Stepping the stones to success

By on April 9, 2009

by Lynn Meredith
When Christine Heath stepped out of Kaneland High School in 1991, she did not know where her path would lead. As she pursued training and developed her talent, she eventually stepped her way into a remarkable performing career.

Kaneland audiences will have two opportunities to see her perform when she sings at the 50th Anniversary Convocation on Saturday, April 18, and headlines the Kaneland Community Fine Arts Festival on Sunday, April 19.

Known as Christine Marie Heath, this Kaneland alumna is a soprano who performs nationally and internationally. She calls herself a crossover artist because she has the ability to perform musical theater as well as opera.

Heath grew up in Kaneville, and at a young age knew she wanted to sing. Kaneland at that time did not have a large musical theater department, so Heath joined the choir and performed in the Madrigals.

“I knew at a very young age that I wanted to be a singer. I knew I was born to do this,” Heath said. “There was very little for the arts when I was (at Kaneland). We had the two gyms and did only one musical the entire four years I was there.”

Heath credits her choir director, Bonnie Bray, for being supportive and a big influence on her. She and another Kaneland student became involved in the Glen Ellyn Children’s Choir from eighth grade into high school. As a 13-year-old, she started traveling to Scandinavia, Seattle and many other places performing with the choir.

“It was an amazing experience. It helped me blossom. I was able to get out of my box and see the world,” Heath said.

In college at Illinois State University, Heath was still unsure which way to take her music. She sang with the choir for three years. Then, her senior year, the ISU music department decided to put on an opera.

“It was a big thing for them to put on an opera. I got a small role, and I fell in love,” she said.

From then on, Heath was hooked. She enjoyed operas because of their historical significance and the challenge of learning languages well enough to sing convincingly.

“Opera has all the components—lighting, costume, the learning of languages. (Learning languages) was huge for me, a real challenge. I was up for the challenge,” Heath said. “The history of the works that went back so far, back to a distant time and place, really struck me. Opera is more sophisticated than musical theater. You want to know more. It’s unique.”

The next step for Heath was to leave ISU and the Midwest behind and study with her voice teacher’s teacher at the Maryland Opera Studio at the University of Maryland. Here, she was able to delve into both opera and theater.

“I was handed off in a safe way. I was not ready to pack my bags and go to New York City. I felt like it was the next step geographically,” Heath said. “I needed tons of training. I took Italian, Czech, French, German. I studied stage combat, Shakespeare, acting, improvisation and dance. I was able to get enveloped in my art.”

When she graduated with her master’s degree in 1998, Heath knew that she wanted to take the next step and move to New York. She moved to Brooklyn, learned the subway maps and got to know other performers.

“I got in with other singers. The singing world is a small world. I also got a good taste of the starving artist lifestyle. I had temp jobs and waitressing jobs. I remember scraping up change to go to McDonald’s,” Heath said.
Her break came when she got an apprenticeship with Sarasota Opera in Sarasota, Fla.

“From there it just spiraled,” Heath said. “They asked me back for a second season. Then Ohio Light Opera saw me. It became all about connections and all about work ethic.”

When conductors and directors saw her talent and ability to work hard in her roles, the parts started coming in. She could call a conductor she had worked with and ask him to put in a good word for her with another conductor.

“My whole career is about connections or being handed from one person to another,” she said.

Heath learned that she can manage her career as well as a professional manager could and save herself the 5 percent a manager would take. She keeps herself fresh in the minds of directors and conductors by updating them about her career through e-mail.

These days, at age 36, Heath’s priorities have shifted somewhat. She now has two sons, Jake, 4, and Sam, 3, who take up much of her time. As for her career, she pursues it part-time.

“It’s my priority to be home with them. I’m not one to go off and do a bus tour. I target auditions in the Tri-State area where I can either come home on weekends or bring the kids along and hire a nanny,” Heath said.

She lives one hour north of New York City. She focuses on roles that will run only three to six weeks and that are leading parts.

“I’m OK with doing it part-time, but then I want leads. I’ve been playing leads for 10 years. I don’t want to go back to ‘Chorus Girl #4,’” she said.

She does, however, have concerts scheduled this year, one at Trinity Church on Wall Street, and the other, Kaneland Community Fine Arts Festival.

She will sing selections from musicals performed at Kaneland over the last 50 years at the Anniversary Convocation on Saturday evening, April 18, and perform an hour concert during the Fine Arts Festival on Sunday, April 19. Her concert is entitled “The Emotions of Love” and includes humorous musical theater pieces about the roller coaster ride of love. Both performances will take place in the auditorium.

Heath will also teach a master class to Kaneland students.

“I am more than happy to be able to give back to my school. It was the best place to grow up. I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” Heath said.