New Philharmonic salutes Rodgers and Hammerstein, Andrew Lloyd Webber – Chicago Tribune
Kate Tombaugh grew up on a working farm in Streator, where singing — and hard work — was a way of life. Opera singing, however, was not.
She didn’t even see her first opera until she was literally singing in it. Her path to her life as an opera singer is an unconventional one that began on her parents’ corn and soybean farm.
You can see mezzo soprano Tombaugh when New Philharmonic Orchestra performs “The Best of Rodgers and Hammerstein and Andrew Lloyd Webber” at 3 and 7:30 p.m. Oct. 21 and at 3 p.m. Oct. 22 at the McAninch Arts Center at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn.
New Philharmonic is under the direction of Kirk Muspratt. Other guests on the bill include soprano Alisa Jordheim, tenor Jesse Donner, baritone Thomas Meglioranza and the 90-voiced Northwest Indiana Symphony Chorus. Audiences will hear songs from “Oklahoma,” “The King and I,” “Evita,” “Cats,” “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Carousel,” “The Sound of Music” and more.
Tombaugh is familiar with the College of DuPage — she frequently used to walk around the campus with her friend, and although they live in southwest Kentucky now, her husband is from St. Charles and his father worked at the College of DuPage for a while, she said.
Tombaugh grew up in a musical family with a mother who was “a fantastic singer … and her mom was a singer,” she said. This concert will be her first professional foray into Andrew Lloyd Webber, although that’s what she grew up hearing her mother sing.
“We’d drive up to Chicago usually once every summer and see a musical,” she said. “We have a community theater, Engle Lane … just a mile down the road from my farm on the edge of Streator. So I grew up singing in musicals and doing a few plays. I was involved in church; my mom was the choir director. Singing was like breathing to me, it was just a part of my childhood. When it came time to go to college … it was my mom who said, ‘I really think you should consider a degree in music. You could study vocal performance.’ I was like, ‘That’s a thing?’”
She attended Illinois Wesleyan University with a dual degree in English literature and vocal performance. When she graduated, she found herself at a crossroads and decided to take a year off. For fun, she went on the Metropolitan Opera National Council auditions.
“I didn’t really know what I was doing,” she said. “I won district in Champaign. Three weeks later, I was in Chicago for regionals and I placed third.”
To her great surprise, the head judge took her aside and pitched her a career in opera.
“I’d had a lot of encouragement and a lot of mentors in the first 22 years of my life, but I had also been taught about being a big fish in a small pond. I’ve always been very realistically-minded,” she said. “She was the first person that was not a friend, not a family member, not a mentor — she had nothing at all invested in me and I felt like she had no reason to lead me astray about this.
“That night shifted everything for me. I went home and applied to the graduate programs in voice that she encouraged me to apply to. A few months later, I got into Opera Theatre of St. Louis’ Young Artists program, and that was my first opera that I saw — while onstage singing.”
She’s been singing opera for a decade now — an unexpected journey that meant not only learning how to sing opera but also learning the repertoire and the languages, the various opera companies and how the business worked.
“The good thing was, I didn’t know enough to be embarrassed about how little I knew,” she said.
McAninch audiences will hear her belt out songs like “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” from “Evita,” “With One Look” from “Sunset Boulevard” and “I Have Dreams” from “The King and I.”
“It’s just a really great combination of beautiful ballads and really fun, upbeat pieces,” she said. “There are absolutely going to be a lot of pieces everybody recognizes. It’s music and ideas and expressions that are absolutely as relevant today as when first written.
“It’s feel-good music that is brings us together. Everybody can talk about love. Everybody can talk about hurt and betrayal. Everybody has experienced hope and optimism. To get to experience so many different emotions in a live setting where everyone is feeling the energy and electricity from everyone around them it’s going to be a magical night.”
She’s also looking forward to performing with the symphony orchestra.
“It feels like a completely new and magical experience,” she said. “The colors and nuance and finesse that come out when you’re singing with an orchestra … there are parts of your voice and parts of your expression you didn’t even know existed until you get to sing with an orchestra.”
And if you’re still nervous about opera music, this is the show for you, Tombaugh said.
“I understand, because I was very much an opera newbie. If you have interest in music but are nervous about what concert to go to, this is absolutely the one to go to. Rodgers and Hammerstein and Andrew Lloyd Webber — it doesn’t matter if you’re new to music or a music aficionado,” she said.
“That’s why their music is so fantastic and so successful — it’s very complex and simple at the same time. Don’t be scared to come, it’s going to be awesome. There’s nothing like attending a live performance. There really isn’t.”
Annie Alleman is a freelance reporter for the Naperville Sun.
New Philharmonic Orchestra — The Best of Rodgers and Hammerstein and Andrew Lloyd Webber
When: Oct. 21-22
Where: McAninch Arts Center at the College of DuPage, 425 Fawell Blvd., Glen Ellyn
Information: 630-942-4000; www.atthemac.org