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Alumni Spotlight: Kaarin Phelps

A Q&A with Kathrine G. McGovern College of the Arts, Moores School of Music Alum and Opera in the Heights in Houston Emerging Artist, Kaarin Phelps.

Q: What was the year and degree you received from The University of Houston’s College of the Arts?

A: M. M. Vocal Performance 2019

Q: Where has your [arts] career taken you since graduation?

A: The fall after graduation, I auditioned for and set my sights on moving to Europe before the end of 2020. I had auditioned for a few Opera Studios in Germany and France and hoped that I could move abroad even if I wasn't successful in any of these auditions. Although coronavirus has thrown a wrench in that timeline, I still plan to keep auditioning and eventually land in Germany, France or Spain within the next two years. For the 20/21 season, I was lucky enough to become a Resident Artist with Opera in the Heights in Houston, a company I admire and first performed with in March of 2020. After my debut with Opera in the Heights, I knew I had cultivated a great relationship and I was honored when they asked me to come back and perform in their next season's productions. I've also performed throughout Houston with organizations such as Operativo, Houston Masterworks Chorus and Opera Outdoors and maintained a church position as a cantor (until COVID) since graduating.

Q: Is there one thing that has surprised you about a career in the arts that you didn’t expect?

A: Ah! What a question. Everything is unexpected. I know this sounds like cop-out answer, but it's the truth and the nature of being a young artist. Every turn has surprised me in a different way- sometimes that surprise is joyful, sometimes disappointing. I am constantly discovering myself and who I really am as an artist and as that is happening, places hiring me seem to be discovering the same things. Sometimes, I am surprised by a compliment or comment I receive from an audience or coach and I think to myself, "Oh, I had no idea that is what made my performance special, but sounds good!" and then I add that to my arsenal of known strengths.

Q: What accomplishments in your career do you feel most proud of?

A: I am very proud of performances I've done in the past, however, I think my largest pride is in my determinedness to keep going. This career is hard. I recently lost my father and that was a super dark time for me. I had a few months without singing and I'll admit that I wondered if I could come back afterwards. But, those moments were fleeting. I know myself, and at this point along the journey, I'm in it until I make it. My main goal isn't to be the next Pavarotti or Netrebko, but I know I can make a good living as a singer and eventually take on all my dream roles. What's most important for me, is to allow it all to roll out moment by moment. Great success does not happen overnight.

Q: Are there specific skills or things you learned at the McGovern College of the Arts that you find valuable in your career now? What are they?

A: Yes! I will go to my grave saying that University of Houston made me the professional singing actress I am today. I performed so much- sometimes too much- during grad school. I was in six operas, sang with the band, competed in, won, and performed for the concerto competition, presented a master's recital and I'm sure I'm forgetting more. I was constantly studying and practicing during my degree and this is absolutely one of the reasons I am able to systematically and successfully study a complete role in great detail before I enter my first coaching on the piece. It's also the reason I know how to rush learn something with a deadline accurately, without crashing and burning. Perhaps the most beneficial experience at UH, was performing in the Moores Opera House. I learned the ins and outs of preparing myself physically and mentally on a showday, that I need to do a plank right before entering before "the big aria," and how much it helps to have coconut water and a snack in each wing. Some of these things seem silly, but they are absolutely included in the ingredients of what makes a singer successful on the stage. Of course, there are other things you can only get better at with practice, like following the maestro without staring him square in the eye, how to find your light, and how to pace yourself through a large role. I have taken all of these invaluable skills into my career. 

Q: Has there been any press coverage that you would like to share? If so, list links in your answer with any helpful descriptions.

A: Reviews in the Wall Street Journal, Operawire, and Houston Press for The Decameron Opera Coalition, which I performed in. This is a digital series that Opera in the Heights took part in, along with 8 other U.S. Opera companies. I performed in the frame story and starred in the chapter called, "Seven Spells," by Donia Jarrar. 507182 AR1ZZIxCDO_d4ssMEqQcuEOzQhuM2JQhny7gFbZvoPMh7BsDIzxLVlWdkx4

Q: What is coming up for you in the future that we should watch for?

A: My debut as Cherubino in Le Nozze di Figaro with Opera in the Heights and Alisa in Lucia di Lammermoor with Opera in the Heights. I'm also planning a recital in the spring with my dear friend, Laura Bleakley (currently completing her Doctorate at UH in collaborative piano).

Q: What advice would you have for incoming students who are focusing on a career in the arts?

A: Once you've identified something special about what you have to offer with your art, hold onto it with all you've got. There have been many times throughout my education and career when I have lost grasp of these special qualities. Each time this happens, I am led astray for a short while, until I circle back the truth of my own expression. Learning the technical aspects of your art is extremely important, but your uniqueness is invaluable. It cannot be taught. There will be times when you want to be someone else, have something else, look like, sound like, and create something else. You must at that point ground yourself, and look inward.

“The Moores School of Music at the Kathrine G. McGovern College of the Arts provided me with the experience I needed to become a young professional. Grad school was a pivotal moment in my life. It broke down the barriers of doubt inside of me and replaced them with confidence, technical know-how, and the tools to maintain a successful career in the performing arts”