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Opera Family -- Lincoln brother and sister are learning with a master

November 22, 2011

Fifth grader Alexis Clare McKinnon of Lincoln practices vocalizing as her voice instructor Rene de la Garza plays the piano, and her brother, Brendan McKinnon, 7, looks on. Photo/Butch Adams

CRANSTON — One afternoon a week for the last five years, Lincoln dad Brian McKinnon has buckled his young children into his car's backseat for the short trek to Prof. Rene de la Garza's Orchard Street home.
He did so for his daughter, Alexis Clare, who was taking voice lessons from the renowned master, the University of Rhode Island's Director of Opera Programming and also a member of the institution's Department of Music & Vocal Studies faculty.
All the while, her kid brother, Brendan, would sit on the foyer's floor and entertain himself with Lego toy building bricks.
“One day, about a month ago, I asked him to humor me and come to the piano, so he put down his Legos and did,” de la Garza grinned Tuesday afternoon. “He was a little hesitant at first, but I auditioned him, and he could match pitches precisely with the piano. He sang very well.”
Immediately, the teacher approached father Brian and explained he had an open role in an upcoming performance of “Gianni Schicchi,” a one-act, comic opera composed by Puccini in 1916-17. He also indicated Brendan, now seven and a Lonsdale Elementary School second grader, would be perfect to play “Gherardino.”
When the eldest McKinnon landed back at his Lonsdale home, he walked up to his wife, Laurie, and said, “Guess what? Rene is putting Brendan into an Italian opera,” to which she replied, “You're kidding, right?
“When I looked at her and smiled, she just said, 'Nothing surprises me anymore with our children,'” Brian stated.
The next four or five weeks will be mighty busy for the McKinnons. This weekend, they will traipse to the URI Concert Hall to watch Brendan in “Gianni Schicchi,” which will be performed on Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m.
On Saturday, Nov. 26, the family will drive to Woonsocket so 11-year-old Alexis Clare — a Lonsdale fifth-grader who has quite the resume — can appear in the “Stadium Theatre Christmas” show. The featured artist will croon not only Mariah Carey's “Oh, Santa” with eight members of the Maria Benson Center of Dance interpreting the song behind her, but also debut her new original tune “Only at Christmas Time.”
It was written by North Kingstown resident Greg Berger, a music teacher at Ricci Middle School in North Providence; the performance is slated for 7:30 p.m.
Fast forward to Thursday, Dec. 15, and Alexis Clare – the youngest professional member of Opera Providence – will be back on stage with her fellow members singing assorted arias from “Amahl & the Night Visitors” during a performance called “Buon Natale.” That's slated for Metacomet Country Club in East Providence, again at 7:30 p.m.
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Performing “Amahl” holds a special place in Alexis Clare's heart. At age nine, she became the youngest child world-wide ever to have played the lead role in a professional opera or musical production.
That just happened to be the aforementioned opera, conducted by the URI Opera Workshop in November 2010 at its Concert Hall.
She began singing at age two, and has been studying under de la Garza since just after her fifth birthday. When he first heard the girl's five-octave soprano voice – which ranges from low G to whistle tones, similar to Carey (her heroine) and the late Minnie Riperton (of “Lovin' You” fame) – he told Alexis Clare's parents she would become his youngest student ever.
At seven, she was invited by The Juilliard School of New York City to the Pre-College Division Saturday Morning Program. Since then, she has performed at the “Movies & Musicals” show at URI; with the school's Opera Theater Ensemble'; and several times with Opera Providence.
In May 2010, she provided the opening act for two-time Grammy Award winner Bill Harley at Lincoln High School during “The Farewell Party” for the Fairlawn Early Learning Center's closing; and, a few months later, sang at the Southern New England Women's Expo at Twin River.
Just recently, the McKinnon parents were astonished to learn their daughter had received requests she perform at the Miss Teen World Pageants, and also “The Star-Spangled Banner” at several sporting events.
When asked how he felt about surpassing his sister as the youngest ever to perform in a professional opera, Brendan laughed, pumped his fist and exclaimed, “Yeah, baby!” Turns out, the inquisitor was wrong.
“Technically, he won't trump Alexis in the sense of being the youngest child ever to have a lead role in a professional opera or musical production,” Brian noted. “However, he will be the youngest performer with the URI Department of Music & Vocal Studies, and the youngest to have a part in one of their operas.
“At home, Alexis will sing a note, and he'll do one, and they'll go back and forth,” he continued. “Brendan matches every note. At first, I was stunned. I mean, all I knew was that the kid loved 'Star Wars' and 'Transformers,' so I thought he'd be the next sound effects guy for, like, a movie.”
When asked if he feared singing before a large audience, the boy just replied, “Nah, I'm not afraid. My sister can do it, so – if I mess up – I know she'll help me. She helps me practice and get better.”
Actually, this weekend will not be his first foray into acting, as he played a bit, non-speaking role in “Amahl” last November, while her sister performed the lead, one most opera directors give to boys.
“Can I believe I have two opera singers as children? Yes and no,” Brian offered. “To have that kind of musical talent in both of my children, I'm not surprised. I know it comes from my mom and dad, (the late) Fred and Clare McKinnon.
“They were a singing duo for over 30 years at supper clubs statewide,” he added. “They were local and national recording stars in the music business for over 40 years. My dad worked very closely with the late Jimmy Crane, who wrote 'Hurt' for Elvis Presley. He was a renowned Irish tenor who was considered one of the greatest.
“Brendan is a percussionist, just loves playing the drums, and Alexis just has this voice. There are two things working here: There's perfect pitch and relative pitch. Alexis has the latter, and Brendan does, too. The way I look at it, there are few families out there like the 'Jackson 5,' the 'Osmond Brothers' or 'David and Shaun Cassidy,' or even the Cowsills of Newport. With these kids, I know their talent stems from their grandparents.
“I never worry about Alexis, because she has experience doing this; with Brendan, I know he'll just do the best he can,” Brian stated. “Whatever they do, they always put 110 percent effort into it.”

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Berger explained he wrote “Only at Christmas Time” at age 33 while living in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts.
“I wasn't a music teacher there; I was a waiter,” he chuckled while at de la Garza's house Tuesday. “My dream was never to write a No. 1 hit, only something that would last forever, pass the test of time. I wrote it in 1990, the first week of December, and the snow was coming down. The first two lines basically wrote themselves – 'Christmas is coming, the snow is falling.'
“That led to 'The kids will be happy when Santa comes calling,'” he continued. “The lyrics came really quick after that. I was never a singer or a performer; I just used the piano as a writing tool … Composing it took much longer. It's never been performed, though it has been recorded by three previous local singers. It was professionally arranged for a piano score, and recently arranged for a full, orchestral score.
“When I first met Alexis and heard her sing, I was floored. Now that a child is singing it, I think it gives it a new interpretation. I mean, Christmas is for all children, and having a little girl interpret it and sing it through her eyes, I can't wait. I'm very excited, and perhaps a little nervous for her. She's only 11, but, heck, she's a pro. I'm so impressed with her voice. It's well beyond her years.
“When she said she'd do it, I was overjoyed.”
In response to Brendan's “Yeah, baby!” comment, Alexis just giggled.
“I just want to see him succeed,” she said. “I don't have any issue with him doing whatever he wants to do. I'm not surprised at all he's singing; he's so good at it. He's been listening to my lessons for at least five years, every solitary week. I know my dad told Rene he could hit those notes, and I knew he could because I've heard him.
“He's a big fan of Led Zeppelin and Todd Rundgren, and my favorites are Mariah; Marie Callas, who was one of the best opera singers in the world; and Katy Perry,” she added. “We're different that way, but I know he can do it. I have complete faith in him.”
Their professor refuses to compare the two.
“He hasn't had the lessons or training like Alexis has, but he has a gift, a natural gift,” he said. “They're both immensely talented. With Alexis, she has an exceptional vocal range, and she's a very good actress on stage. With Brendan, Brian kept telling me he could match his sister note for note, so I finally said a month ago, 'You know what? I'll give him a try.'
“I wasn't disappointed.”
Brian admitted it's going to be a hectic month or so for his wife and children, but they're all looking forward to it.
“I can't tell you how happy we are, how blessed we are,” he offered. “All I can say is 'Thank you, Mom and Dad' for the talent you've given our children, your grandchildren. God's definitely involved, too. I know they've got a lot to offer, and we're tickled about it.”

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For anyone interested in purchasing tickets to see the “McKinnon Kids,” tickets are $5 or $10 per person for “Gianni Schicchi” this weekend at URI; $16 and $19 for “Stadium Theatre Christmas” on Nov. 26; and $55 per person for “Buon Natale” at Metacomet CC on Dec. 15.
For more information or to reserve ducats for the latter, call (401) 331-6060.

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