When 17-year-old Joshua Steinbach auditioned to enter the University of Kentucky music program as a vocal performance major, he didn't know his voice would resurrect a tradition.
Steinbach will sing the lead role in Gian Carlo Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors this weekend at the Lyric Theater. A joint effort between the UK Opera Theatre Undergraduate Studio and Central Kentucky Youth Orchestras, the opera was a regular feature in UK Opera Theatre's repertoire throughout the 1990s and 2000s, but it hasn't produced Amahl for 13 years.
The reason? It requires a special kind of voice to play the lead role of Amahl, a disabled boy living with his mother near Bethlehem when three kings knock on their door seeking shelter. On their way to give gifts to the newly born Christ child, the kings' visit miraculously changes the lives of Amahl and his mother forever.
Steinbach is a countertenor, the male equivalent to the female contralto or mezzo-soprano, a rarity in the music world. When UK Opera Theatre leaders heard him sing, they realized they had found a new Amahl.
"We try to select repertory to match the students that we have in the program," says UK Opera Theatre director Everett McCorvey. "Because Joshua came into the program, we decided to resurrect Amahl and the Night Visitors so that we could do it while he is here.
"It'll be one of the roles that he'll probably do for the good part of certainly his young career. If you've never heard one before, it'll be fascinating just to hear a male countertenor voice."
(Note: Steinbach has been ill this week and unable to participate in rehearsals at the Lyric. Grace Brown a School for the Creative and Performing Arts student who has played the role before, has been standing in for him. Update: As of Friday afternoon, Steinbach is slated to sing for the Friday evening performance. Whether he will sing Saturday has not been decided.)
Steinbach was surprised to be cast in such a large role during his first semester of college, but he has previous experience as Amahl. He sang the role during his freshman and sophomore years of high school. Home-schooled until the third grade, the graduate of Highlands Latin School in Louisville skipped fourth grade, making him a year younger than many first-year college students.
UK artist-in-residence and opera singer Gregory Turay directs the show and says that working with undergraduates such as Steinbach is important, rewarding work that prepares them for a professional career.
"Undergraduates are very open and receptive and willing to try new things," says Turay, who hails the partnership with Central Kentucky Youth Orchestras as an invaluable learning opportunity for the students.
"It's a win-win for everybody involved," he says. "It's an opportunity for students because they get to see how an orchestra works, and the kids in the orchestra get to hear real live opera singers."
"I've never seen that level of professionalism from a high school orchestra," Steinbach says of CKYO.
He already has learned a lot about being an opera singer, he said.
"I have to learn how to stretch my voice over a four-hour rehearsal without being tired the next day," says Steinbach, adding that portraying a character with physical disabilities is a challenge.
"I have to readjust my diaphragm to hit all the notes," says Steinbach, who is glad to have Turay on hand to share pointers from his career. "He is an amazing director."
"I've always had a passion for direction," Turay says. "I have loved just the workings of the stage, how to bring a work to life, finding different and interesting ways to present it.
"I've learned so much as a singer in terms of the do's and don't's and how to really bring a character to life on the operatic stage."
UK Opera also is partnering with God's Pantry during this weekend's performances. Audience members who bring 10 cans of food to a show or donate $6 will be entered to win two free tickets to next June's production of It's a Grand Night for Singing.