Jenna Day's love of music started while sitting in a back porch swing with her grandmother singing Disney songs and show tunes. And among the show tunes were numbers by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II from productions such as South Pacific.
"That was one of the old movies that we would watch together growing up with Mitzi Gaynor as Nellie Forbush, and I loved the music and the story line from an early age," Day says. "That's why the role of Nellie Forbush was such a dream role for me, because I've been dreaming about it since before I knew I was going to be a singer."
Now she is living that dream, singing the role in University of Kentucky Opera Theatre's production of South Pacific, which has five performances Thursday through Oct. 11 at Lexington Opera House.
Day has made some other dreams come true in her 24 years. In 2013, when she was a junior at the UK, she was crowned Miss Kentucky and went on to compete for Miss America.
"What people don't realize is Miss Kentucky is a full-time job, full-time with the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, and you travel to all areas of the state promoting your platform, talking to kids, youth motivational speaking. You name it, you do it, when you're Miss Kentucky," Day says. "So I actually had to take a sabbatical, a year off from school, to be Miss Kentucky.
"In some ways, the journey of Miss Kentucky and taking that time off and how much I missed training really solidified that this is what I want to do with my life ... a singer and an actor."
UK Opera Theatre director Everett McCorvey says being Miss Kentucky was good for Day in other ways.
"She came back a different person," McCorvey says, after watching Day and co-star André Campelo work through a few scenes in rehearsal. "Before, Jenna was a nice and engaging person. But she was kind of shy and not really a take-charge type of person.
"Now she is confident; confident in speaking, confident in her actions, confident as a performer, and she is very friendly, but she knows when it is time to get to work."
Day is one of two Miss Kentuckys associated with UK Opera Theatre. The current Miss Kentucky, Clark Davis, spent a year in the UK Opera program before winning the crown in July and studied voice with McCorvey through her middle and high school years. In between her official duties, McCorvey says, Davis returns every few weeks for voice lessons.
McCorvey says Day and Davis are his first experiences with Miss Kentucky, and he has been impressed with the program and what it does for young women. He traveled to Atlantic City in September to work with Davis at the Miss America Pageant. She sang the Porgy and Bess classic Summertime for the talent portion of the competition.
Day, who graduated in May with a major in political science and minor in voice, is doing graduate work with the scholarship money she won during the Miss America competition.
And she's singing that role of her dreams.
"It was obvious from the moment she auditioned that she was the one to play Nellie Forbush," says Lyndy Franklin Smith, who is co-directing the production with her husband, Jeromy Smith. "She brings such a natural, youthful performance to the role."
South Pacific, based on James A. Michener's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Tales of the South Pacific, was crafted by Rodgers and Hammerstein as a commentary on racism. Nellie is an American nurse who falls in love with an expatriate Frenchman but struggles to accept his mixed-race children. A subplot involves an American soldier who falls in love with a South Asian woman.
"There's more to these characters than just a woman 'washin' that man right out of her hair,' Day says, referring to a famous song from the show. "They're so multifaceted. A character can be funny and serious and real all at the same time. There are no flat characters."
And for Day, it is a milestone performance: her first lead role.
"I feel like I get to really show what I can do," she says. "It feels good to do what I love and be recognized for talent that I have."