Growing Up Backstage: Part Two

Do you ever wonder how individuals discover their artistic talent? What would the world be like today if Mozart had never been introduced to music? That is certainly a question that I don’t even want to consider. Luckily the two ladies I have spoken with for this article were both introduced to the operatic arts at a very young age. As you read, you will see what promising futures both of them have.

Nicole Nienow and Amy Nicholson, both now in college, were performing on stage in the Lyric Opera House before audiences of over 3,000 at the young age of four and five years old.  Both of Nicole’s parents are in the full-time regular chorus and she states that she was “born into the arts.” Because of this, it has “shaped her views of the world a little differently.”

Both Amy and Nicole are now majoring in artistic areas of study. Amy is in her first year at Augustana College where she is majoring in both Environmental Studies and Theater with a possible minor in French. Nicole is finishing her degree at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago where she is headed in the direction of performance and puppetry. These two ladies have already achieved some pretty amazing accomplishments.

Nicole Nienow poses onstage for a photo with her parents, Regular Choristers Claudia Kerski-Nienow and Mark Nienow

Nicole, in her junior year of college was introduced to Blair Thomas. You might remember his work from our most recent production of “Die Zauberflöte.” He constructed and brought to life the dragon for the production.  He, after meeting Nicole, requested her assistance on the project. She talks about how, in her childhood, she was able to sit backstage at the enormous Lyric Opera House and listen while her parents were onstage singing. She mentions “music surrounded me while the production sets brought me into a fairyland tale of dreams. As a child my imagination ran wild as if operas were real to life.” After all, isn’t that what we all wish for our audience members? Our hope is to take them to a place away from the realities of everyday life. At age four Nicole was cast as a supernumerary in her first opera which, coincidentally, was “Die Zauberflöte”. Her fairy tale dream had expanded. She now had the chance to be with both of her parents onstage which very few kids will ever have the chance to experience. Throughout her childhood and by age 13, she had been cast in 8operas and she had done more than 64 performances. She mentions that these experiences were very special and wow is that a vast understatement. Among the operas she was cast in was “The Marriage of Figaro” as a flower girl. Incidentally, 30 years prior, her parents became engaged during a performance of “Figaro” at the Lyric.  She was also cast as a dancer in “Un Ballo in Maschera.” She sang in “Der Rosenkavalier” where their family dog also made an appearance. She mentions that “the best part of it all was being able to be with my parents as they lived out their careers. My parents brought me into this world of opera that let my imagination run free and because of that my creativity bloomed.”

Amy Nicholson poses with her mother, Regular Chorister Patricia Cook-Nicholson, backstage during Lyric Opera of Chicago’s recent production of Puccini’s Turandot

Amy talks about how her mom wasn’t the type to play Mozart or Puccini while at home. They mostly listened to old country music as she grew up. When she was young, she recalls that having a mom who sang opera didn’t mean much to her, except that when her Mom sang her lullabies–they sounded a lot nicer than other people’s singing. She also noted that her mother kept weirder hours than most moms. She didn’t realize the personal impact of her mom being an opera singer until she was in her first show at the Lyric Opera. This happened at age five and like Nicole, she was in “Die Zauberflöte.” At first she mentions that going into work with her mom was more like playtime, but it also opened up a new world for her. Her mother was always afraid of pushing her too hard and into something that she didn’t want to do, but Amy says being in operas never felt forced to her.  She enjoyed being in them. She recalls being lifted onto her mom’s shoulders at the end of “Zauberflöte” and says it was such a nice bonding moment for both of them. Over the years she did “Aida,” “Othello” and, once again,  “Die Zauberflöte.” She enjoyed bragging to her friends about her mother being an opera singer. She mentioned, “being part of a professional world at such a young age was so mesmerizing andI loved every second of it.” She started doing musicals in middle school, learned to play oboe, guitar, ukulele, piano and did some singing (although she mentions that she is still kicking herself for not taking voice lessons from her mom). Her parents would come to all her choir and band concerts and always gave her a standing ovation. In high school she continued doing musicals, got her first lead in a show and was voted “Most Likely to Become an Actress” for the Senior Notables in her high school yearbook. An interesting bit of information is that the lead she got in high school was also the lead her mother had received 30 years earlier at the very same high school.  They both have painted bricks in their high school’s greenroom. She says that when she was in high school, her mom’s weird schedule affected her a bit more, but didn’t get in her way. In her senior year of high school, she auditioned for and performed as a supernumerary in Turandot at the Lyric. In her mind everything had come full circle and she wanted to do one last show at Lyric before she went off to school. She is now only months into her first year of college.  She has been cast as Mary Warren in “The Crucible.” She was also nominated by her school to participate in The Kennedy Center American College Theater RegionalFestival (KCACTF) in Washington D.C. in 2019 to compete for the KCACTF national award. I would say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree!

As these two young women have demonstrated, having parents who are opera singers is a pretty magical experience, and just as cool as it sounds. It has propelled them down paths they otherwise might not have taken, thanks to their chorister parents, Claudia and Mark Nienow, Patricia Cook-Nicholson, and to our venerable cultural institution—Lyric Opera of Chicago!