One McHenry County College student has found his voice, and it’s a big one.
Aaron Anderson, 20, of Spring Grove grew up in a musical family. He plays piano and trumpet and has performed in high school theater, in mostly ensemble roles and singing in the choir.
The Richmond-Burton Community High School graduate recently had begun learning to sing opera at McHenry County College in Crystal Lake. He said he only selected the class as an elective for something different to round out his schedule.
But that decision led to much more.
For the past three semesters, he said, he was taught the techniques of singing opera from Nancy Shaw at the college. But he had no clue where this would lead him, approaching it as more of a hobby.
Through his friend Peter Barber, a professional opera singer, he learned about a Czech opera, Dvorak’s “Rusalka,” to be presented at Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts that needed a bass-baritone to play a lead character, Vodnik.
“The man playing Vodnik ended up flaking on him,” Anderson recalled. “He needed a new singer for the part, and Peter knew I was the right voice type for it. After hearing about this, I sent in my audition and was accepted shortly after.”
Just fresh to learning the techniques of opera, with no knowledge of the Czech language and just weeks to learn, Anderson took on the challenge and worked hard with the show’s musical director/pianist, Luke Housner.
The show went on.
The opera’s story is similar to that of “The Little Mermaid” by Hans Christian Andersen. Through the lens of Czech folklore, it tells the story of Rusalka, who is a mermaid/water nymph who falls in love with a man and wants to leave the sea to be with him, Anderson said.
In the opera, Anderson played Vodnik, or “water gnome,” the equivalent of the King Triton, he said.
“It wasn’t terrible,” Anderson said humbly of his performance. “It could have gone a little better … [but] it was a lot of fun.”
His mother, Tracy Anderson, who traveled to Philadelphia to see him perform from July 27 to 29, said, “It was fabulous.”
“It is always fun to watch your kids do things, but this was cool to just see him reach out and take on such a challenging task, head-on, and watch him take off,” she said.
This uplifting experience comes on the heels of great loss for the Anderson family. Tracy Anderson, who has five children including Aaron, said her husband, Leif Anderson, died last summer.
“It’s been a very difficult year for us,” she said. “That’s what makes all of this even more amazing to me. He was able to keep things together and stay motivated, doing things that make him happy. It is heartbreaking his dad couldn’t be there to see him. He would have been over the moon excited.”
Watching her son perform in an opera with less than one year of opera training “was fascinating,” as was the experience of watching her first-ever opera, Tracy Anderson said.
“It was cool, enjoyable and fun to hear him and his powerful voice intermixed with the others who are five to eight years older than him, and he held his own,” she said. “I thought he did a wonderful job. And, of course, just the normal mom pride, it’s so cool to say ‘that’s my kid up there.’ ”
Shaw said she is “very, very proud” of her student and that he has “a real gift.”
Anderson praised Shaw, saying she prepared him for this unexpected opportunity.
“I’m definitely glad the voice option caught my eye when I was signing up for electives, or I’d never have been skilled enough to make much of this opportunity,” Anderson said.
Anderson said that with each performance there were different actors playing the other roles as part of the academy’s summer workshop, but he performed at each show.
“Growing up, I barely even knew about opera,” Anderson said. “It was just never on my radar. It’s only recently that I grew interested in the genre.”
And his newfound interest pleases his voice teacher and the MCC faculty.
“The very first lesson, I knew there was something special about him vocally,” said Shaw, who recently retired after almost 50 years of teaching voice lessons. “His focus, his ability to pick up all my guidance and suggestions quickly. If he chooses to do more (with singing), he can do more. I think he has all of the qualifications vocally. ... The fact I can’t continue with him is heartbreaking.”
Daniela Broderick, MCC dean of arts and humanities, said the music department is proud of Anderson’s accomplishment.
“This is a true testament of what’s possible when we match the dedication and expertise of our faculty with a student’s curiosity, hard work and passion,” Broderick said. “The MCC family cannot wait to see what’s next for Aaron.”
Anderson is pursuing a degree in science at MCC and plans to transfer to another school and earn a degree in physical therapy. He said that for now he considers singing a hobby.
“But if singing takes off, I may change my mind,” he said.
His mother said she “absolutely” would love to see him sing more, but ultimately it is up to him.
Tracy Anderson, who owns Anderson’s Candy Shop in Richmond, where her son and his siblings often work, described Aaron Anderson as “super kind, super smart and generous.”
“He works hard and has so much passion for whatever he is interested in,” she said. “[Pursuing opera] is going to be a matter of what works for him. Whether it is part of his schooling and career or something enjoyable on the side, I don’t think he will never not sing.”