Rutgers student soprano ‘saves the day’ as last-minute replacement in Baltimore opera

Baltimore Concert Opera executive director Julia Cooke had a dilemma—several dilemmas, really: Violence had erupted throughout the city in the wake of the April 19, 2015, death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who had died in police custody. Cooke, concerned for the safety of her artists, was forced to cancel a crucial rehearsal of Léo Delibes’s opera Lakmé.

Three days before curtain, the city imposed a curfew, which meant the BCO’s Friday-night concert performance in the ballroom of a mansion just north of downtown might have to be scrapped.

Then Cooke’s Lakmé became ill. Soprano Sharon Cheng was forced to bow out.

Cooke needed a Lakmé—fast.

“We put out our ‘Bat Light,’ ” Cooke joked, referring to the signal that Commissioner Gordon shines to beckon Batman.  

The BCO’s Bat Light—along with access to YouTube and a wide network of artists—led the staff to 23-year-old Rutgers student Kaitlyn Davis. As luck would have it, Davis says, in January, BCO conductor Anthony Barrese’s agent caught the Mason Gross School’s production of Lakmé, featuring Davis in the title role. With that tip, Cooke says, the staff reviewed a YouTube video of the performance and listened to audio on the cell phone of artistic and founding director Brendan Cooke. They were sold.

But Davis, who graduated from Rutgers on May 15 with a master’s of music degree, had her own problems: Her mother was scheduled to undergo surgery for thyroid cancer in New York City on the very day the BCO wanted her in Baltimore for a rehearsal.

Davis knew the last-minute opportunity might very well launch her opera career, or at least give her a leg up after graduation. Still, she was reluctant to leave her mother’s side.

“I had to check with my family,” Davis said. “My mom said, ‘This is definitely something you need to do.’ ” Davis arrived home from the hospital around midnight on Thursday, headed to Baltimore early in the morning, and met the Lakmé cast at the 6 p.m. dress rehearsal. Just over 24 hours later, on Friday, May 1, the soprano was onstage in that Baltimore ballroom, performing a role that she describes as a “stamina challenge. I have to rely on every ounce of technique not to burn out by the end.” She performed the role on Sunday, May 3, as well.

Rutgers vocal coach Pam Gilmore, also coordinator of the opera program and producer of the Rutgers production of Lakmé, described the lead, with its four arias and five duets, as “a hair-raisingly difficult coloratura role to sing...She is literally on stage for almost all of the opera. It is so demanding that the opera is infrequently performed, and it is a dramatic tour-de-force to boot!”

Fortunately, Davis said, the role “was still in my brain and body. I had prepped so much [for the New Brunswick production]. The harder a role is to prep, the more it sticks with you.” However, she adds, as a young artist, “I definitely felt the pressure working with more-established singers.”

She shouldn’t have worried.

“Kaitlyn Davis was well-suited to the title role, bright of voice and effortlessly navigating the broad vocal range required. The high notes in the famous ‘Bell Song’ were hit perfectly and naturally, with no evidence of strain,” critic Phillip Nones wrote on bachtrack.com.

“Even more impressive,” he continued, “considering the lack of rehearsal time, were the near-flawless blending of voices Davis achieved with mezzo-soprano Madelyn Wanner as Mallika in the Act I ‘Flower Duet’ and with tenor Ryan MacPherson as Gérard in the three arias he shared with Lakmé.”

Eduardo Chama, Davis’s voice teacher at Rutgers, said: “The stage loves her… Jumping into [a role at the last minute] is never easy, but this is how the life of an artist is. It’s almost like a sport: You need to keep in shape and ready. It’s match point—what are you going to do, win or lose? I think her positive attitude and energy in general help.”

Julia Cooke praises the young vocalist for being “an absolute pro. She handled it really professionally, and for such a young person to come in and not just sing well but come into the fabric of our artistic community—she saved the day. We’ll be forever grateful to her.”

Posted May 2015