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Big voice in a little package

January 25, 2011

LINCOLN — Brian McKinnon readily admits it's a strange way to discover a child's talent for vocals, but that's just what happened in the family's bathroom one night back in January 2003.
He decided to give his then-two-year-old daughter, Alexis Clare, a bath one night, and – as always – he turned on the radio to amuse her, maybe keep her mind off soap in her eyes.
“Mariah Carey's song, 'I Can Make It Through The Rain,' came on, and I turned my back for a minute to grab a facecloth,” McKinnon laughed recently. “All of a sudden, she started singing, note for note, in the right pitch and octave for octave. “I can make it through the rain, I can stand up once again' … It was perfect!
“I turned around and she was dancing in the tub, just beltin' it out,” he added.
Offered Alexis' mother, Laurie (Cullen): “Brian called me into the room, and I was, like, 'Oh, my God!' Brian explained she was singing right on key. I was stunned.”
Now 10 and a Lonsdale Elementary fourth-grader, Alexis is making quite a name for herself on the regional and national levels. Back on Nov. 21, at age nine, she became the youngest singer/actress ever to be chosen for the lead role of an opera at a university or with New York City's Metropolitan Opera.
Because of her supreme voice, she earned the top role for the University of Rhode Island Opera Workshop's “Amahl & the Night Visitors,” a classic opera created by Gian-Carlo Menotti and produced/directed by Prof. Rene de la Garza, who heads the URI Department of Music & Vocal Studies.
“We had that checked with the Metropolitan Opera, and (officials there) confirmed it,” Brian stated of his little girl, whose five-octave soprano voice ranges from low G to whistle tones. “Remember (the late) Minnie Riperton (known for her stunning 1970s rendition of 'Lovin' You')?” Brian asked. “She can reach those tones.”
Honestly? Alexis' immediate future couldn't look brighter. She's twice auditioned for the role of a mob informant's daughter in Arlene Violet's screenplay, “The Family” (the part is pending), and also is the newest star of “Opera Providence,” directed by de la Garza himself.
Recently, representatives of the Oprah Winfrey Show contacted the McKinnons about Alexis, and may include the youngster in the superstar's 2011 “Farewell Season Tour.”
“We're also in the process of challenging the Guinness Book of World Records, which stated that an 11-year-old 'America's Got Talent' contestant, Jackie Evancho, is the youngest opera singer on the globe,” Brian noted. “The problem with that is Jackie's not an opera singer, but someone who's known as a 'classical crossover.'
“That means just because someone sings an opera aria, it doesn't define her as an opera singer,” he continued. “Alexis is both an opera singer and performer, so Guinness is now validating her performances, and – of course – her age.”
She also has associated with such star performers as Mariah Carey, Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez.

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While the McKinnon parents admit being surprised by their baby girl's dramatic efficiency in the bathtub, they do understand how the talent came to be. Brian's father, the late Frederic M. McKinnon of Pawtucket, was a renowned Irish tenor, and – in 1950 – competed on the original “Ted Mack Amateur Hour” on television.
“He beat out the likes of Pat Boone and Harry Belafonte, but eventually lost to a little seven-year-old girl named Gladys Knight,” Brian says with pride. “Dad won his last national title in 1953 after singing 'Danny Boy,' 'A Little Bit of Heaven' and 'When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.' He taught school in Pawtucket, and was also known as the father of Rhode Island Interscholastic League soccer.”
As for his mom, Clare, she was classically trained in voice and piano at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston and later became a concert pianist.
“They became a duo called, naturally, 'Fred & Clare,' and they did dinner club acts all over the country,” Brian mentioned. “They made a living doing that for 25-plus years.”
As for Brian himself, Laurie revealed “He's very good. His sister, Erin, can sing, and his brother was a pianist.”
At that point, Brian began serenading his daughter with “Danny Boy,” and Alexis covered her eyes, yelling, “Stop, Daddy!”
Even her little brother, six-year-old Brendan, is musically-inclined. A drummer, he's currently taking lessons with Woonsocket High music teacher Mike Sartini. He also played a little shepherd boy in “Amahl.”
“Her talent comes from Brian's family, no question,” Laurie stated. “I'm blown away by all of the things she's done. The crazy thing is, she's only been singing in public and recording songs for about 15 months now. She's just not afraid, and that surprises me, because I never could have imagined myself as a kid doing what she does.”
Actually, Alexis Clare – that's her “stage” name – became the “Gerber” baby for advertisements at nine months old. That's another story Brian revels in telling.
“There was a national photo shoot, with at least 3,000 children there; it was, like, an hour-and-a-half wait, and I said, 'The heck with that!'” he chuckled. “I walked past everybody and up the stairs, and I asked someone where you had to go to for the Gerber baby photo registration. A woman said, 'You've found it.'
“She looked at Alexis and said, 'That's it! There's our baby!' They took pictures to see how photogenic she was, and she told me she was perfect, with her big blue eyes,” he added. “Patty Cruz is a well-known professional photographer, and she took pics of her for the GAP (stores) and Gerber. She's another one who told me, 'I've taken shots of people all over the world, and this kid has IT.
“As far as I'm concerned, it's all about genetics, what she got from my mom and dad. It must have come through me. She's got her mom's good looks and brains, and my parents' talent.”

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Her father, a 1986 Shea High graduate and now a concert promoter and artist productions manager, began working with Alexis shortly after her fifth birthday.
According to Laurie, the father-daughter tandem went to his place of employment in Warwick one day, and Brian asked Alexis to sing for his friend, Raffi, also a URI music student. Amazed by the girl's range, Raffi indicated his professor would want to hear her sing, so Brian gave him his business card.
“Just 24 hours later, Rene called the house and said, 'I understand you have a girl who has talent. How would you like to come to URI?,'” claimed Brian, a full voting member of the National Recording Academy Grammy Foundation. “I told him I'd head down tomorrow, and – when we walked through the door – he looked at Laurie. I think he thought she was the one to sing.
“I then explained Alexis was the singer, and he just said, 'Uh … uh,'” he continued. “She went over to the piano, and he did the scales. By the third octave, he jumped two octaves higher to test her, and Alexis nailed it. He just said, 'Alexis, I need to talk to your mom and dad.'
“He told us she was amazing, had perfect pitch, and he wanted to take her on as a student. She's still the only child he's ever taught, and the only one who studies and performs with the URI Department of Music & Vocal Studies.”
When asked what she does for fun, Alexis didn't hesitate.
“Sing!” she blurted.
“I like watching (the TV show) 'iCarly,' but I love singing,” she offered. “I don't want to waste it. I don't want to forget about it. If I didn't sing for, say, a few months, I'd feel empty inside. It would make me upset. I've been given a gift, and not too many people have that. I like making people happy, because that's what makes me happy.”

**

At age seven, Alexis was one of the youngest students ever to be invited by the Julliard School in New York to take part in its Pre-College Division Saturday Morning Program.
On March 7, 2010, she sang “When You Wish Upon A Star” with fellow soprano Diana McVey in “Movies & Musicals,” which was directed by her professor, at the URI Fine Arts Concert Hall. There she performed with both professional and collegiate performers.
In May, she provided the opening act for two-time Grammy Award winner and Seekonkian Bill Harley before “The Farewell Party,” which commemorated the closing of the Fairlawn Early Learning Center. That took place at Lincoln High.
She also performed, on Oct. 3, at the Twin River Event Center during the Southern New England Women's Expo; and, later that month, she delivered “Castle on a Cloud” and “When You Wish Upon A Star” during the Music Mansion in Providence.
Exactly a year before, in 2009, Alexis was a VIP guest of Mariah Carey on NBC's “The Today Show.” She met her when she was five as Brian worked closely with the star for several years.
“I didn't have to sing for Mariah because, I think, my dad told her,” she smiled while discussing their first meeting at Mohegan Sun on Aug. 26, 2006, when she was five. “She told me, 'I know you can sing.' Mariah told everyone to leave her dressing room. She sat me down on the floor and put my hair in pigtails. We talked about shopping, and she even gave me a cookie.
“That was awesome,” she added. “We had a blast!”
Brian explained his daughter “can sing the phone book, to quote Randy Jackson of American Idol,” adding “she can sing opera, country, R&B, pop, rock, you-name-it. She recently has recorded songs such as 'You're No Good' by Linda Ronstadt and 'What About Love' by Heart.”
“If someone asks me if Alexis can perform at an event, I just say, 'It's up to her,'” he continued. “I don't push my kid. Laurie and I don't push either of them, because their choices are theirs.”
Alexis, who already has a demo CD, also is preparing to perform original Christmas songs for the next holiday season with songwriter/composer Gregory Berger of North Kingstown.
She promised, amazingly, nervousness never sets in.
“When you go on stage, there are thousands of emotions running through your head,” she said, noting Lonsdale Elementary music teacher Neil Letendre also has played a role in her development. “The main one, for me, is to make the audience happy. Maybe they're not having such a great day, so I want to make them happier. Getting a standing ovation is better than getting a bunch of gifts at Christmas.
“Say there's a little boy who hits a home run, and he's only my age. You know that's going to make him feel terrific,” she added. “With singing, it's a little different because, instead of a team, it's the audience you're trying to make feel good … I always thought I'd be afraid to do shows, but – as I kept doing them – I'd just tell myself I'd do fine. I say, 'Alexis, you're just a little girl. What can people expect from you?'
“Someday, I want to be a pop singer like Katy Perry or Mariah because they've got awesome, awesome voices. That's basically my goal – to be like them.”

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