URI music graduate to take the stage with operatic performance of ‘God Bless America’ at May 22 commencement

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KINGSTON, R.I., May 17, 2016—Expect runs, trills and wide leaps from Felicia Baker when she graduates from the University of Rhode Island on Sunday.

And she’ll do it all with her voice.

In front of thousands of URI graduates and their families, Felicia will deliver a power-packed operatic version of “God Bless America” and, last but not least, the URI Alma Mater.

Listening in the audience, with smiles and moist eyes, will be her parents, Frank Baker, a science communications specialist at URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography, and Catherine Vieira-Baker, a contributing faculty member in the psychology department.

“We are proud and pleased,” says Frank. “It’ll be moving for both of us. We’ll see who tears up first.”

Last year, Felicia saw a flier in the music department announcing auditions to sing at commencement and thought, “Why not?”

“I remember going to my brother’s commencement years ago and seeing student singers on stage and wanting to have the same opportunity,” says Felicia, 22, who is earning a bachelor’s degree in music, with a focus on vocal performance. “So this is exciting.”

Growing up in Virginia and East Providence, Felicia started singing and dancing as a little girl. She remembers taking her pre-school teacher’s hands and twirling across the classroom.

She debuted on stage in fourth grade during a performance with the Friends of St. Anne’s Little Theater in Fall River, Mass., where she played a villager in “Fiddler on the Roof.” She was mesmerized.

At St. Mary Academy Bay View in East Providence she continued to excel as a singer, actor and dancer. She was involved in 15 productions, including the school’s acclaimed “Manhattan at the Bay” show.

URI was her first choice, as was music, with a minor in philosophy and, eventually, German. She took vocal lessons, music theory and piano lessons, but her life changed when she went to the Bel Canto Summer Voice Program in Munich.

“The opera was captivating,” she says. “I went to six operas, and the one that really got me hooked was Verdi’s Don Carlo. I could’ve listened to it for an eternity.”

Back home, she told her parents about her new career path.

“It was Broadway, Broadway, Broadway in our house and then, boom, your kid comes home from college and decides she wants to be an opera singer,” says Frank. “And we’re like, ‘O.K.’ ”

Her accomplishments are impressive. She worked with Opera Providence in its productions of L’elisir d’amore by Donizetti and La Traviata by Verdi. In her first complete operatic role, she starred as Adele in Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss with URI’s Opera Workshop. She also sang in a master class for opera singer Elizabeth Weigle at Brown University and for Metropolitan Opera House singer and Rhode Islander John Relyea at the Rhode Island Philharmonic Music School. She was coached by Bavarian opera singer Marita Knobel.

The scholarships have been plentiful. She received the Sebastian P. and Marybelle Musco Scholarship for three years at URI. She also placed first in her division of the Rhode Island chapter of the National Association of Teachers of Singing Song and Aria competition in 2014 and 2016. In 2015, she won the James Ladewig Scholarship in music history.

What does it take to be a great opera singer? Ambition, discipline, excellent technique and a passion for life, she says. Learning how to breathe is probably the most important skill. “Opera is the unification of the human condition in a way that moves the souls of others,” she says. “It’s timeless.”

Her parents are fully supportive. Catherine spent many hours backstage during productions at Bay View and Little Theater helping with costumes and the many tasks necessary to put on a show.

Last Christmas, Felicia and Frank went to New York City to see Les pêcheurs de perles at the Metropolitan Opera House. They stayed in a hotel and ate in Chinese restaurants. Before the performance, they went on a backstage tour, even seeing the dressing room of world-famous soprano Diana Damrau, who is Felicia’s idol. (Felicia is also a soprano.)

“She was over the moon,” says Frank. “It was so nice to share it all with her.”

Felicia’s dream? “To be a Bavarian Staatsopera singer.” That would be in Germany, and yes, she expects mom and dad to travel across the sea to hear her sing.

Pictured above: Felicia Baker, 22, of East Providence, who is graduating from the University of Rhode Island with a degree in music, with a focus on vocal performance. She will sing “God Bless America” at the URI commencement May 22. Photo by Joe Giblin.

Here’s a sneak peek of Felicia in Die Fledermaus.