Opera Singer Kathryn Leemhuis ’05 Reflects on Her Oberlin Advantage

June 4, 2018

Conservatory Communications Staff

Kathryn Leemhuis.
Photo credit: courtesy Kathryn Leemhuis

Accomplished mezzo-soprano serves as guest faculty at Summer Vocal Academy, performs June 15.

Kathryn Leemhuis.Award-winning American mezzo-soprano Kathryn Leemhuis '05 returns to Oberlin this summer as a guest faculty member of the Vocal Academy for High School Students. Leemhuis is a former young artist with Lyric Opera of Chicago and Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, and a national semifinalist in the 2012 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. She’s sung all over the United States and beyond, most recently making company debuts with Dallas Opera, Annapolis Opera, and Cincinnati Opera. 

You can hear Leemhuis live in Oberlin Friday, June 15, at 7:30 p.m. in Kulas Recital Hall, where she will team up with Oberlin collaborative pianist Javier Gonzalez to present a recital of vocal works by Bach, Rossini, Berlioz, Brahms, Falla, and Copland.

Read on to hear what Leemhuis has to say about the role Oberlin played in her journey toward a professional career in opera…

How did Oberlin prepare you for making music in the world?

“It begins with the fact that the singers at Oberlin are primarily undergraduate vocal performance majors and the program centers around those singers. This means that the undergrads get the opportunities, and this is so important because you are not competing with graduate students. This matters when you audition for graduate schools and beyond, when those who look at your résumé see that you’ve had actual performance experience.

"Oberlin’s faculty consists of voice teachers, art song coaches, opera coaches, and an opera director, among others. This is unique because many other universities simply don’t have the same resources, nor at the same level. There are so many brilliant minds and exceptional talent from which to learn at Oberlin, and while many alumni will tell you that they’re the best…it’s just true.

"I strongly believe that my time and opportunity at Oberlin helped to build my foundation as an aspiring professional opera singer, and it was proven when I received multiple competitive offers for graduate school. This is frequently the case with Oberlin’s vocal performance majors. Without my education from Oberlin, I certainly don’t think my path would have been the same.”

Who did you study with in Oberlin? What was a great lesson you learned from your private teacher?

“I studied with Ms. [Lorraine] Manz for the four years I was at Oberlin pursuing my undergraduate degree. By the time I graduated high school, I was not very knowledgeable about the best pathway for classical singing, but I truly hit the jackpot. I requested Ms. Manz simply because she is a mezzo-soprano, but I quickly learned that that didn’t matter, because she’s brilliant with every voice type! She strengthened my technical foundation, enhanced it with her endless pedagogical knowledge and keen ear, encouraged the right choices at the right times, and was supportive during my time with her and after. I was never lost or confused in her care, and I always felt like my voice was in the best hands. There is no one “great” lesson from which to pick because she structured every aspect of my technique, my performing persona, my knowledge, my acting, and my musicality block by block. I am forever grateful to Ms. Manz.”

What were some of the highlights of your Oberlin experience? Opportunities you had on campus as an undergraduate?

“The Oberlin Conservatory is known as one of the best classical music programs in the world. Additionally, because of its history as a liberal arts college, the broader campus at Oberlin offers an exceptionally strong academic program. To benefit as much as I could, I applied my elective credits toward courses in the college that would only enhance my growth as a singer even more. For example, singers can take acting classes, additional language courses, and athletic classes, all of which only strengthen the growth of the young classical singing actor."

Socially, there aren’t many places like Oberlin: The students are unique, smart, friendly, and ambitious, and it’s easy to make lifelong friends. I enjoyed numerous get-togethers, parties, study sessions, and events with those people who helped shape me into who I am today. And many of us are still friends and colleagues…Oberlin vocal performance alumni are everywhere!”

What advice might you offer a young high school student heading into an undergraduate voice program?

“In my opinion, both as a professional performer and voice professor, there are three elements which should shape the decision you make when choosing the best undergraduate program. Who will my voice teacher be? How many performance opportunities could I potentially have there? What kind of scholarship money is possible for me? Do your research carefully on each of these questions, because the answers will most likely impact you well beyond your undergraduate degree. Once you’re in the program, soak up all the knowledge from your professors, be a generous colleague, be diligent about your practicing, learn foreign languages, better your acting side, and get tough. Because ultimately, you’re preparing for the tough competitive performing world: and a place like Oberlin will set you up for success.”

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