Center Stage With: Ron Watkins

Special thanks to Ken Donovan, Tyler Lee and Sherry Watkins

There are not many artists out there that possess all the wonderful qualities, skills and talent as our Center Stage artist this month Ron Watkins. Watkins is blessed with an incredible voice and is both a fantastic dancer and actor. He has an impeccable work ethic, is a reliable colleague and is the consummate professional. In addition to these qualities, he has a positive attitude, is a great person to receive an honest and level-headed opinion from and has a great sense of humor. I suppose we as musicians would refer to him as a “quadruple threat,” which means basically that he is one of those individuals that possess not only vocal talent but an all-encompassing plethora of skills, qualities and abilities that go above and beyond anything one could ever wish for in a performer and colleague.

Watkins was born in West Virginia and after high school went on to study at Eastman School of Music where he received a double major in voice and trombone. While in college working on completing two majors, he had 5 church jobs and taught aerobic classes at the local YMCA. After graduating, he toured nationally performing musical revue shows and musical theater productions at concert venues and on cruise ships. He auditioned for Lyric Opera at age 26 and was immediately hired into the Regular Chorus and has been in the full-time chorus ever since. In 2007 he had to take a leave of absence from Lyric Opera due to being deployed. He left out of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina and was sent over to Iraq as a part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. In his interview he talks about his time at Lyric, his family, supplemental employment outside of Lyric and his experience during and after his deployment. You will also learn what profession he values the most, what advice he has for aspiring singers and how opera chose him!

Included below are a few quotes from his colleagues and friends that I believe speak of what a multifaceted individual, person and colleague he is.

“Ron is an exemplary colleague and friend. He is a genuinely benevolent person, and humble about an incredible voice.” Tyler Lee

“While we really didn’t know each other well prior, Ron and I became fast friends when Graham Vick cast us as a gay couple for the auction scene in The Rake’s Progress. We had so much fun with that show and because we were working so closely together, got to know each other quite well! A few years later, Ron and I were both working the same church job and teaching private voice lessons at the same school in addition to our regular chorus positions with Lyric Opera. We would joke that we were actually seeing each other more than we were seeing our spouses during those very busy times, which was actually not untrue! Ron has become a great friend over the years.” Ken Donovan

“Ron is a wonderful colleague. He’s a great musician, singer, artist, actor and dancer. It is a pleasure to sing next to him in music rehearsals, and he’s a fantastic partner to be with on stage. He is a consummate professional, takes his job seriously and is entertaining on and offstage with a quick wit and creative mind. He takes a lot of pride in everything he does and has a work ethic that many admire and strive to emulate.”  Sherry Watkins

Q:  What is your favorite opera and why?

Watkins: “La Giaconda”, Truly Grand Opera

Q:  What is your favorite opera production/cast/performance at Lyric?

Watkins: “The Rake’s Progress” (Director Graham Vick)

Q: Why was this your favorite production and what did you like about it?

Watkins: “The Rake’s Progress” (Lyric Opera 1994/95) has been a favorite of mine largely because of its creativity, thoughtfulness and the meticulous nature of it as brought by the director, Graham Vick. We had over 30 staging hours. The chorus was truly a principal artist along with the likes of Ruth Ann Swenson, Felicity Palmer, Sam Ramey and Jerry Hadley.

Q:  What do you do on your days off from Lyric?

Watkins:  Music of the Baroque, Church, Temple, North Park Voice Faculty

Q:  Do you speak any other languages? Does this help you as a chorister?

Watkins:  Some Italian as any artist translates

Q:  Where and what did you study? Do you have any degrees in music or any outside of music?

Watkins:  Eastman, Bachelor of Arts

Q:  If you could sing any role, what would it be and why?

Watkins:  Harlequin in Ariadne. It’s perfect for me.

Q:  Tell me some of your most memorable moments from your time at Lyric.

Watkins:  Ken Donovan getting his head wedged into a set. It was in “The Rake’s Progress” production where Ken Donovan had a most unfortunate accident. During a performance, he and I were exiting mid Stage Left after the Auction scene. The timing was critical as there was a simultaneous scene change.  I exited first and thought we were doing well.  As I turned to Ken, to boast of our well-timed exit, I saw that he had become trapped in the scene change. In fact, the enormous tri-cornered hat he was wearing was wedged in between 2 flats. One flat rolling onstage while the other was rolling off stage.  3 seconds seemed like 3 hours as Ken’s hat torqued between the combating scenery.  Eventually, Ken, his tri-cornered hat and the rest of him was spurted off stage left. That is all except for his wig cap that was dangling from the on stage set flat. It swayed in recovery from the truly Awful scene and finally came to rest on the floor mid-way through the next scene. Unfortunately, I was the only one that saw this occur and the look on Mr. Donovan’s face…..Priceless.

Ron Watkins discusses his deployment for Operation Iraqi Freedom with some local students.

Q:  Do you have any interesting stories or events you were involved in before you started at Lyric or not pertaining to Lyric (related to opera or otherwise)?

Watkins:  My deployment in 2007 for Operation Iraqi Freedom

Q: What made you decide to enter into the armed forces?

Watkins: Serving was something I had always wanted to do. I had several uncles and a cousin who served. My maternal Grandfather served in WWII in the Navy. He was sent home when Truman signed the law that said if you had at least 3 children you would be sent home. My mother was the third child to my Grand Parents

Q: Can you tell me more about your deployment? How long were you there?

Watkins: My deployment as a US Navy Petty Officer assigned to US Marine Corps 8th Engineer and Support Battalion out of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina began January 6, 2007 and went through October 8th, 2007. I missed the end of the Lyric ‘06-‘07 and the beginning of the ‘07-‘08 season. I was stationed 35 kilometers east of Fallujah, Iraq.  We were a Logistics Battalion of 950 Marines and Sailors assigned to build and support road ways and air strips. We were on an Iraqi Air Base named Al Taqaddum.

Q: Were there casualties in your unit?

Watkins: We lost three Marines who were EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal). Casualties often occurred early and very late into the deployment. Insurgents were aware of when there would be a transfer of power and things could be more chaotic. Since my deployment, Isis has overtaken the area and lost it to Iraqi Defense Forces.

Q: Were you able to stay in touch with your family and friends while on deployment?

Watkins: There was an Internet Cafe for us to use, but It was frustrating to use and not very reliable.  I initiated a program where we had donations of children’s books that service members could read on tape and send back to their young families.

Q: Did you meet any close friends while you were there?

Watkins:  I am still in touch with several of the people from my deployment.

Q: How and what did you do to adjust back to “regular” life after your return? How did your deployment effect your life?

Watkins: We helped each other when we got back with common issues like sudden loud noises, trash on the side of the road (this usually meant an Improvised Explosive Device or IED in Iraq), or even bright color (after only seeing digital camouflage and beige sand for 7 months). The overall mission was titled Operation Iraqi Freedom. Freedom as it pertained to the Iraqi people and government to lead and defend their homeland.  We did a great deal of good in the Al Anbar Province. Some of it has come full circle since we were there in the way of losing and regaining control of the area.

Q:  What composer would you want to write the opera of your life and why?

Watkins:  Mozart, because it suits me.

Q: How so?

Watkins:  Separately, I wrote that Mozart suits me. I feel this because, vocally it suits me by vocal size, flexibility and character color. I also enjoy the recitative for the opportunities timing wise, which is so important in telling the story.

Q:  What are your favorite hobbies outside of the Lyric?

Watkins:  Working out, Bowling, Shenanigans

Ron Watkins with his wife (and Regular Chorister) Sherry Watkins, in their Chicago home and with Ron's son, Jeffrey.
Ron Watkins with his wife (and Regular Chorister) Sherry Watkins, in their Chicago home and with Ron’s son, Jeffrey.

Q:  Tell me a little about your family (partner, children, close relatives) and their significance in your life and career. 

Watkins:  Of course, my wife, Sherry is in the Regular Chorus. We are able to enjoy a common schedule and have very similar rehearsal and performance values as well as a similar work ethic. My son, Jeffrey, is a Junior at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin.  He is on a Theatre and Vocal Performance Scholarship as a double major. My brother, Jeff, and his wife, Kathleen, are Theatre and Musical Theatre performers. In fact, Lyric released me from a Tosca to see my brother at the Chicago Theatre in Jesus Christ Superstar. My parents were VERY supportive of our career choices. My High School Vocal Director and Band Director, Judy Ranaletta and Tom Ellison were a huge influence on me.

Q:  Do you have any performing/ opera related things coming up?

Watkins:  Grant Park Symphony Chorus

Q: How long have you been singing with Lyric Opera of Chicago and How long have you been singing with Grant Park Symphony Chorus?

Watkins: My time at Lyric, Grant Park and teaching in Chicago High Schools and Universities are all entering their 27th season and academic year.

Q:  If you weren’t a singer, what would you be doing and why?

Watkins:  School teacher!  I think teaching is the most important profession. I hope to help someone find their way as teachers did for me. I truly love it! I have been teaching for as long as I have been in Chicago.

Q: As a teacher, what are the most important things you would impress upon your students or advice you would give to young aspiring performers?

Watkins: The advice I give to a young student who is considering this profession is to do it only if you truly love it and in your heart’s core think it is the one thing you can do better than anything else.

Q:  Do you play any instruments? If you don’t, which one would you want to play?

Watkins:  I was a double major in Trombone

Q:  What kind of music do you listen to outside of the opera house?

Watkins:  Everything-Rap, Country, Blues, Zydeko

Q:  What do you do in your down time backstage in the dressing room?

Watkins:  I play cards and read. I am currently reading Anthony Everitts’ Bio of Cicero

Q:  Do you have a sore throat remedy?

Watkins:   Rest, Liquids (Apple juice, Tea)

Q: What made you decide to become an opera singer

Watkins: I started out on cruise ships and musical theatre. Opera actually chose me. My sound was too legit for my look for musical theatre. I looked like a young man, but sounded like his father, in their opinion. More and more, my look and sound were coming together in opera productions.

Q: What is the most challenging and rewarding thing about being an opera singer?

Watkins: Opera is challenging due to the erratic schedule, maintaining your ENT health in Chicago winters and all of the “non-performance” issues that have to be dealt with on an almost daily basis. However, the challenges are small compared to the level of stage craft and music making we are blessed to be a part of. I would not trade it for anything!