Whitney Morrison breaks into a megawatt smile when she talks about the “discovery” of her voice.
“My parents tell the story that as a toddler, even before I was talking, they would hear me singing the familiar church vamp, ‘Blessed be the rock’,” she says. “I had the tune, even if I didn’t have all the syllables of the words. And often they would just put me on a table at church and I would sing.”
On Oct. 7, the “table” on which the 28-year-old soprano will be singing will be none other than the stage of the Lyric Opera of Chicago. And Morrison will be making her debut with the company, playing the role of Countess Ceprano in Verdi’s “Rigoletto.”
When: Oct. 7 – Nov. 3
Where: Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker
Tickets: $59 – $319
Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission
“It’s a small role, but it plays an important part in the storyline,” said Morrison, who, in Sept. 2016, impressed audiences at the final auditions for Lyric’s Ryan Opera Center, the highly competitive training ground for on-the-rise opera stars, and garnered the Audience Favorite Award. (She began work as part of the Center’s new ensemble in May 2017.)
“Countess Ceprano is a tart — an adulteress who has become just one of the many conquests of the womanizing Duke of Mantua,” explained Morrison, who will be singing opposite tenor Matthew Polenzani, an earlier Ryan alum who has established an illustrious career. “And ultimately, Rigoletto, the Duke’s court jester, is tragically led to believe it is the Countess, rather than his beloved, sheltered daughter, Gilda, who is being kidnapped in an act of revenge.”
Following her debut in “Rigoletto,” Morrison will play Gerhhilde, one of the Valkyries, in the Lyric production of Wagner’s “Die Walkure,” opening Nov. 1. She also will understudy as the slave girl, Liu, an important secondary soprano role in Puccini’s “Turandot” (opening in December), and as the innocent Marguerite, the leading lady in Gounod’s “Faust” (opening in March 2018).
That is quite a slew of challenges for a first-year Ryan Opera Center member, but Morrison, who earned a bachelor’s degree from Oakwood University in Alabama, and a masters from the esteemed Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., is no beginner. And now, as part of the Ryan program, she receives regular vocal lessons and coaching, has master classes with renowned opera artists, takes classes in movement and acting, and works on her languages (she has studied Italian and German, and is working on her French by way of a Duolingo app). She also has exposure to master conductors and directors, and to the Lyric’s world-class orchestra and chorus.
“Whitney has a first-class soprano voice,” said Dan Novak, vice president and director of the Ryan Opera Center. “It is both beautiful and sizable, and it makes an impression from the moment she starts to sing. She’s a compelling performer with a wonderful stage presence that speaks to her integrity as an artist.”
Morrison was born in Chicago but raised in Matteson. She attended Rich South High School in south suburban Richton Park, where she performed in gospel choirs and other concerts, and where, at one point, she devised her own monologue for a Black History program in which she played Harriet Tubman and sang a spiritual.
As Morrison explained: “I had been exposed to music all along, with a mother who sang in the church choir, and a father who was an accomplished amateur musician who sang and played the electric bass, and had a gospel quartet, The Morrison Echoes, with his brothers. I sang in church from early on, and teachers still remember one of my kindergarten performances. But it was only in high school that I was told by one of my music teachers, Lana Manson, that I had ‘an opera voice’.” (Manson and her husband Michael have since co-founded Chicago’s Musical Arts Institute, where disadvantaged youth can receive high quality music education regardless of their ability to pay.)
“Lana built a choir program at Rich South and augmented our musical training with private and group lessons during lunch and after school, all on her own time,” said the singer. “She also taught us keyboard, theory and sight-singing. She put out the clarion call and I showed up almost every day. I had always wanted voice lessons, but I didn’t know I was learning opera, even though I’d seen opera on TV, and the year before I met her I’d seen ‘Carmen’ at Lyric with a school group.”
“What I’ve learned about acting is the importance of intention, to make it genuine, to always be mindful of what you are doing, and to communicate the thought in a way that carries from the stage,” said Morrison. “I spend a lot of time thinking about the theater of it all.”
And what about the terror of singing the very first note of any role on a vast opera stage?
Said Morrison: “Oh, the silence-to-sound thing, and what a miracle that is? The portal between your performance and your humanity that happens all at once? It can be surreal. But you’ve got to jump off that cliff; you’ve just got to be a very skilled skydiver.”
NOTE: The opening-night performance of “Rigoletto” can be heard live locally on 98.7-WFMT and globally on WFMT.com beginning at 7:15 p.m.