UW-Milwaukee student Kathryn Henry, known as Katie, showed a passion for music before she could walk or talk.
“We would play music for her, and you could see her feet and her hands move,” Katie’s dad, Bruce Henry, said. “She would dance in her mom’s belly.”
At the age of five, she declared she wanted to be a music teacher. She also joined a youth choral as early as elementary school, and followed-up with countless other music endeavors in high school.
“It’s just been a progressive thing all of her life,” Bruce Henry said. “She’d pick up an instrument and learn to play it, or she’d hear an instrument and would want to learn how to play it.”
At times, Katie Henry even found music more compelling than following the rules.
“The first night I had my clarinet, I taught myself two songs,” she said. “Our teacher told us not to take our instruments out of the case, but I took it out anyways. I taught myself two songs by ear and I went back to school, and I said ‘I know how to play it!’”
In high school, Henry thought she had found her talent with the bassoon. It wasn’t until her sophomore year in college that a lead role in a Peck School of the Arts opera production changed her course.
“My voice just started clicking together,” Henry said. “Everything just started working and I understood what was going on.”
Her discovery led her to drop the major in bassoon, to focus on voice and opera.
Long days of training to keep her voice strong and healthy have paid off. She has performed in a number of opera scene programs and won many competitions. After winning at the Wisconsin District competition and Upper Midwest regional event in St. Paul, Minn., Henry is ready to take her voice to one of the most acclaimed opera houses: the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
“It’s out of the ordinary because I’m so young,” she said.
At 22-years-old, she is among the 17 semi-finalists who will compete at the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in March. If selected for the finals, she will sing with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and vie for a $15,000 prize as well as the chance to advance her professional career.
“At first I was really excited, but now I’m kind of nervous because it’s the Met,” Henry said.
Helping her through the nerves and preparing her for the competition is Dr. Tanya Kruse Ruck, assistant professor of Voice and Opera at UWM.
“It is unusual for her to be where she is vocally, but also musically,” Kruse Ruck said, who has also been helping Henry polish her repertoire and maintain vocal hygiene.
“She picks up on things really quickly vocally,” Kruse Ruck said. “She’s got a very natural instrument, but she’s also worked really hard to develop that natural instrument.”
At competitions, judges are surprised by Henry’s mature voice.
“I don’t know where it came from,” Henry said. “It’s just here.”
Kruse Ruck, however, attributes Henry’s success to hard work.
“Her strong instrumental background has made her an even stronger singer,” Kruse Ruck said. “She understands the way the orchestra works in a way that most singers wouldn’t.”
Henry’s work in music theory and history, performance classes and opera workshops speak to the strong collaborative effort by professors at the Peck School of the Arts, according to Kruse Ruck.
“Her success really shows the kind of teamwork that the music department as a whole executes on a regular basis with all of our students,” she said.
Katie’s parents couldn’t be more proud.
“To see one of your children excel at what they’re passionate about … it’s a joy that’s indescribable,” Bruce Henry said.
The national semifinals are on March 15. If selected as a finalist, Henry will perform at the finals on March 22. Henry knows this performance could be a great stepping-stone in her professional career. As seriously as she is preparing for it, though, she seems almost nonchalant.
“I just want to have enough performances and have a nice, solid career,” Henry said. “It doesn’t have to be a huge career. I don’t need to be famous to be happy because I get to sing for the rest of my life.”