Giuseppe Verdi, a famed native Parmesan and one of the most influential 19th-century Romantic opera composers, once said, “You may have the universe if I may have Italy.” Lynn Mackie, founder of Italian Opera Study Abroad (IOSA) in 2000, would wholeheartedly agree.
An undergrad study abroad program in Pisa paired with two years of supplementary post-graduate training there under instruction of world-renowned vocal coach Pieralba Soroga remarkably transformed Mackie’s voice. “I saw the difference studying abroad made in me, a young girl from Mobile with no professional vocal preparation, ” the now international soprano says. “After studying opera with ‘mi Italiano madre’ (Soroga), I was forever changed.”
She adds, “Traveling the world is a rare, major blessing. I felt it was my calling to offer the same kind of vocal and cultural education to musically inclined, hardworking students who want something bigger for their lives.”
Three such students from Mobile were chosen as part of the group of students from all over the U.S. to participate in the 2013 IOSA program in Pisa this past summer: 2011 graduate of Talladega College, Ashleigh Brown-Grier; a third-year student at Wiley College, Devon Mason; and 12-year-old Burns Middle School student Maddison Hill. Students raised trip funds through benefit concerts and donations from churches, businesses, friends and family.
Previously, students were required to be 18 to apply for IOSA, but Mackie admits she had to change her own rule for Maddison. “I was too impressed by the incredible maturity of her voice, ” she says. “It was so natural, and it wasn’t something she was replicating at all.” Her innately captivating singing voice aside, Maddison, left, is a perseverant, straight-A student who works tirelessly at both her schoolwork and music. Says Mackie, “I told Maddison she could participate under one condition: Her mom must go with her so that she could remain focused on being a little girl through all the hustle and bustle.”
When asked how she felt about her mother, Charvon, traveling with her, Maddison says, “The other girls kept saying they wished their moms could come. I loved that mine could join me.”
While in Italy, the students honed their opera skills daily with instruction from Maria Billeri, Italian soprano, and Dr. Wayne Barr, choir director at Tuskegee University. In keeping with their impressively intense work ethics, the girls began training early in the morning and worked well into the afternoon. “After lessons, a typical day in Pisa meant walking to the Leaning Tower and maybe eating at one of the few McDonald’s we found so I could get my French fry fix, ” giggles Maddison. The group also performed regular impromptu concerts in front of the Leaning Tower and in chance piazzas, which always inspired rapt attention and generous applause from hundreds who gathered to listen.
In addition to interacting with Italian opera scholars, the students achieved a marble-solid sense of cultural immersion. They traveled throughout the European nation, taking in sites and testing authentic Italian fare. (Read: eating gelato by the ton.) “We saw the David and
crossed the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, visited the Coliseum and walked the Spanish Steps in Rome, toured Saint Mary of the Angels in Assisi and went bike riding in Lucca, ” Brown-Grier says. When asked to describe her favorite part of the trip, Mason shares, “The best part for me was learning about my flaws and how to fix them. And, of course, I loved making new, lifelong friends.”
During their final week in Italy, the girls merged with students from the University of Pisa to perform a large choir concert, with special guest saxophonist from Mobile, Joe Lewis, leading the orchestra. It was an invaluable experience for all.
Mackie radiates as she recalls her students’ extraordinary progress both in the art of opera and of life during their one-month European excursion, “Italy is the perfect setting for my students to sing and share their gifts with others on an intercontinental level for the first time. My mind is blown every year with how they leave Italy with wholly fresh perspectives of the world and all it has to offer.” This year was clearly and gloriously no exception to the rule.
For more information on the Italian Opera Study Abroad program, visit iosa1.com.
text by Hannah Manverse • photos by Charvon Hill