TAHLEQUAH – Relatively new to opera drama, Leah Armstrong is studying art with other members of the Tulsa Youth Opera this season.
Armstrong, a 14-year-old Cherokee Nation citizen of Tahlequah, was accepted into youth opera in August after performing for music director Aaron Beck. She sang an Italian tune, “Lasciatemi morire” by Claudio Monteverdi, and “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again” by Andrew Lloyd Webber.
“I had trained hard and knew my audition piece well,” Armstrong said. “I was still nervous, but Maestro Beck was sympathetic and made the hearing easy.”
Armstrong has been homeschooled his entire life. But while music has always held her interest, eighth grade has only recently started taking formal singing lessons under the tutelage of famous mezzo-soprano singer Cherokee Barbara McAlister.
“I was nervous, but she was really nice and had me do some vocal exercises to check my range,” she said of her audition with McAlister. “She made me try out a few Broadway songs, and at the end of it she said I could be her student if I wanted to. I was so happy that I cried on the way home.
The teenager had never seen an opera until the pandemic, when she started watching them on streaming service Met Opera on Demand. For two weeks, she enjoyed “La Traviata”, “La Bohème” and the four nights of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle, an epic lasting almost 17 hours.
“I have loved music as far back as I can remember,” Armstrong said. “After playing many operas and seeing these mind-blowing, huge shows, I thought participating in a production like this would be one of the most amazing experiences of my life, and I knew it was something I wanted to do. “
Already, Armstrong has participated in a youth opera performance of the National Anthem during the opening performance of “Gianni Schicchi” Tulsa Opera at ONEOK Field.
“Singing before the show was really fun,” she said, “not only because we trained hard and sounded great together, but because it seemed like the people in the audience were really enjoying themselves. too.”
The Tulsa Youth Opera is a tuition-free training program for singers in grades 3 through 12.
“Tulsa Youth Opera offers weekly training by music professionals, which includes vocal technique, foreign languages, acting, movement and performance skills,” its website says.
Students are not required to have prior vocal training, but rather a “potential”.
“Sir. James Morris, a famous opera singer who played Wotan in Wagner’s ‘Ring’ cycle, responded to a letter I sent him and encouraged me to study opera,” Armstrong said. “I took his advice seriously. I really love and respect my instructors, and I hope to learn as much as possible from them.”
As a student of opera for young people, Armstrong will perform in Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors” in January and “The Second Hurricane” in June. Selected students will also perform in the main stage production of the Tulsa opera, “Emmeline” in February.
“We also do a few performances in the community,” said Armstrong, whose great-grandfather was a Cherokee fiddler. “Being Cherokee, for me, means being connected to my ancestors and to my community. I feel lucky to be able to learn from Barbara McAlister, a famous star of the Cherokee opera, and to help carry on this tradition. “
Armstrong is also taking piano lessons through Northeastern State University’s Community Music Program under the direction of Megan Jacobs, another Cherokee singer who also participated in the Tulsa Youth Opera and studied under McAlister.
“I want to go to college,” Armstrong said. “I think I want to study music and theater, but I have a lot of interests, so I can study other things as well.”