The first time Reginald Smith Jr. stepped on the stage at the Lexington Opera House, he looked down into the orchestra pit and then up at the second balcony.
"I was thinking, how do I look down at the conductor and get my voice up there," says Smith, right, who was one of the University of Kentucky's most popular singers from 2007 to 2012.
Smith credits experiences such as learning how to sing on the stage of the Opera House with getting him where he is now: In the final round of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.
He is one of only three singers from the University of Kentucky to make it to the finals of the Met Auditions, one of the world's most prestigious opera competitions. And if he is among the winners, he will join Gregory Turay as the only two winners from UK.
At 3 p.m. Sunday afternoon, he joins eight other singers on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera to sing two arias each accompanied by the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, conducted by Fabio Luisi.
Of course, he has been practicing this week. But Tuesday evening, he was recounting other thrills like watching a rehearsal for the Met's production of Ernani with Plácido Domingo and Angela Meade, conducted by James Levine.
"There are so many aspects of the competition that make it much more than singing on Sunday," Smith says, pointing to coachings with Luisi and other Met directors, career consultations with Met personnel, meeting the other competitors and past winners and experiencing life in New York City.
The metropolis didn't catch Smith off guard as much as some other competitors from small towns as he grew up in Atlanta and now resides in Houston, where he is part of the Houston Grand Opera's studio program and has sung on the Houston Grand Opera stage.
"These things don't happen by chance," Smith says of his career path.
Yes, he believes in divine intervention, but he also believes his voice teacher in Atlanta, Elizabeth Colson, and UK Opera Theatre director Everett McCorvey conspired to create the path that led him to New York.
Away from Atlanta and Lexington, Smith says he carries advice and wisdom from McCorvey that can be as simple as be nice and concentrate on what you can control.
"He would tell us you can control how well you sing, and things like your diction," Smith says. "Other things you can't control, so don't worry about them. Go out and give it your all, and things will sort themselves out."
One other aspect of this honor Smith could control was which aria he sang first in the national semifinals. He came with five prepared, could choose one, and the judges chose the others. His choice was Lord Jesus Hear My Prayer from the largely forgotten 1933 Louis Gruenberg opera The Emperor Jones. If you Google the aria and opera title, the first thing you'll see is a YouTube video of Smith's performance for a Dallas Opera competition.
"It was not a conventional choice," Smith says. "But I really like the aria. It has a great message, and the rest of my repertoire could answer any other questions they had about me."
Smith also chose it realizing it could be a once-in-a-lifetime experience singing on the Met stage.
"I'm very fortunate I stuck with my gut, and even if it didn't work out for me, at least I got to sing that aria on that stage."
Thus far it's working out fine.