March 2011: Winter watercolor by Randy Krause
Header image: Winter watercolor by Randy Krause

Featured Artist: Karen Hughes

Last updated: March 1, 2011

..Karen Hughes in a Die Fledermaus rehearsal.

Karen Hughes
in a Die Fledermaus rehearsal at the Soo Theatre
Photo by Tom Ewing

Editor’s note: This is longer than the usual “Featured Artist article because it gives us the opportunity to pass along information about the Soo Theatre Project and STARS.

Karen Hughes is a lyric soprano and a harpist. She earned her Bachelor's Degree in Harp Performance from DePauw University and her Master's Degree in Vocal Performance from the University of Nebraska. Her teachers include Beverly Myrow (Roosevelt University), Harriet Thompson-Moore (DePauw University), and Hildegard Blovsky-Miller (Vienna Philharmonic). She also studied at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City.

Hughes was the soprano soloist in Bach's Mass in B Minor with the Tianjin Symphony in the Forbidden City in Beijing and also appeared as the Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro under the baton of Joseph Rescigno in Novafeltria, Bellaria and Sant'Archangelo, Italy. Her opera credits include Des Moines Metro Opera, Utah Festival Opera, Opera Omaha, Sun Valley Opera, DuPage Opera Theatre and the Chautauqua Institution. She played the Debussy Danses for harp with the DePauw Chamber Symphony on a tour of Great Britain. . . And she lives in Pickford. The reason? Like many artists she loves the area and decided to make a niche for herself here. By adding her talents and abilities to the mix, she has made this area even richer.

We sent her a flurry of off-the-wall questions just to get started and, in answering them, she provided a narrative we can’t improve on, so we’re just going to quote, stringing the answers to the questions together and leaving out most of the questions, since they add nothing, except maybe for the first two, which got us started:

Q: How did you happen to end up in the EUP?

A: My great-grandfather Caleb Coyle built a fishing cabin on Hessel Point Road in Hessel. We used to come up for summer visits for a week at a time. When the house became my parents' after he passed away, we spent the entire summer in the UP. It was like my second childhood. After one summer of coming home to Michigan, I looked into the music scene in the Sault and met John Wilkinson at the University. He was instrumental in setting up performance opportunities for me locally with the Fine Arts Academy at the time and with the Symphony. After essentially lining up a performance schedule for the year, things just went from there. Not long after, the Soo Theatre reopened its doors and I have been involved ever since.

Q: How did you end up in Pickford?

A: My husband, Curt Beacom, is from Pickford and with his career in the family logging business we chose to live there.

I was born in Hammond, Indiana; raised in Munster, Indiana. My Dad worked in downtown Chicago for Pullman Standard and my mom worked as a music teacher in Lansing, Illinois. Music was a way of life in my family. My mom was a harpist and my dad was a tenor. Much of my childhood revolved around choir at church (which my mom directed) and going to the Chicago Symphony. My part-time high school job was doing gigs, playing for weddings and receptions, etc. My parents both went to DePauw University (Indiana) and music was the only thing I knew I wanted to do. When it came time for college, I auditioned with the harp and got a scholarship to attend DePauw. My teachers, Beverly Myrow in Illinois and Harriet Thompson Moore at DePauw, helped shape me as a musician.

After DePauw was when my life really turned in the direction I would go from then on. Wanting to live in New York City after graduation, I had to have a reason to go there. I auditioned for grad school with the harp at Manhattan School of Music and, on a whim, I also auditioned for the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. I got into the latter and met my voice teacher, Ariel Bybee, who had just retired from a twenty-year career at the Metropolitan Opera. She is the reason I am an opera singer. From then on voice was my main instrument with harp taking backseat, although a very prominent backseat. I have always kept up with my harp skills, and played throughout all of my vocal training. I followed Ariel to the University of Nebraska after three years of study in The City and earned my master's degree in voice in Lincoln.

Karen Hughes in Performance at the Soo Theatre
Click on a thumbnail to see a larger version.

Karen Hughes in a Cosi fan tutte rehearsal

In a Cosi fan tutte rehearsal
Photo by Tom Ewing

Karen Hughes in a Gianni Schicchi rehearsal

In a Gianni Schicchi rehearsal
Photo by Tom Ewing

Karen Hughes with tenor Eric Shaw in An Evening of Rodgers and Hammerstein

With tenor Eric Shaw in An Evening of Rodgers and Hammerstein
Photo by Marsha Ewing

In an interview, which appears on her web site, Karen was asked, “What is your favorite part about being an opera singer?”

Her reply was:

The intense expression of emotion and the exquisite music. It used to be the painful and sad arias that grabbed me—“Signore, ascolta,” “Donde lieta”—love a good tragedy. But now it’s everything. I love the playfulness and excitement of “The Jewel Song” and the intensity of Fiordiligi’s fight in the name of fidelity in “Come Scoglio.” Those are the arias where I find the most freedom of expression.

I love being these people. I also love being in rehearsal and working with other singers. The ensemble singing in Carmen and Cosi [fan tutte] is so much fun. The challenge of spitting out all that French and Italian at quick tempos is a rush. I think anything in life that is rewarding comes with a challenge. That is definitely opera.

So we asked her, “What’s the most fun you ever had in a production (either performing, conducting or directing)” and also, “What’s the hardest thing you did” and “The most unpleasant? Why?”

One of the best times I had performing was with the Utah Festival Opera juggling three shows. I got to dance under the direction of Dottie Danner in the chorus of “The Desert Song” (which I loved) and then go, sometimes the same day, into a performance of The Magic Flute as the 1st Lady. We were also in production of Die Fledermaus which is just pure fun.

I think the hardest thing I have done as far as difficulty was playing the Debussy “Danses” for harp. I performed these with the DePauw Chamber Symphony on a tour of Great Britain.

The hardest thing I did in opera was during an understudy of the Countess. I struggled on stage with the memorization of the Italian the first time I had the opportunity to work a scene and as a result was asked to prove I had the role memorized. I assumed I would sing through the part with the conductor to show that I did indeed have it memorized. Instead during a break it was "drop the needle" opera style. The conductor flipped open the score at random and I had to sing through two pages of music. I passed with flying colors, but what a stressful weekend that was, knowing I was on the chopping block and hoping I did know the part as well as I thought I did.

I love Puccini. And lately I am loving singing Mozart, especially the great finales.

My favorite job as a conductor was South Pacific at the Soo Theatre. I just loved going on the journey through that story each night. There is such a balance of real emotion combined with just enough laughs. I love being able to keep the pace of the show going and to communicate with the performers during performance. It's a great collaboration between the players, the actors, and the conductor.

I love directing. Aside from performing, this is the most gratifying job I do. I love the creative aspects of the entire production and I like being "on." As the director you are constantly "on" as you block, watch, encourage, lead, and adjust as you go. It's like a living, breathing organism that comes to life by the end of the process. It is an exciting and rewarding process. I direct scenes with my Lake State students every semester and I love it.

Karen Hughes in Performance
Click on a thumbnail to see a larger version.

Karen Hughes at an Around the Piano event for Die Fledermaus

At the Around the Piano event for Die Fledermaus
Photo by Tom Ewing

Karen Hughes in a Die Fledermaus rehearsal

In a Die Fledermaus rehearsal at the Soo Theatre
Photo by Tom Ewing

Soo Opera Theatre is going into its sixth season with a production of The Marriage of Figaro. Bringing in professional singers from around the country for each opera and providing this experience for our local students, singers, and audiences is my greatest pleasure. It is my vision that we will one day be on the regional opera circuit presenting a variety of offerings in opera and classic musical theatre as well as a prominent training program. Over the past few years our guest artists have provided workshops for our local singers and I plan to expand on this program that we have just begun to explore at the Soo Theatre.

Having stage director Tim Murphy on board has been a major plus for the group. Tim directed our last two comedic productions and I don't think there have ever been funnier productions of Cosi or Gianni Schicchi. I think Mozart would have had Tim direct all of his works! I can't wait to see what we will come up with for a Murphy spin on The Marriage of Figaro.

The most important thing I would like to be sure is included (in the “Featured Artist” article) is the Soo Opera Theatre program. We do know the dates of Figaro so maybe we could even get that in there: August 18, 19 and 21. The Marriage of Figaro is one of Mozart's great comedies. (This production will be in English!) Originally in Italian, this work is like the modern day sitcom full of mistaken identities, devious plots and all being forgiven, in true opera fashion, with the singing of a beautiful line of music. Tim Murphy, with his flair for comedy, will be returning to direct.

I'll be music directing Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat July 27 through 31. This is our big, mainstage summer production featuring local performers. Auditions for this show will be held later in the Spring for all roles including lots of men as well as a children's chorus. Both of our large scale summer productions are accompanied by a live orchestra. We are always open to hearing new players and performers in all that we do at the Soo Theatre. We are really excited to be presenting a show with kids for the theatre in July and will be directing summer camps as well.

Donations can be made to the program through the Soo Theatre Project. Any donation just needs to indicate OPERA and it will go towards our programming. Bringing in guest artists is necessary in order to present the quality of show that is part of our mission and the experience of working with these actor-singers has proved to be a invaluable experience for our students, especially those who are going on to pursue careers in music. The cost does require private donations.

We have an annual fundraising "premium ticket" for the opera that includes a home concert where the ticket holders have an opportunity to meet the artists at a private concert in someone's home. We call this event Around the Piano. This event is not exclusive. If anyone is interested in attending and supporting the opera in this way, they can just make a phone call to the theatre and we will be sure to include them on upcoming events.

Karen will be directing the LSSU Band and Chorus production of Let’s Go to the Movies, featuring works from the Broadway, concert stages and the movies, on April 19, at the LSSU Arts Center. Admission is free. You can’t beat that!

Karen Hughes’s website is: The Soo Theatre Project website is:

Soo Theatre Project logoSome of the great photos on this page are by Marsha Ewing, but most are by enthusiastic Soo Theatre Project volunteer Tom Ewing. They were taken (with permission) from the the photo galleries on Soo Theatre Project’s website, (Click on “Photo Galleries” in the sidebar on the home page.) Tom has taken hundreds of photos documenting classes, performances, rehearsals, and receptions and has also produced arresting posters for the performances. The Soo Theatre Project is a success story powered by people, with hundreds of people contributing their labor and their particular talents. The Soo arts scene provides positive proof that volunteer labor is priceless. You can’t hire people to provide the dedication, attention to detail, and sheer effort that these volunteers have contributed.

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