Opera singer Kate Tombaugh is gearing up for the performance of a lifetime. This Sunday, she sings at the famous Carnegie Hall in New York City. The Illinois Wesleyan University alum is fulfilling her dream through a powerful voice.
It’s a quiet afternoon at the Tombaugh family’s farm house in rural Streator, Illinois. Youngest daughter Kate, now 27, is making a short visit before heading to Boston to collaborate with a composer, then off to New York City to take to the big stage. But for Tombaugh, this living room is where it all began. As a kid, she spent her time developing a vocal talent that took her from the comfort of her home to the town’s local stages.
“My dad says I never met a mic I didn’t like. I’ve been singing and performing since two or three. My first show, I think was four,” she says.
It was a duet with her brother at a church potluck.
“They had to put me on a stool to meet him at the mic and that’s the thing, I just always did it,” she says. “I didn’t know that it was something that I should be afraid of, to stand up in front of a bunch of people and sing.”
She says it just felt natural. When she got to Illinois Wesleyan, she majored in Vocal Performance. And after graduating in 2007, she dove into opera.
“I kind of feel really empowered, in today’s day in age, of all of the fixing and the splicing and all this stuff that…I’m working everyday on a craft that is completely as it seems,” she says. “You know, there is no hiding behind anything.”
Tombaugh says she’s drawn to opera because she enjoys a good challenge…like learning lyrics in a different language weeks before a recital. Everything from German, French and Italian, to dialects of Chinese.
“To say that I have sung in over 13 or 14 languages now is just crazy,” she says.
“Kate’s just always been a model student,” says Robert Mangialardi, the Director of the Opera Theatre Program at Illinois Wesleyan and Tombaugh’s voice teacher for seven years.
“It’s her soul, it’s her commitment to the text and her shear musicality,” he says. “You know, her voice sounds beautiful and can do all the things technically that is required of her.”
And all the hard work is paying off. Last month, her submission to the distinguished Barry Alexander International Vocal Competition had been reviewed. Out of 400 applicants from 38 different countries, Tombaugh won first prize: a solo performance at Carnegie Hall.
“I was at home, here in Streator, and I squealed in my bedroom and my mom came running, and she said, ‘What happened? What happened?’ And I said, oh my gosh, I think I’m singing at Carnegie Hall! Because, it’s one of those places that everyone knows about…Carnegie Hall. This was just a wonderful surprise.”
Mangialardi says this will be a big moment for her.
“I mean, it’s a lot of pressure, you know? But she’s at that level that she can do that,” he says.
Kate’s mom, Cathy, says she couldn’t be more proud of her daughter.
“Every time something goes successfully, they’re at the top of their game and all that they’ve worked for is coming to fruition, there’s nothing that describes that,” she says.
Just days before her big show, Tombaugh thinks back to earlier performances that got her to where she is now. Like singing on a sidewalk for money while visiting Austria.
“Singing on the main square with my friend who is a violinist and another friend who is a cellist,” she says. “We were doing that and making a few coins for our dinner that night.”
Tombaugh says she met a weary traveler passing through the city, who made a special request.
“She asked me to sing Amazing Grace to her. And in the middle of this crazy, busy market place, my friends didn’t even know what was going on, they were just counting up coins and putting their instruments away. I held hands with this woman and sang Amazing Grace to her as we both just sobbed,” she says. “It’s those kinds of moments that you realize, music does, it just taps this part of us.”
She says that feeling is what she enjoys most while on stage.
“There’s that sharing that I just love. And that’s why I think I keep doing it,” she says.
For Kate Tombaugh, she’s found her path through singing. From her living room in Streator all the way to Carnegie Hall: one of the most prestigious venues in the world.