Missionary experience leads young singer to Broadway

NEW YORK — Soprano Lisa Hopkins of the Manhattan 8th Ward in New York City has been receiving rave reviews for her role as one of three alternating Mimis in producer/director Baz Luhrmann's critically acclaimed Broadway version of Puccini's opera, "La Boheme."

AMOUR-COUPLES-04 Photo: Photo by Stefan Ventrello

As a high school student — and valedictorian — at the Waterford School in Sandy, a Salt Lake City suburb, her No. 1 goal was always a career in opera.

"It was never one of my goals to end up on Broadway," she said during a recent telephone interview from New York.

And now she's landed both on Broadway — and in an Italian opera.

Born in Simi Valley, Calif., she lived in seven states with her family, eventually landing in Utah. She served an LDS mission in Vienna, Austria — a city considered to be the center of the universe for classical music and opera — where she and several others put together a touring multimedia show, combining elements of drama, dance and, of course, music.

Through that exposure, she has a standing invitation to audition for the Basel Opera House in Switzerland. Other auditions have brought her to the attention of the renowned Chicago Lyric Opera Company, where she's been invited to sing in 2003-04.

The young performer trained with Jo Ann Ottley, long-time voice coach for the Tabernacle Choir, and Ariel Bybee who was formerly with the New York Metropolitan Opera. Most recently she has been studying with Marlene Malas, considered by some, including Beverly Sills, to be the top vocal coach in New York.

Lisa Hopkins is the daughter of James and Barbara Hopkins of Salt Lake City.

Lisa Hopkins
Lisa Hopkins Photo: Photo by Stefan Ventrello

She feels that her mission to Austria was a major turning point in her life.

"My mission was entirely fundamental in instilling in me what I wanted to do artistically. I ended up serving with eight incredible musicians throughout the time I was there. The district leader of my area was a violist from the Eastman School in Rochester, N.Y. One of my companions was a vocal major from Brigham Young University. We put on 21 multimedia concerts, which involved less-active youths, and now we're all best friends."

During her mission, Sister Hopkins "knew then that I needed to be involved with large, cutting-edge undertakings — and opera is the one art form that combines theater, dance, music and language. This production of 'La Boheme' combines opera, Hollywood and Broadway. It's exactly what I was looking for."

Things began to fall into place the minute she returned home from her mission.

She first auditioned for Luhrmann's production about a year and a half ago, originally aiming for the role of Musetta, a more flamboyant character — who wears a bright red dress — and they asked if she had some of the other arias.

"After that, I basically thought nothing of it. Six months went by, and then I had a hunch that I might be getting a call from the company," she said.

She checked her answering machine one evening and was told that the producers wanted to hear her audition again — but this time for the role of Mimi, the young Parisian who is dying of tuberculosis.

Lisa Hopkins exceeded her life's goal landing a lead role in "La Boheme," on Broadway after her mission to Austria.
Lisa Hopkins exceeded her life's goal landing a lead role in "La Boheme," on Broadway after her mission to Austria. Photo: Photo by Sue Adler

"This was six months later and, by that time, my technique was much, much better. Then I had seven callbacks."

Before opening in mid-December in New York City, "La Boheme" had a monthlong "out-of-town" trial run in San Francisco. It was a sold-out engagement.

Unlike the rock-opera production of "Rent" (also based on "La Boheme" — and also playing on Broadway) the new Luhrmann production is, basically, a "re-imagined" edition. Puccini's text is sung in Italian, with English supertitles, but Luhrmann has shifted the action to Paris in the 1950s.

"This is exactly what opera needs, and what Broadway needs, too," the singer/actress said. "It's been quite amazing."

She noted that the Italian opera is "very accessible to the New York audience. It's about starving actors who cannot pay the rent." But there's one aspect that might be slightly out of touch for today's audiences — the fact that Mimi is dying of tuberculosis.

"It's about love and learning how to survive and not letting your dreams shatter. It's about people who, despite being poverty-stricken, understand their priorities. There's a humility that pervades their Bohemian spirit," she said.

Due to the opera's demanding score, the production's two leads — poet Rodolfo and seamstress Mimi — are both triple-cast.

Lisa Hopkins' contract with the production runs through next September.

Her ward is located near New York's theater district in the Church-owned high-rise building that is being renovated to house a new temple.

She attended Yale College in New Haven, Conn., where she was a founder of the school's opera company, and now attends the Manhattan School of Music. Her first performance in a fully staged opera was playing Cleopatra in Yale College's production of "Julius Caesar." She also performed in "The Threepenny Opera." Her senior thesis project was a one-woman opera called "The Human Voice."

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