Gregory Turay and Angelique Clay know this stage well.
"For me, it would have to be Magic Flute and Elixir, when we used to do the operas in here," Turay says when asked about his favorite memories of performing in the Singletary Center for the Arts Concert Hall.
Clay, who is seated with Turay near the back of the hall, remembers numerous Grand Night for Singing performances and preparing for the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions on the Singletary Center's main stage.
Turay and Clay were part of the University of Kentucky's voice program in the 1990s, the early years of Everett McCorvey's current tenure at the top. Now, they are both back in the program, Turay as an artist-in-residence and master's student, and Clay as an assistant professor of voice. And they both will be back on the Singletary Center stage Sunday afternoon as the tenor and soprano soloists, respectively, in the Lexington Singers' presentation of George Frideric Handel's Messiah.
They will be joined by two of UK Opera's current stars, baritone Reginald Smith Jr. and mezzo-soprano LaShelle Allen.
"I'm going to feel like the small voice in that group," Turay says with a laugh.
He has been the big star of the UK Opera program, having helped put it on the map with his win in the final round of the 1995 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. Since then, he has performed at the Met and on stages around the world.
But he and his family have decided that Lexington is where they want to put down roots, as has Clay, who was surprised to be able to land a professorship at UK less than a decade after graduating.
Having been in the school before, Clay and Turay say they think a lot about the experience for students in a program that now bears little resemblance to the one they were in.
"When we were here before, it was like Division III," Turay, who came to UK to play baseball, says, invoking an NCAA analogy. "Now, it's like Division I. It seems like it's more of a business now. The vocal program is run like an opera company, particularly for the graduate students. It's almost unrecognizable from what we had before ... A lot of things have changed for the better."
Clay, who was a graduate student in the program from 1995 to 2000, says there were a total of 10 grad students in the program when she came to UK. It now accepts 12 to 15 grad students each year and has about 150 undergraduates.
With such a large population of graduate students, Clay has put a focus on undergraduates and trying to make sure they have performance opportunities as she and Turay had. She was instrumental in putting together the Opera Studio performances just for undergraduates that presented Mozart's The Magic Flute last spring and will present Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance next spring.
"One of the things that I loved about UK as a student, and why I didn't choose to go to like an IU (Indiana University) was the individualized attention that we got here," Clay says. When she returned as a professor in 2007, the program was in a stressful point in its transition from that "Division III" to Division I status, and she says it has stabilized with the addition of other new faculty, including Cynthia Lawrence and Elizabeth Arnold.
This school year, Clay and Turay have opportunities to perform in productions as well as teach. Turay starred in this fall's production of La Bohème during the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, and Clay will sing the role of Bess in UK Opera Theatre's production of Porgy and Bess, Jan. 28 to Feb. 6. That will bring full-staged opera back to the Singletary Center. Most UK Operas during the past decade have been presented at Lexington Opera House.
Messiah will give her another opportunity to re-acclimate to Singletary, although she says, "My Bess voice is very different from my Messiah voice."
And the Messiah is yet another thing they like about returning to their old school.
"It's wonderful being back on campus, making new memories," Turay says.
Clay says, "It was always my dream to come back and teach at UK, but I didn't think it would happen so quickly. I thought I'd have to go out and make a big name for myself."
She already is pretty big here.