When Rachel Sterrenberg started looking for colleges to prepare her for an opera career, her teacher in Athens, Ga., suggested the University of Kentucky.
"I said, 'Kentucky? Why would I want to go to Kentucky for school? I'm an opera singer,'" Sterrenberg says. "When you hear the word Juilliard and you hear about all the conservatories and stuff, you think, 'Oh, that's where you need to go if you want to study classical music.'
"But my teacher was like, 'You need to look at Kentucky because they have really amazing scholarships and a lot of money for their singers,' and actually one of the things he said was that undergrads get to do stuff."
Stuff, like singing the title role in one of UK Opera Theatre's major productions, which Sterrenberg will do this weekend in Charles Gounod's Roméo et Juliette. Having undergraduates take the lead in a UK Opera show is not unheard of, but it is rare. Sterrenberg is double-cast with Julie LaDouceur, who is pursuing a doctorate at UK. Sterrenberg and her Roméo, Manuel Castillo, will perform Sunday and Oct. 28; LaDouceur and Gregory Turay will perform Saturday and Oct. 29.
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Sterrenberg was thrilled last year when she got to understudy the role of Musetta in Giacomo Puccini's La Bohème and went on for a performance. Still, being cast in a lead in her senior year is well beyond her expectations.
"It's a dream role," Sterrenberg says. "Most sopranos would kill to get this role, and it's one you usually don't get until your 30s."
That's right, you wait until your 30s to play a 14-year-old girl.
Stage director Stephanie Sundine says Sterrenberg has done well portraying a teenager in a tragic love story.
"She was comfortable from the beginning with the idea of being a young girl," Sundine says. "She's a young adult, but she was very comfortable finding the childlike qualities in Juliette and being willing to play them with music only an adult can sing. This is not music for a child to sing."
In fact, in opera the role of Juliette is known as a "big sing" for its numerous, challenging arias including The Poison Aria, which is often omitted to allow lighter sopranos to take the role.
"She absolutely nails it," Sundine says of Sterrenberg's performance of the aria and the role.
The performance has been six months in the making, Sundine says. Sterrenberg started working on the role in April, when she was cast.
"You have to do that with a leading role," she says. "You have to make it second nature by the time you get up on that stage."
And it's an experience Sterrenberg knows is not universal for college seniors in voice.
"I have friends at Juilliard and Curtis and other schools that graduate with barely anything on their résumés," she says. "I've been so lucky."