Kelly Kaduce was killing the last few minutes before rehearsal started at Minnesota Opera. She shuffled back and forth in her furry moccasins, hands stuffed deep in her pants pockets, hair hanging down on her slouched shoulders, occasionally grinning and trading a word with the stage crew.
With her wonky glasses, Kaduce cut the figure of a junior high science grind who does her homework on Friday night rather than splash through the party scene. In the grown-up world of opera, with its large personalities (to be generous), some staggering egos and stormy tempers, she is the anti-diva — someone who works hard, plays well with others and respects all ideas.
She laughs when she hears herself described this way.
"I would like to think so," she said during an interview. "I'm very Minnesotan, I try to make everyone comfortable and feel good about working with me."
She has had several opportunities to do that this season. The world premiere of "The Shining," which opens Saturday, is the Minnesota Opera's third consecutive show to feature Kaduce as the lead soprano — incredibly rare. She was "Rusalka" in January and an emergency "Tosca" in March.
"She's unusual in the sense that you don't always find the combination of being focused, talented and good to be around all at the same time," said tenor Leonardo Capalbo, who sang Cavaradossi in "Tosca" with Kaduce. "It doesn't always happen that way in the arts."
Corinna Bohren, who works in costumes at the company, said Kaduce is as unassuming as a soccer mom.
"Ninety percent of the actors who walk into my office are in their underwear within five minutes," Bohren said. "So they are very vulnerable and very concerned whether the costume will allow them to move and do what they need to do on stage."
While no one "throws fits," she said, Kaduce stands out.
"That's why we're all madly in love with her," Bohren said. "And I have the added pride that she is from here."
From farm country
Working at Minnesota Opera allows Kaduce another chance to visit her family in Winnebago, a small town on the fertile plains of southern Minnesota. She and her husband, singer Lee Gregory, live in his hometown of Houston but recently had the chance to celebrate their son's fifth birthday with Grandpa and Grandma Kaduce.
Gregory, she said, has come to enjoy Minnesota except for the cold. (Isn't that like enjoying lutefisk except for the taste?)
"He took the dog out for a walk and he said, 'I can't take it,' and we'd been out for maybe 10 minutes," she said, with the bemused look that only Minnesotans understand when talking about the weather. "I did get him interested in cross-country skiing."
Kaduce's mother was a church organist, so music was always in the home. Her debut role was "Annie," in fourth grade with the Winnebago Community Players.
"My mom cut and permed my hair for the role," she said in a 2008 interview. "We even tried a temporary dye that ended up not working."
Kaduce perhaps dreamed of an opera career as a kid, but it was "a blind hope."
She went to St. Olaf College in Northfield not with the idea of starring in the famous choir. She wanted to be a physical therapist but washed out in biology class. In her sophomore year, she switched to voice and studied with Anna Mooy. She still didn't make the choir but it was not because her voice wasn't good enough.
"She accepted the fact that her voice didn't fit the mold," said Mooy. "In the choir she would have to hold back, but she sang in Kantorei [another St. Olaf ensemble], where she was able to use her voice more freely."
Mooy remembers Kaduce as a focused student who didn't get caught up in mind games.
"There was not any of the diva attitude," Mooy said. "It's something unique to singers because a lot of their self-esteem gets caught up in the voice and what others think of their voice. It's not that she didn't care, but she dug in, in a very determined way, very single-minded."
Making a living
Kaduce, 41, has built a substantial professional résumé since leaving St. Olaf.
"She's the best 'Butterfly' around," said Minnesota Opera artistic director Dale Johnson, who has frequently engaged Kaduce since her 2002 debut with the company. "She was great in 'Manon' , and of course twice in 'Rusalka.' "
Kaduce is also noted for singing Mimi in "La Boheme," Violetta in "La Traviata" and Pat Nixon in John Adams' "Nixon."
Her "Tosca" in Minnesota was particularly noteworthy, as she stepped into the demanding role after soprano Csilla Boross left the production a week before opening night. Johnson had seen Kaduce at a "Shining" event in New York and knew she had just sung a "Tosca" in November, in Houston.
"That's just not a call you get very often," Kaduce said of Johnson's entreaty with three days of rehearsal before opening. "I told him I was sick with bronchitis and he said 'You'll fit in, everyone here is sick.' "
Kaduce enjoys originating roles, which she will do in "The Shining," singing the long-suffering Wendy Torrance in this version of Stephen King's novel. She was lauded as "terrific, conveying the title character's passion and despair" in a New York Times review of her 2007 performance of "Anna Karenina" at Florida Grand Opera. In 2005, she sang the soprano role in the world premiere of "Margaret Garner," which featured a libretto by Toni Morrison about a runaway slave.
Kaduce has been living with the "Shining" music since last fall, when she started to see excerpts from the score. Wendy Torrance was conceived as a coloratura, but the creators switched to a full lyric soprano — a voice that evokes more dramatic sympathy. Wendy is a wife and mother, trying to hold her family together. She has a mentally ill husband, a unique child and she doesn't come from the best family.
King, who quickly approved the project, has not come around to rehearsal. If he did, and told Kaduce she was off base with her portrayal, how would the soprano react?
"Oh, I would definitely try it differently," Kaduce said. "I like the playing around in rehearsal."
Capalbo said Kaduce's fearlessness and her willingness to "go to places emotionally that might be hard to sing," make her easy to work with.
While she is happy to be identified as the antithesis of the florid diva, Kaduce understands the pressures that can contribute to occasional bad behavior.
You don't control your career, for example. It's in the hands of managers who do the hiring. Constant travel wears on her family life and she does not look forward to packing and flying.
"It's an incredibly stressful position and sometimes they take it out on the people around them," she said. "I'm sure that's a lot of where that behavior stems from."
As they say, you can take the singer out of Minnesota, but you can't take the Minnesota out of the singer.