Melissa Kelley's voice this weekend will once again command a Lexington stage.
During the 1990s, she was hailed as "Lexington's leading soprano" by Herald-Leader arts writer Kevin Nance. She was particularly well-known for her regular appearances with the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra at annual Christmas and Fourth of July concerts.
"We did the Fourth of July pops concerts in front of Old Morrison for years and years and years," said Kelley, who performed under her married name at the time, Melissa Baber. "I'd wave the flag and everybody would cheer, and it was just great.
"I don't get to do that sort of thing up here in New York. I miss waving that flag."
Several life changes including a divorce and the death of a beloved colleague prompted Kelley to move to New York in 1998.
While the story has a melancholy note — a highly regarded artist leaving her home state to start over after personal losses — it appears that if the old adage is correct, Kelley could have made it anywhere. She has become an established artist in New York.
"I've had my debut in Carnegie Hall and Avery Fisher Hall and done a lot of amazing things," says Kelley, who notes she has "an amazing church job" at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola on Manhattan's Upper East Side. "Up here, it's a major deal because these churches have really significant music programs. It's like being the Lexington Philharmonic."
On Saturday and Sunday, she returns to Lexington in the bubble of Glinda the Good Witch for Kentucky Ballet Theatre's production of The Wizard of Oz at the Lexington Opera House.
"Glinda in the ballet essentially does what she does in the movie, which is she comes in when the witch has the house on top of her and sorts things out with Dorothy, and a lot of it is done with gestures, because it is a ballet," says Kelley, who will sing the signature Oz song, Somewhere Over the Rainbow in the overture. "But then I do sing, 'Come out, come out wherever you are' and all the Munchkins come out and we do sing, 'Ding, dong, the witch is dead.'
"It's sort of like Queen of the Night," she adds, referring to the character from The Magic Flute, "in that you come out in the beginning and in the end."
Baber knows opera, which was her forte when she sang in Lexington, particularly operas and songs by her ex-husband, University of Kentucky music professor Joseph Baber.
"I was performing around Lexington all the time, and it got where I was afraid people would be sick of me," she says. "I did so many opera roles with UK and Central Kentucky Opera I was kind of ubiquitous up until I left."
Kelley is the daughter of the late Scott County teachers Horace and Ann Kelley, who had artistic lives as charter members of the Lexington Singers and other endeavors. Then, when she was a high school freshman, the Kelleys moved to Bardstown, where they became involved in the Stephen Foster musical, which Horace Kelley directed for 10 years.
Melissa went to UK and, in 1973, married Baber, who had been one of her teachers. She devoted herself to performing his music, which he wrote prolifically. In later years, she performed regularly with celebrated tenor Othello Pumphrey, whose death in 1997 Kelley described as "a devastating blow."
In 1994, she told the Herald-Leader, "I don't think I could handle New York City. I'm too Southern for that."
But clearly she changed her mind later that decade and made an artistic life for herself.
Kelley says that she was determined to model determination for her daughters and that her new husband, Scott Banford, helped her divine a successful career path.
But Kentucky is home, and she says she gets here "occasionally" — she acknowledges that means four times a year.
But that's rarely to perform.
She says her last Lexington stage appearance was a Philharmonic performance of Handel's Messiah a few years after she left. She says she is happy to be back home "with my peeps in the audience," though she won't be waving a big American flag in the wintertime performances.
"I had a garage sale right before I left," Kelley says. "These people came up that remembered me from these performances, particularly the Fourth of July program. I think I had that flag on sale or something, and they said, 'We want that flag,' and I said, 'I'll give it to you,' and they asked me to autograph it. So, somewhere in Lexington, someone has that flag, autographed by me."
This weekend, they and all of Lexington will have a chance to hear Kelley's voice in Lexington once again.IF YOU GO
'The Wizard of Oz'
What: Original ballet by Kentucky Ballet Theatre featuring a performance by soprano Melissa Kelley as Glinda
When: 2 and 8 p.m. Feb. 23, 2 p.m. Feb. 24.
Where: Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short St.
Tickets: $32-$16 adults, $16 ages 12 and younger; available at the door or by calling (859) 252-5245.
Learn more: Kyballet.com