Eyeing Her Finnish Line

May 22, 2020

Erich Burnett

singer performing onstage
Photo credit: Scott Shaw

Soprano Maggie Kinabrew ’20 bolsters ties to her ancestral music through a Fulbright opportunity in Helsinki.

Holiday traditions, unusual names, and passed-down recipes provide the strongest points of connection to Maggie Kinabrew’s Finnish heritage. The senior soprano hopes a Fulbright award to study opera in the Scandinavian nation will shore up ties to her maternal homeland.

Raised in a family fascinated by genealogical research, Kinabrew has come to learn a great deal about most corners of her personal history. It is the Finnish side, traceable four generations back to farming settlers in Washington state, about which she knows the least.

“These people, and the place they come from, have always been a point of interest for me,” says Kinabrew, who was raised in West Hartford, Connecticut, and now lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. “Occasionally, my grandmother speaks of the distant relatives we still have there, with whom she writes letters. My mother, when prompted, recounts the story of how she gave me a Finnish middle name to avoid the difficulties she’s had with her first name—Aliina. And whenever we sit down to a meal of Finnish pancake or celebrate the eight days of extra stocking stuffers we call Finnish Christmas, I find myself wanting to know more, to explore the country and culture of this family I don’t know.”

For Kinabrew—her middle name is Maija—the Fulbright honor supports participation in a graduate-level opera program at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, named for the solitary Finnish composer she knew as a young singer.

“I had been interested in traveling to Finland to pursue the country's art song repertoire since my sophomore year, when I discovered the songs of Jean Sibelius,” says Kinabrew. “I was astounded that the songs of this famous composer, whose prolific output numbered in the hundreds, were rarely if ever performed in the United States. When my voice teacher, Salvatore Champagne, suggested that I would be a good candidate for the Fulbright grant, I realized that this project would be a wonderful utilization of a Fulbright year.”

Kinabrew intends to study Finnish song and opera repertoire, comparing it to that of American composers of the same era. Ultimately, she hopes her research will culminate in a series of recitals that showcase Finnish music for audiences in Helsinki and the U.S. She also looks forward to immersing herself in Finnish culture—including opportunities to dance, which she has studied in various forms since age 6.

Kinabrew is one of five conservatory students named Fulbright Finalists for 2020-21—more than any other year in Oberlin history. She is the only one among them who, in light of uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic, has elected to decline her award. Instead, she will begin a graduate assistantship with Carol Vaness at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music this fall. She hopes to successfully reapply and complete her Fulbright studies after earning her master’s degree.

"I had a hunch Maggie would be the perfect Fulbright candidate: a wonderfully talented singer with a strong academic background," says her teacher, Robert W. Wheeler Professor of Voice Salvatore Champagne. "Maggie was thrilled to have received an award to study in Finland, but given the circumstances this year, it makes perfect sense for her to pursue her studies at Indiana. Two wonderful opportunities immediately upon graduating from Oberlin—one can hardly wish for more. Brava, Maggie!"

A double-degree student in vocal performance and math, Kinabrew was a regular onstage in Oberlin Opera Theater productions, appearing as Tytania in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Cunegonde in a Bernstein revue, and as Taller Daughter in Missy Mazzoli’s Proving Up. In February of this year, she sang Strauss lieder as part of Oberlin’s Danenberg Honors Recital (pictured). Away from campus, she took part in the Oberlin in Italy summer festival and the Miami Music Festival, in which she sang the title role in Handel’s Teseo.

She also relished other creative outlets at Oberlin, taking part in a tap ensemble and earning the informal title “Tasty Things Maker” (as well as treasurer) at the Pyle Inn co-op, where she regularly baked for more than 100 fellow students.

“Oberlin has been such an amazing place for me to be for the past four years!” Kinabrew beams. “I am so grateful for my professors, both in the conservatory and the college, whose dedication to their craft and enthusiasm for teaching have inspired me in innumerable ways. I have always been a person who enjoyed school, but being at Oberlin showed me the power of devoting my energy to things outside of just classes, and I feel far more confident in my individual ability to achieve a project like this one with the skills I have learned here.”

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