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Standing tall: Australian opera singer has audiences taking notice

Elizabeth Lewis went from the FM Opera's Young Artists Program to the starring role in the season opener of "Die Fledermaus". Dave Wallis / The Forum

FARGO—Elizabeth Lewis' career as an opera singer is just getting started, but when she's ready to look back on her life as a performer, her mother has already suggested the perfect title: "Taller Than a Tenor".

"I'm 6-foot-1. You're not going to miss me," Lewis says with a laugh.

Her height may catch your eye, but the soprano's voice will open your eyes. The 30-year-old returns to the Festival Concert Hall stage Friday night in the Fargo-Moorhead Opera's weekend production of "Die Fledermaus."

It's her first starring role with the FM Opera — all the more impressive considering she was just a member of the organization's Gate City Bank Young Artist Program earlier this year.

She made her American stage debut in FM Opera's "Speed Dating Tonight" in February, just weeks after arriving from her native Brisbane, Australia, but it was her first mainstage appearance as the boy-crazy Edith in "Pirates of Penzance" in April that really turned heads. While only a secondary character, Lewis' stage presence was so magnetic that she stole attention even when she wasn't singing.

"Some of it is natural. Some of it is what Eric (Gibson, the director) does with direction. I'm definitely not that boy-crazy," she says.

FM Opera general director David Hamilton gives Lewis more credit.

"She's very high-energy on stage and that's something you can't teach," he says. "You have to have a certain amount of natural talent that draws the audience into your performance."

Hamilton says her ascension from secondary character to star is a model for what the Young Artist Program tries to do. Every year the curriculum is a mix of lessons, performances and outreach opportunities that foster emerging performers through various experiences.

"It's kind of the way it's supposed to work," he says. "We bring these young singers here to nurture their careers and some of them just explode out of the program and are ready to take leading roles, not only here, but around the country. We're real happy to have the opportunity to bring her back."

Also returning from last year's class are Kate Jackman and Nick DeMeo.

Hamilton adds that YAP alum Holly Flack sang Queen of the Night in last fall's "The Magic Flute" and will return to sing "Alcina" in February.

Lewis is excited not only to return to the FM stage, but also to move from the midcentury modern setting of "Pirates" to a more classical production in Johann Strauss Jr.'s "Die Fledermaus". She explains that she's moving into, what she calls, "regal roles," like countesses and queens. While her character in "Die Fledermaus," Rosalinde, isn't royalty, she is a woman of some wealth, social standing and also smarts.

"It's great fun," she says. "I like the interplay between her and (her husband) Eisenstein. She's witty, funny and sassy and she sees through Eisenstein, but enjoys the reminiscence of what might have been."

"This role of Rosalinda fits her very well, almost like the proverbial glove. She's quite hilarious in her role," Hamilton adds.

He says that while Lewis is "quite tall for a soprano," her height isn't an issue onstage.

"It's simply a matter of making sure that her counterpart also has some height so the couple looks totally believable as a couple," he says, adding that baritone Christopher Burchett as Eisenstein fits the bill.

Lewis is also excited for her mother and father to visit from their home in Brisbane. Lewis hasn't seen them since she got married, just 10 days before she packed up and headed to Fargo in January to take part in the Young Artist Program. Her husband followed soon after and the newlyweds now live in Chicago.

"I'm excited to show them around," Lewis says of her parents' visit. "They've heard me talk about everyone who has helped me out so well ... Fargo was warm and welcoming. It was my little home away from home."

That said, she has advice for emerging singers who are considering applying for the Young Artist Program.

"Bring a coat. It's January," she says. "Be prepared to work hard and have fun. The rewards of working hard are so great. Seeing the joy on kids' faces, or going into the retirement communities, that's priceless."

If You Go

What: "Die Fledermaus"

When: 7:30 p.m., Friday and 2 p.m., Sunday

Where: Festival Concert Hall, NDSU

Info: Tickets from $5 to $85, https://www.fmopera.org, (701) 239-4558.

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