Vocalist - Soprano
Minnesota plumber’s daughter shows off her pipes in ‘Rusalka’

She’s performed around the world — South America, Canada, Australia and the United States.

She’s performed in the great operas from “Madame Butterfly” to “Turandot” and world premiere operas including “Silent Night” and “Grapes of Wrath.” She returns to the lead role in the Minnesota Opera production of “Rusalka,” which opens Saturday, and will sing the part of Wendy next month in Minnesota Opera’s world premiere of “The Shining.”

But soprano Kelly Kaduce, who grew up in Winnebago, Minn., where her family runs a plumbing business, had never heard an opera until she went to junior high school in nearby Blue Earth.

The high school choir director in Blue Earth, Mike Ellingsen, says he made all of his seventh graders listen to “Amal and the Night Visitors.” Not many of them were happy about it, adds Ellingsen, who retired from the job in 2011 after 31 years.

Kaduce was among the dissatisfied. “Probably because we had to listen to it,” she says.

But there always was music at home, even if it wasn’t opera. “I got a lot of it through my mom,” Kaduce says. Jan Kaduce played the organ in church and had her daughter sing her first solo there at age 4: “This Little Light of Mine.”

Jan didn’t let her daughter get stage fright.

“She treated it as a normal thing,” Kaduce says. “I never knew to be nervous or scared.”

At Blue Earth High, Kaduce sang in the concert choir and the pop choir. There were solo and ensemble vocal groups and a spot on the All-State Choir.

“She was a wonderkid,” Ellingsen says, “fantastic at everything she did.” Kaduce was musical and athletic, he remembers. “She had natural talent, but was a hard worker, too.”

Kaduce played volleyball and softball. It’s not unusual for opera singers to be athletes, she says.

“What we do in opera is actually quite athletic. Opera is not for the delicate of health and nature.”

It’s also not unusual for an opera performer to have little exposure to opera while growing up, says Eric Simonson, stage and production director for “Rusalka” and “The Shining.”

“A lot of opera singers — men especially — don’t even know” they should give it a try, Simonson says. “Not many people who grew up watching opera can sing opera,” he adds.

All-State Choir in high school took Kaduce to St. Olaf in Northfield, “a big choral music school for voice,” she says. She chose it for college.

As an athlete, Kaduce says she was interested in the physiology of the body and thought she’d be a physical therapist — with a little music on the side, “my guilty pleasure.”

But biology was a roadblock. “I couldn’t remember plant parts,” she says, adding later that she probably should have put them to music, since she has no problem learning lyrics.

The music staff at St. Olaf encouraged Kaduce to make music her first choice and she graduated in 1996 with a bachelor’s degree in vocal performance.

Kaduce worked temporary jobs and sang with a light opera company in Cape Cod until graduate school at Boston University, where she received a masters in vocal performance. At BU, she won the prestigious Metropolitan Opera Auditions in 1999, singing the aria from “Rusalka.”

She’s never returned to live in Minnesota — but is a regular with the Minnesota Opera — performing in recent years in “Madame Butterfly” twice, “Turandot,” “La Boheme” and “The Grapes of Wrath.” She had the lead in “Rusalka” when Minnesota Opera premiered this production in 2008 and has toured with it.

Simonson, who also is an actor, playwright, Tony winner and Academy Award-winner for a documentary, has been working with Minnesota Opera for 25 years. He directed Kaduce in “Rusalka,” which has a plot similar to “The Little Mermaid,” in 2008.

“She’s really grown as an artist,” said Simonson, who has directed “Rusalka” five times although not all with Kaduce in the lead role.

“Kelly’s not satisfied with what she did last time,” he said. “She wants to go beyond that.”

Simonson says Kaduce has a natural singing talent but is also “a really phenomenal actress. That’s rare.”

Kaduce says “Rusalka” is particularly challenging because the Antonin Dvorak opera, completed in the late 1800s, is in Czechoslovakian, a difficult language to sing. Operas have “language checkers” to help them with proper pronunciation. For a performance of “Rusalka” in Sweden, her Czech checker was Polish.

Kaduce met her husband, baritone Lee Gregory, on a tour with the San Francisco Opera. They travel with their 4-year-old son, Colin.

If there was always music in the house when Kaduce was growing up in Winnebago, there’s even more in the Gregory house in Houston, Texas.

“Everything is a song in our house,” she said. “There’s a song for everything from bathtime to taking medicine.”

And the volume may be higher in the Houston home. Opera singers just naturally project their voices, Kaduce says, so she wasn’t surprised when Colin’s preschool teacher said he had just one behavior that needed work: He’s too loud.

Kathy Berdan, Saint Paul Pioneer Press
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