Young opera singer from Kettering gets big break

Kettering’s Caitlin Crabill starred at Sarasota Opera

It’s a familiar and charming scenario: the star of the show isn’t able to go onstage and a talented young performer steps in, receiving rave reviews.

It happened earlier this month to Kettering native Caitlin Crabill.

Crabill, a soprano who has been working as an apprentice and studio artist for the Sarasota Opera in Florida since 2017, was covering the leading role of Wally in the rarely done Italian opera, “La Wally” this season. (In the opera world, those who “cover” a role serve as an understudy.)

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The opera — written by Alfredo Catalani with a libretto by Luigi Illica — is set in a village in the Tyrolian Alps and centers around the central character of Wally, a woman in love with the son of her father’s enemy. Wally chooses her love over her family and is cast out. In a cruel bet, the love of her life breaks her heart, igniting a chain of events that leads to tragedy. It’s a juicy role; the opera features a dramatic death in which Wally throws herself into an avalanche.

Famed conductor Arturo Toscanini believed Catalini was the finest Italian composer of his generation and was so enamored with “La Wally” that he named two of his children for two of the leading characters: Wally, the heroine and Walter, her young friend.

Learning the news

Crabill, who had covered and performed the title role of Turandot for one performance in Sarasota last season, admits she was a bit nervous this year when she was called into the office of artistic director/conductor Victor DeRenzi just 13 days before the opera premiered.

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“I’d been working here for four years so it could have been any number of things,” Crabill recalls. “He pulled me into the office, closed the door and told me soprano Teresa Romano was ill and would have to withdraw.”

Crabill was informed she would be playing the leading role for every “La Wally” performance. “I was shocked but also knew I was ready,” she says. “Rehearsals began that same day so I had to move on from my anxiety immediately.”

A cover, she explains, is tasked with sitting in on all rehearsals and singing the part in a full rehearsal as well.

Rave reviews

On March 9, the 29-year-old took the stage for her exciting opening night. The critics raved.

"Sarasota Opera on Saturday night unveiled a spectacular new production of a hidden gem with the seldom performed Alfredo Catalani opera 'La Wally,' " wrote Gayle Williams in Sarasota's Herald Tribune. "The title character is the strong-willed, impulsive Wally, portrayed by the impeccable Caitlin Crabill. Though 'La Wally' is rarely performed — an undeserved fate — it is widely remembered for one immensely gorgeous aria Wally sings as a melancholy farewell when her father banishes her to the mountains. 'Ebben! Ne andro lontana,' ('Well then, I will go away alone'), soars and sweeps with Crabill's sumptuous voice. The melody floats optimistically up high and returns deep to sorrow making it a diva's favorite."

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Opera War noted that Sarasota was fortunate to have Crabill among its studio artists and lauded her “affecting performance of Wally’s ethereally beautiful first act showpiece aria” as a highlight. The review also noted her mastery of vocally demanding arias in each of the other acts.

“The stars aligned”

Kathleen Clawson has worked for the Santa Fe Opera for over 18 seasons and is the Associate Director of Santa Fe’s Apprentice Singer Program. She regularly comes to town as stage director for Dayton Opera. Clawson says the stars aligned for Caitlin Crabill.

Sarasota Opera’s executive director Richard Russell says in the company’s 60-year history, he can recall only two other times when a cover stepped into a leading role for the entire run. In this case, he says, a number of things occurred to make it possible.

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“This is a rare opera and there are only a handful of people who would know it,” he says. “If it had been an opera like ‘La Boheme,’ we might have considered bringing in a principal from elsewhere.” According to Russell, “La Wally” has had only two other productions in the United States. One was at the Metropolitan Opera in 1908 and the other one was at the Sarasota Opera in 1989.

Russell says another key factor is that Crabill had proved to be so dependable.

“Caitlin was extraordinarily well prepared,” Russell notes. “We knew Caitlin and we know what she’s capable of because she did an extraordinary job last year as Turandot. I played the role of her father in that opera and I remember watching her go on and thinking how calm and collected she was, so self-assured. And she gave a great performance.”

Russell believes the fact that Crabill came on at short notice and did the role so well will help advance her career. “Because this is the rare opera in our season it gets more national and international press,” he adds. “People will notice her.”

Choosing opera

Crabill wasn’t introduced to opera until her college days. Growing up, she attended Southdale Elementary, Van Buren Middle School and Kettering Fairmont High School.

“My mom always had music going in our house and I always loved to sing,” she recalls. “I’d never had anyone tell me I had a special talent but I worked up the nerve to audition for choir in the seventh grade and from then on I sang in choirs and a-cappella groups.

Her high school choral teacher, Brody McDonald, was the first who believed in her voice and encouraged her to keep singing. At Capital University in Columbus, Crabill chose music education as a major and planned to be a teacher. “I never imagined I could sing as a career,” she says. “My voice teacher at Capital was an opera singer and I started looking at YouTube opera videos. When she told me I could be a singer, I changed my major to vocal performance.”

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Crabill says she can “feel it in my bones” when voices are singing with a live orchestra and it all comes together. “Turandot sings a high B in her big aria and I could feel the note ripping across my skin,” she says. “The most wonderful thing about opera is that there is no microphone and you have the ability to make someone’s hair blow back just by singing!”

She continued her studies at Indiana University and graduated from Oklahoma City University with a master of music in opera performance. She also worked at the Bay View Summer Music Festival in Michigan.

A challenging career

“You can love to sing but you have to be ready for the lifestyle,” Crabill says. “You’re travelling a lot, you have to be away from your family and friends and you miss big events like your grandma’s 90th birthday. You have to sacrifice; it’s not always financially stable. You’re auditioning constantly and there’s a lot of rejection. You have to have thick skin.”

Crabill, the daughter of Neal Crabill and Dayton Daily News staff reporter Lynn Hulsey, says she’s lucky to be married to opera singer Samuel Schlievert, who is also with Sarasota Opera. “We get to work together a lot and we’ve only had two contracts where we haven’t been together,” she says. ‘When you’re married to someone who is doing the same thing, they understand if you have to be away. It’s nice to have somebody be a listening ear when you’re singing, someone you can trust who has your best interest at heart.”

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Singing the role of Turandot last year in Sarasota, she says, was thrilling. “It was my dream role to do because it was the first opera I ever saw and the role that made me want to be an opera singer, “she says.

Singing the role of Wally, she adds, came at the perfect time.

“You go through many voice changes in your 20s, 30s and even 40s,” Crabill explains. “Your vocal cords get stronger and that allows you to do heavier and more challenging roles as you get older. I started as a mezzo soprano and am now a soprano. Ten years ago would never had had the notes to sing Wally. “

Although the last three performances of “La Wally” were canceled because of the coronavirus crisis, Caitlin’s memorable performances won’t be forgotten. “I loved every moment of getting to sing the role of Wally and of getting to perform with that cast and orchestra,” she says, adding that it was a great chance for her to step up and show she was ready.

Stephanie Sundine, who played Wally in Sarasota 30 years ago, said Caitlin did a beautiful job. “It’s not an easy role, she’s on stage the whole time,” she says. “The arc of the character is both interesting and challenging. We end up not liking Wally in Act II but she eventually redeems herself.”

Russell is also obviously pleased with their company’s decision to cast Crabill.

“Caitlin Crabill was meticulously prepared to take over the role of Wally when it became necessary,” he says. “She had learned every single aspect — from the detailed staging to every note and word of her role in both Italian and English. Her performance was cheered from opening night on. We are so proud of Caitlin’s dedicated rise through our educational program at Sarasota Opera, and we — and our audiences — are thrilled she was offered this opportunity.”

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