His first role was as a tree. Now he’s one of the stars of the show.

Michael Hawkins, of Belleville, recently switched his major to musical theater, but he doesn’t regret one minute of opera singing.

The Southern Illinois University Edwardsville student had a blast training, performing and traveling with Opera Theatre of St. Louis for two years.

“They opened a whole new world for me,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about opera, and I wanted to explore it and see where it would take me.”

Hawkins, 20, a sophomore, was sitting in a hallway outside Dunham Hall, where he was practicing for an SIUE production of the musical “Songs for a New World.”

The director was associate music professor Mark Schapman, who coincidentally served as his vocal coach with the Opera Theatre Artists in Training Program.

“This show requires four really, really talented singers, especially the guys,” Schapman said. “There are distinct vocal challenges, both in range and improvisation.”

Hawkins fit the bill. Students and faculty attest to his tremendous growth since 2013, when he played a tree in the SIUE Summer Showbiz production of “Oz.

Hawkins recently tied for first place at a regional competition of the National Association of Teachers of Singing at the University of Iowa. His class included 20 freshman and sophomore males in musical theater.

Also this year, Hawkins sang in the chorus for “Tosca” as part of a college-enrichment program of Union Avenue Opera in St. Louis.

“Michael is a very good student,” Schapman said. “He’s very caring and appreciative, and he’s a good colleague to his peers. He promotes community, and that will serve him well in life.”

Hawkins is the son of Patricia Hawkins and Michael Hawkins Sr. He’s part of a blended family of eight, including five sisters and stepsisters.

His mother was a big influence, serving as a music director and singing in the choir at Power of Change Christian Church in Cahokia.

“I knew Michael loved music, but I didn’t know he could sing until he was 12 or 13, when he entered a talent show at church,” said Patricia, a tax reporting specialist.

Michael later joined concert choir at Belleville East. He also played Gator in “Memphis,” Underling in “The Drowsy Chaperone” and Sebastian in “The Little Mermaid.”

“Memphis” is his favorite musical. He loves the scene where Gator, a man who hasn’t spoken since seeing his father lynched as a boy, belts out a song called “Say a Prayer” about racial harmony.

“I love what (music) does for people,” Hawkins said. “It brings them together. It makes them happy.”

Michael graduated from Belleville East in 2015. One of his high school highlights was an Opera Theatre trip to see “Porgy and Bess” at Lyric Opera of Chicago. He got to go backstage and meet the cast and crew.

During his first year at SIUE, Hawkins landed the prominent role of Seaweed J. Stubbs in the musical “Hairspray.” Like Gator, Seaweed encourages people to get along.

Beyond music, Hawkins loves shopping and fashion. He works as a cashier at the Belleville Target but hopes to perform on Broadway someday.

“I think he’s amazing,” his mother said. “I’m so proud of him. He loves to sing. He works really hard. He’s really disciplined.”

Teri Maddox: 618-239-2473, @BNDwriter

Michael’s favorites

  • Music: Gospel, jazz, neo soul and R&B
  • Song: “I Gotta Find Peace of Mind” by Lauryn Hill
  • Musical: “Memphis”
  • Artists: Chrisette Michele and Mali Music
  • TV show: “How to Get Away with Murder”
  • Movies: “Color Purple” and “Salt”
  • Book: “The Shack” by William P. Young
  • Restaurant: The Kitchen Sink
  • Subject: Sociology
  • Hobby: Writing songs
  • Food: Pasta
  • Color: Gray