Last spring, two Northwestern theater students shared a stage in downtown Chicago with Steven Pasquale, one of Broadway’s biggest stars. They owe this experience to Northwestern’s long-standing relationship with the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
In addition to the numerous performance opportunities available to vocalists on campus, Northwestern’s proximity to Chicago provides extra options for undergraduate musicians. For years, singers in both the Bienen School of Music and the School of Communication have taken on professional opera jobs while simultaneously performing in Evanston and maintaining a full course load. These students often find their first jobs at the Lyric.
As Bienen senior Caitlin Finnie finishes up her degree in vocal performance, she’s also singing in the Lyric’s production of The King and I. The show opened April 29 and ran until May 22. While Finnie says balancing performance at the Lyric with her schoolwork is immensely difficult, the job has helped reaffirm her conviction that she has chosen the right career path.
“I’ve always been the type of person who likes to sing to herself,” Finnie says. “I just can’t imagine doing anything else.”
Finnie’s experience at the National High School Institute, a Northwestern summer program she attended at age 15, solidified her passion for performance. Now 21, Finnie has been involved in countless student productions on campus, including Little Women and Ruddigore. Frequent trips to the Lyric with student-priced tickets introduced Finnie to the professional opera community in Chicago and encouraged her to audition for The King and I.
After an initial audition and a successful callback, Finnie accepted a role in the ensemble. She entered the professional world of opera, where she found a different sort of performance experience than Northwestern offers.
“The house is incredible and the costumes are so lavish,” Finnie says. “Just being on that stage is a dream.”
Finnie isn’t the only Northwestern student who has pursued professional opportunities downtown. Alyssa Sarnoff, Communication senior, has performed in two Lyric Opera shows, CAROUSEL and The Merry Widow, during her NU career. While there are many student theater performances on campus, a desire for deeper involvement draws students downtown.
While Sarnoff has valued all of her theater experiences on campus, she notes that at the professional level, “there is a different caliber of respect between cast and crew,” she says. “At the Lyric, everything runs seamlessly. There are so many more resources.”
After attending a discussion with CAROUSEL Director Rob Ashford, Sarnoff decided to audition for a role in the show. This began a series of negotiations with NU professors in the hopes of balancing her chaotic schedule.
While she says many of her theater professors acknowledged the difficulty of her situation, given their firm belief that “experience is excused,” economics professors proved to be less understanding. It took some rearranging and deliberating, but Sarnoff was able to create a schedule that could keep her enrolled as a full-time student while she worked professional hours.
Closer to the show, rehearsals can go as long as nine hours, six days a week, putting extreme physical strain on performers’ bodies. Sarnoff says she basically could not attend class for the two weeks prior to opening night because of the long hours and the need to prioritize sleep for her health’s sake.
Finnie ran into similar scheduling conflicts with The King and I, for which four hours of rehearsal was considered a “light day.”
“You know your role, you know how much you can take,” Finnie says. “We are encouraged to mark often, continually hydrate and get as much sleep as we can… as difficult as that is.”
Communication junior Rosie Jo Neddy, who performed in CAROUSEL as an ensemble member, also had to tackle the difficulties of creating a flexible schedule.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Neddy says. “Spring break [rehearsal] week was thrilling. My only job was to take care of myself so I could be at my best for the hours when I was at work. I fell in love with the lifestyle. Then classes started.”
Apart from the time crunch, all three women agreed that working at the Lyric was one of the most fulfilling experiences they’ve had.
“I learned more in three weeks of CAROUSEL than I have in any class,” Sarnoff says. “It snaps you into this professional reality.”