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TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) — Jarrod Lee remembers lying in bed as a child with his grandmother, Mattie Lee, and singing a chorus of We Shall Overcome or This Little Light of Mine each night before falling asleep.
Singing is still a big part of Lee's life as he reaches for the stars in opera and classical music.
The young man from Odena starred this spring with the Maryland Opera Studio at the University of Maryland in the stage production of Shadowboxer, An Opera Based on the Life of Joe Louis.
Lee premiered in the lead role as Alabama-born Joe Louis in the opera by Frank Proto based on the boxer's life. Leon Major directed the opera.
A graduate of Childersburg High School, Lee did not begin to dream of opera until he was a junior at Jacksonville State University. While studying voice with Dr. Richard Armstrong, he became sure opera was going to be in his future.
“I have a deep passion for opera. It is a way to express myself and share what I have learned through life's ups and downs, but safely on stage under a spotlight,” Lee said.
His family has always encouraged his musical interest, whether it was directing a community choir, United Churches Young Praise Community Choir in Odena near Sylacauga, or singing solo at his childhood church,
Pleasant Hill Baptist.
“I didn't think opera would become such a wonderful part of my life further down the road,” he said.
While attending the Upward Bound program in Childersburg under the direction of Joyce Giddens, Lee had the opportunity to sing a solo outside of church.
He recalled that experience. “It was during the annual summer banquet when Janie Giddens, the enrichment teacher, asked me to sing The Battle Hymn of the Republic. Looking back on that event, I was terrified, but after receiving applause from the audience, I knew I wanted more.”
After high school, Lee sought music scholarships across the state. He said Giddens went out of her way to take him to an audition at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He received a scholarship to Central Alabama Community College but when his two years there was up, he was not sure what he would do musically.
PRAYED FOR DIRECTION
“I auditioned for the Jacksonville State University choirs and prayed for direction. The ironic fact about being accepted into JSU was my desire to audition for the gospel choir under the direction of Dr. Myrtice Fields Collins, but I heard of the A Cappella Choir under the direction of Dr. Patricia Corbin,” he said.
Lee auditioned for both choirs on the same day and received scholarships from both but he ended his participation in the gospel choir after a few semesters, continuing in other choirs. He also began studying voice with Armstrong.
“He told me, ‘You can sing classical music [and] opera if you want but it will be hard work’,” Lee said. “He thought I had potential. I thought he was crazy. While in my third semester, I participated in the National Association of Teachers singing voice competitions and I came in third. I couldn't believe it. A little boy from Odena won third place in a classical singing competition. To this day, I thank Dr. Armstrong and continue to ask him to give me voice lessons during my visits home for the holidays.”
While at JSU, Lee was cast in many operas with the Jacksonville Opera Theatre Company under the direction of Dr. Nathan Wright. This program is where, he said, he was bitten by the opera bug.
His experience at JSU came to an end with his graduation in 2008. He traveled here and there to audition for graduate schools in opera.
He was accepted into Indiana's Jacob School of Music, Moore's School of Music in Houston and the University of Maryland's Opera Studio.
He chose the Maryland Opera Studio and doesn't regret the decision.
“I study voice now with Professor Dominic Cossa and have graduated with a master's of music in opera. I have met many famous opera singers who have been everywhere I would like to go in my future career. I have sung for Marilyn Horne, Evelyn Lear and met the Leontyne Price and I do mean the Leontyne Price,” Lee said.
The opera singer said the road he has taken has not been easy.
“I have worked for everything I have and I still want more. There are a lot of levels in opera [and] classical music that I have not begun to touch but I look forward to the challenge and enjoying every step of the way.
It is all a process and things will unfold in their own due time,” he said.
Lee wants to use his knowledge of music to talk to young people. He hopes to start doing that now that he has completed graduate school.
Earlier this year, when Lee made his premiere in the opera in Maryland, some 15 of his family and friends came from Texas, Alabama, Virginia and South Carolina to visit and wish him well on opening night.
Lee is now auditioning for different companies and young artists' programs to further his stage experience while learning more about “this beautiful genre.”
Opera, he said, has “become a lovely complement to my life and I am better for it. I encourage anyone to look outside the box and try something new.”
Lee hopes to return to Sylacauga and give a recital or two after his experiences. He comes home for holidays and a family gathering in late August. He plans to come back and begin some events to help the Jacksonville Opera Theatre Company.
“It's a small company and I believe in giving back to those who helped you get where you are but only if you are in a position to give back. I have already started working on a benefit concert that will feature vocal students of JSU's music department. I am also going to do a few benefit concerts and master classes to assist me in my future plans to go to Europe for auditions and musical enrichment,” Lee said.
Lee's parents are Machellen Lee of Sylacauga and Julyan Lee and wife Janice of Houston, Texas.
The young singer's grandmother, Mattie Woods, and his mother have lived in the area for more than 26 years. His brother, Dominique Lee, is in school at Alabama State University.
“No matter how far I go, I will always have fond memories of Sylacauga and Childersburg,” he said.
Photo: Jarrod Lee