was his way to connect to his culture. (Now) she tears up when she talks about it, because there’s a connection among the generations (through me).”

The Grosse Pointe War Memorial is located at 32 Lake Shore Road in Grosse Pointe Farms. Tickets for the concert and dinner cost $55. Tickets for the concert without the dinner cost $25. For reservations or more information, call (313) 332-4074 or visit www.warmemorial.org.