Scaling the Ivory Tower
By Amanda Hamilton ’14 | Originally published in Summer 2015 Millikin Quarterly
When Catie Huggins ’04 of Chicago originally came to Millikin, her interest was in musical theatre, but it wasn’t long before she discovered opera.
In MU’s opera program, Huggins found a home for her mezzo-soprano voice. “Doing musicals in high school, I struggled with the fact that it wasn’t the style my voice could easily do.” But when she began singing opera, she realized, “That’s my voice. That’s where I belong.” She laughs that, in this setting, she finally wasn’t cautioned against singing too loud.
She loved how language, history, culture, acting and music all converged in opera. In-depth opera workshops at Millikin prepared her for graduate school at Chicago’s Roosevelt University: “Those fresh out of undergrad had strange gaps in their knowledge,” she says, noting that the Roosevelt faculty were amazed at the number of songs and composers she knew.
In 2007, Huggins joined Vox 3, a group of students from Roosevelt University looking for opportunities to create and perform. A nonprofit volunteer organization, Vox 3 now regularly receives grants and critical notice.
Huggins describes the group’s performances as “very eclectic.” They performed their first cabaret of the season featuring songs from cartoons alongside classical selections. On the other hand, they collaborated with the Kenosha Symphony Orchestra for a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. “We’re all over the map,” she says. “We do some opera, but also highlight works of new Chicago-area composers.”
Making opera accessible to a modern audience can be difficult, she says. “The challenge that presents itself to performers is to find a way to make it engaging and relevant to people’s lives,” she says. “We focus in on the moments that can connect to real life.”
Huggins is saddened that opera seems to be stuck in an ivory tower of formalization and elitism.“There’s a feeling sometimes going into an opera house – almost like people are going into a church. It’s great to have that kind of respect for it, but I always think it would have been interesting to go to an opera in 18th century Vienna. It was a very relaxed atmosphere. People were watching for entertainment, but also socializing with their neighbor.”
She confesses that she prefers recitals and oratorios where costumes aren't required. During one performance, Huggins was responsible for helping a fellow singer into her costume backstage. “Every night we’d have to put extra pins in there,” she says, describing their struggle to keep the skirt attached. It didn't always work. Huggins recalls being on stage when her colleague, walking across stage, realized her skirt was falling off. She laughs at the extent of multitasking involved in opera: “Singing, counting, walking, trying to make it all look natural – and trying to keep your skirt from falling off.”
When Huggins isn’t wrestling with costumes and balancing wigs, she serves as education chair for Vox 3. She finds her curiosity and repertoire knowledge useful: “At Vox 3, we search for underperformed repertoire,” she says, seeking to expose audiences to music that may not be popular or familiar. When she creates a workshop or educational program for their singers, she uses Millikin workshops as a model to develop an in-depth learning experience.
In addition to her work with Vox 3, Huggins enjoys her day job as circulation manager for the music library at Northwestern University where she is surrounded by musicians daily – especially young musicians. Huggins also finds time to perform with her husband, Benjamin, a pianist. “We’re a huge hit at my grandparents’ retirement home in St. Louis,” she says.
But connecting opera to real life is still her biggest passion, and she advises students: “Success doesn’t have to be defined by singing at the Met. You’ll find what success is for you and you’ll find what makes you happy.”
Amanda Hamilton ’14 interned for the alumni and development office much of 2014. She now works as a marketing specialist for HSHS Medical Group.