Opera isn’t the genre of choice for most Belleville East students. You won’t find “Madame Butterfly” or “The Barber of Seville” on their MP3 players.
But the school’s Concert Choir includes two opera singers this year.
Senior Michael Hawkins, 19, of Fairview Heights, has been training through Opera Theatre of St. Louis for more than a year. He’s a tenor who also enjoys gospel, R&B, soul and other music.
“He can sing opera and then turn around 30 seconds later and sing the most amazing Motown ever,” said Kim Stamps, Belleville East director of choral activities and voice.
Michael has been something of a mentor to sophomore Rayna Campbell, 15, of Belleville, a soprano who recently was accepted into Opera Theatre’s training program.
She also participated in a master class at McKendree University with world-renowned soprano Christine Brewer.
“She was the only high school student invited,” Kim said. “I know she had to go through quite a process to get the opportunity.”
Michael and Rayna have entered the Fox Performing Arts Charitable Foundation’s Fifth Annual St. Louis Teen Talent Competition, along with 148 other acts who will go through elimination rounds in the coming weeks. They’re two of only three contestants who identified themselves as “opera singers.”
“I love telling people I sing opera,” Michael said. “I’m an African American, and it’s very rare for African Americans to be part of opera.”
Michael knows blacks (from Marian Anderson to Lawrence Brownlee) have made their mark on opera, but he’s not acquainted with any who are interested in it.
Michael sings in English and Italian. Rayna sings in those languages plus French and a little German.
“With pop music, it’s all about the lyrics,” Rayna said. “With opera, it’s not as much about the lyrics as the emotion. You add more facial expressions and more movement.”
Michael started as a dancer in preschool, mainly ballet and hip-hop.
His focus changed at 13, when he performed in a variety show at Power of Change Christian Church in Cahokia. He sang “Encourage Yourself” by Donald Lawrence.
“I really loved doing it,” he said. “I loved the way it made me feel, and I loved the way it made other people feel.
“It was my ‘Aha!’ moment. You get to this point where you think, ‘This is what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m not supposed to be dancing. I’m supposed to be singing.’”
Michael became a worship leader at church and, after moving to Fairview Heights, joined the choir at Belleville East.
“I like all kinds of music,” he said. “But classical music was not on my radar. I never wanted to sing it. It just wasn’t me.”
A friend persuaded him to audition for Opera Theatre’s Artists in Training Program in 2013. He got picked as an alternate and moved up when someone else dropped out. Since then, Michael has been taking lessons every Tuesday with Marc Schapman, an Opera Theatre voice teacher and associate professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.
“Michael’s come a long way in a short amount of time,” Marc said. “He’s been able to find his real voice. He’s a really strong tenor, and he’s got a flair for the dramatic, a very colorful personality.”
Michael performs in Opera Theatre recitals and competitions. He also sings with the Belleville East Elite Vocal Jazz Ensemble and is active in theater.
Marc has been working with Rayna only a few months. He likes to get students her age because they’re still young, impressionable and able to spend time developing their skills.
“She seems really at home singing classical music,” he said. “She has this rich color to her voice that is suited for it.”
Process of elimination
Rayna grew up listening to Mozart, Beethoven and other classical music in the car with her mother, Miaki Campbell, a former pianist and ballet dancer, whose late husband, Ronald, was a jazz singer.
Rayna started piano lessons at 8. She later enrolled in a Masterworks Chorale summer camp and performed with its Children’s Choruses for three years.
Rayna joined the Belleville East choir as a freshman.
“For the first two weeks, I was absolutely horrified,” she said. “I didn’t know many people, and everyone was older than me. All of them were extremely talented, and I didn’t know how I could compare to them.”
Rayna eventually found her niche. Today, she sings with the school’s Upper Mixed Choir in addition to Concert Choir and is active in theater.
Rayna decided to try opera after a process of elimination.
“I know that my voice isn’t right for jazz,” she said. “I know that it isn’t right for pop. It’s not right for country. I’ve tried, and my voice will be hurting for days afterward. I wasn’t born to sing Beyonce or Taylor Swift. I feel like classical music is more of my calling.”
Rayna recently started training with Marc at SIUE. Both she and Michael plan to major in vocal performance in college.
Michael can’t see himself pursuing a career in opera, but he sticks with it because he thinks the training and experience is making him a better all-around singer.
“Opera is great,” he said. “It’s lovely. I love what I do with it, and I love what it does to me. But I’m too creative. I’m not saying opera isn’t creative, but I just don’t think it’s for me.
“I want to record music in studios. I want to perform on TV shows. I want to win Grammys.”
Both Michael and Rayna are cast in “Memphis,” the spring theater production at Belleville East.
On Feb. 28, Rayna will rejoin the Masterworks Children’s Choruses for their performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “H.M.S. Pinafore” at Hettenhausen Center for the Arts at McKendree. She’ll play the role of Little Buttercup.
“(Michael and Rayna) are going to go very far,” Kim said. “There is no doubt in my mind.”