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Hunter ’23 wins famed Nordica Scholarship for excellence in classical singing

Among Maine’s better-known accolades for accomplished student vocalists is the Nordica Scholarship. Awarded annually through auditions with the Maine Chapter of The National Association of Teachers of Singing, the scholarship honors excellence in classical singing performance and commemorates Lillian Nordica, the world-renowned and first American diva, who was born in Farmington, in 1857.

USM vocal performance major Kaleigh Hunter of Saco, Maine, is one of two students to win the prestigious Nordica Scholarship this year.

In normal times, the scholarship winner — a student of classical singing in Maine who aspires to a career in opera — performs a concert for a standing-room-only audience in Farmington’s Nordica Auditorium on August 17. Why the 17th of August? Because this date, in 1911, when Lillian Nordica performed for the last time in her hometown, is by state decree Nordica Day.

This year, in deference to social distancing and state limits on the size of indoor gatherings, Nordica Day came and went without an aria. To prevent the traditional celebration from becoming a superspreader event, no soprano could trill in Nordica Auditorium and the historic venue’s 400 seats had to stay empty.

The pandemic may have required postponing the performance, but the Nordica Concert tradition will continue next year on August 17 — and USM vocal performance major Kaleigh Hunter, one of two scholarship winners this year, looks forward to her moment on the Nordica stage in 2021.

Hunter, who studied privately and was cast in numerous musical theater productions while a student at Thornton Academy in Saco, had her pick of historically strong music programs when it came time to choose her college experience. She says the recommendation of her private coach and a meeting with Malinda Haslett, associate professor of music and director of vocal studies at USM, “sealed the deal.”

“What appealed to me most about USM was the faculty,” Hunter says. “I had heard wonderful things from my private coach at the time, Paul Stickney, about the professors that I would be working with when I arrived. I got to meet with Dr. Haslett before making a final decision, and Mr. Stickney certainly wasn't wrong. The teachers here are phenomenal.”

Now a sophomore at USM, Hunter studies with and is mentored by Haslett, an internationally accomplished soprano whose many performances include solos at the Royal Opera House in London and at the famed Konzerthaus in Berlin, as well as winning the Concorso Internazionale di Tito Schipa and Concorso Internazionale di Roma.

The pandemic has required adjustments to how music is learned, rehearsed, and performed at USM, but Hunter says her USM professors are “making the experience as fun and engaging as possible” with outdoor instruction and Zoom-based workshops.

When efforts to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus required a shift to remote learning last spring, Hunter says her professors organized new opportunities for students to connect with accomplished professionals while honing their understanding of music and performance skills.

“For my opera workshop, we studied opera performances and a successful singer, and then the singer joined the class by Zoom to discuss her own career and give us real-life advice,” Hunter says. “I appreciated that experience and all the creativity brought to the learning process, especially this year with all that is going on in the world today.”

As for her goals this year and after graduating from USM, Hunter says she’s focused on making the most of new learning modalities required by the pandemic and prepping for next summer’s Nordica Concert.

“Beyond USM, I would love to continue studying music and performing as long as I can.”