The Soprano

Local opera singer Kara Shay Thomson makes a few debuts at May Festival

May 10, 2010 at 2:06 pm

When locally based soprano Kara Shay Thomson takes the stage during this year’s May Festival, she’ll be notching a number of significant firsts. Most importantly, she'll be making her May Festival debut, which will also mark her first opportunity to work with Maestro James Conlon, now in his 31st year as music director of the country's longest running choral festival.

Additionally, Thomson will be singing in front of her Cincinnati friends and family for the first time, in a role she's never sung (Zamfira in Aleko) and in Russian, a language she's had to learn specifically for this appearance.

“And it’s the first time in my whole career that I’ll sing a show and sleep in my own bed,” she says with an almost musical laugh at the Panera in Harper’s Point. “Not sleeping in a hotel, not sleeping in someone’s house. That part was very attractive. Also it’s a week’s worth of work as opposed to a month or six weeks.”

Thomson has built an impressive opera résumé over the past decade, the last seven years in the Cincinnati area after her husband’s work transfer. In one sense, it was a homecoming for Thomson.

“I was actually born here at Christ Hospital, but I’m adopted,” she says. “My birth mother was from here. The family said they wanted me to go to a religious family. My (adopted) dad was at a church in Owensboro, Ky., and they’d already adopted my brother, so they called my parents and said, ‘Can you take a girl?’ It was a fast adoption, not one that had been planned. That was the last time I was in Cincinnati.”

After her adoption, Thomson’s preacher father moved the family frequently before settling in Missouri. Thomson was musical from the start; she sang her first solo at age 2 and continued to sing in her father’s church choir throughout childhood. In high school, she took voice lessons and entered school-sanctioned singing competitions, going on to a private Christian college in Oklahoma where she planned to specialize in a highly focused musical direction.

“I was going to do music therapy,” Thomson says. “I decided that wasn’t cut out for me at that point in my life. Not my shining glory years.”

A transfer to Northwest Missouri State led Thomson to her K-12 music education degree and thoughts of teaching. She continued to travel and perform in show choirs while accruing her student teaching requirements, which resulted in another revelation.

“I called my parents and said, ‘I hate it,’ ” Thomson says. “They were like, ‘OK, great, you’re in year five. What are we going to do now?’ So I ended up working as a bartender.”

Eventually, Thomson missed music and relocated to Virginia to manage her father’s youth and music programs; it was there she met her husband-to-be. It seemed as though her path was clearly set.

“I was either going to be in church music or in school,” Thomson says. “I’d never been to an opera. I didn’t listen as a kid. I didn’t even know The Magic Flute.”

Life took an unexpected turn when Thomson took lessons from former New York City Opera singer Carol Gutknecht, who was then teaching at Randolph-Macon Women’s College. Gutknecht broached the subject of opera to Thomson, who immediately discounted the idea.

“I wanted to win the (Christian music) Dove Award, I had recently gotten married and I thought, ‘We’ll have kids and stay here in southern Virginia and make a home and a life,’ ” Thomson says. “I had other aspirations. That changed completely. She hooked me into it. I fell in love with the idea of costumes and wigs and make-up and the show part of it, but once I got involved with the music I was hooked by the story.”

With her passion for opera just beginning to blossom, Thomson headed to Boston, where she entered the two-year graduate program at the New England Conservatory, followed by the grueling work of summer programs and apprenticeships. Thomson’s interest in opera was so fresh, in fact, that the first opera she saw was the first opera she was in at the NEC.

“It was trial by fire,” she says with a laugh. “I’d never done it and I’d never been. I’d watched videos, but it was a passive way to experience it. I’d never followed a conducting stick while I was acting. I’d done a couple of concerts, so I’d followed a conductor with an orchestra but standing still, not doing any running around or dying or killing and all that great stuff.”

Thomson was understudying a role at City Opera and was recommended to Conlon, who auditioned her last November and offered her the Aleko role, which she eagerly accepted.

“The crazy thing for me about it was I sang for the role in New York I flew to L.A. to work with the Russian coach at L.A. Opera, and then I came back here to sing the role,” Thomson says. “And I’m so excited to sing in Music Hall because I’ve been to see shows and it’s gorgeous. And I’ve got all these friends who’ve never really heard me sing — the neighbor who watches the cat while you’re away, the neighbor who takes your kid while you’re away, all the people who make it possible to do what I do — so it’s just nice.”

At the heart of all of Thomson’s hard work and family sacrifice is her desire to do great work.

“How can you make it your own?” she asks rhetorically. “That’s the thing with opera. It’s been done for so long, I want to make sure that my performance is the one where people say, ‘I liked Kara Shay Thomson’s performance. I really like what she did.’ ”

And Thomson isn't the only family member with a big debut looming: her 6-year-old daughter, who’s been on the road for a good deal of her young life, makes her debut this August in the kid’s chorus of La Boheme at Opera North in New Hampshire.

“She’s so excited,” Thomson says. “She said, ‘Do I get my own costume?’ I said, ‘Yes, but you don’t get your own dressing room like Mommy.’ She was like, ‘What?’ So now we’re going to have two divas in the house.”

MAY FESTIVAL begins Friday at Music Hall and continues this and next weekend. Kara Shay Thomson makes her May Festival debut on May 22. For the full schedule and ticket info, go to