As MOT salutes Karen VanderKloot DiChiera on her 80th birthday, we recognize the thousands of people whose lives have been impacted by her work- including those who have offered their own stories!
Acclaimed Tenor / Former Student
Being Karen VanderKloot DiChiera
By Judith Ellis, Vocalist and Former Student
Judith Ellis with a fellow musician performing at the Cadillac Café at the Detroit Opera House
We had been preparing for weeks for the arrival of Karen VanderKloot DiChiera of the Michigan Opera Theater to come to Ludington Middle School to produce an operetta she had written, "Look to the Land." I was 12 and I was preparing "Amazing Grace." I didn't know any operatic pieces. I knew what opera was, as my grandmother had an extraordinary soprano and my father was a classically trained pianist and organist, but opera was not in my repertoire.
On the big day I walked out center stage. "What have you prepared for us?" Karen asked. She and Joan Hill, the lyricist, were conducting the audition. They sat in the middle of the auditorium which seemed huge to me. "Amazing Grace," I said. "Great. You can begin when you're ready," said Karen. As I was singing, she and Joan were talking. What are they talking about, I wondered, almost losing my concentration. "That was really great," said Karen, walking up to the stage and replacing the pianist. "Can you sing 'Happy Birthday to You?'" "Yes," I said puzzled, thinking that was a silly request.
I sang this silly song, not once but three times. Being rather vocal, I told her that I thought it was a ridiculous request, and to sing it not only once but three times was just plain silly. I was upset, especially since my voice cracked on the high note the third time around. I was so embarrassed and ran off the stage. She followed me, gently taking my hand and bringing me back center stage.
"Did you know that you have a 3-octave range?" she asked. "No, what's that?" I asked. "You sang a high C," she said. "Not many singers can sing that note so effortlessly." "I cracked," I said. "Yes, but that was on a high E" she said. "Three notes higher." It was all Swahili to me. She walked to the piano and began playing "'Do a Deer." "I know that song," I said. "Yes, it's from the Sound of Music." she said. "Yes!" I said. It was a favorite. "Sing it along with me," she said.
We sang the song three different times and she explained to me that each letter of the song represented a note which added up to a scale. I understood that and could sing that scale three times from top to bottom in different ranges, as she said "rather effortlessly."
"Okay," I said. "But what does that mean?" "It means that you have a very wide range and not many people have that," she said. "Oh, I guess that's good?" I asked. "That's great!" she said. "Can you stay after school and meet me in the principal’s office?" Suddenly, I felt as if I was in trouble; going to the principal’s office was never a good thing. "I would rather not," I said. "Oh, it's a very good thing," she said. "I'm going to call your mother and tell her what a great gift you have."
Karen wrote a song for me and included it in the operetta. I was the only kid to have a song which had three verses that was adapted to my natural way of singing. It had cadenzas, somewhat in the style of the black church, with a flavor of the Spanish style of the operetta she had written for us. The song was called, "Gather 'Round Me Noble Rancheros." I could sing all verses today. I have never forgotten the melody or words.
Throughout my entire life Karen has supported my mother and my talent. She employed me since the very day we met, helping to arrange her music scores and correspondence, and hired me to sing at their Christmas parties at their gorgeous home in Bloomfield Hills. She got sponsors to pay for my piano lessons and saw to it that I had lunch and bus fare to get back and forth to when I entered high school. The school was nowhere near my house and it took me three buses to get there. She had called the School Center Building and spoke to the music director of the Detroit Public Schools to make sure that I had everything that I needed.
We didn't have a car when I was in high school and Karen let me use her spare car whenever I wanted or needed it. It was like my car. She also paid for anything that I needed that my mother could not afford. She was raising 12 children alone. She never asked what I needed, but just saw to it that I had what I needed. When I entered college she helped to pay for my first trip to Europe where I spent the summer backpacking with a friend. For the trip, took me to London Luggage and bought me a beautiful set of luggage with my initials. I still have pieces of that luggage set. It was good stuff. She taught me about architecture, driving me often through my neighborhood that looked nothing like hers, pointing out the beauty of the architecture, causing me to appreciate my environment. I just felt good about that. At the time, I didn't know why. She was teaching me to love myself.
Karen was at the opening of my jazz series at the Detroit Opera House in 2012. As I was singing, I saw her beaming with pride. It made me feel so good. Afterwards, I asked her how I did. She has always been one of my biggest supporters and she has always been very honest. She has a discerning ear. She did not answer right away, but tears filled her eyes. She then said, "You were brilliant. I love you, Judith." We embraced and she introduced me to the kid sitting with her. He's in middle school and she had told him all about me. "Now, when time allows," she said. "I want to tell you about him."
The kid smiled. I smiled. Karen smiled.
It was a beautiful evening.
In honor of Karen V. DiChiera’s Birthday, please consider making a generous donation to the MOT Education Programs. https://cart.michiganopera.org/donate/q/86
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As MOT salutes Karen VanderKloot DiChiera on her 80th birthday, we recognize the thousands of people whose lives have been impacted by her work- in...