Vocal Prowess

Diane Kalinowski, Publicity PhotoDiane Kalinowski’s love of music was evident as early as her fourth birthday.

“I remember my mom giving me little melodies;’ she says, recalling the gift of a toy keyboard from her parents. “She’d go do something and say, ‘When I get back I want you to have the melody for “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” or “Jingle Bells:” So I would sit there and plunk out the notes on the keyboard until I could get the melody line out.”

Piano lessons, school musicals and hours of band practice followed, and by the time she was 13, Kalinowski was enrolled in voice lessons and participating in community theatre productions. Now, 20 years later, she’s an aspiring dramatic soprano with vocal competition awards under her belt, including three of the top 10 prizes at the 27th-annual Annapolis Opera vocal competition earlier this year.

“I was just blown away;’ Kalinowski, g’13, says of the event, where she took home $5,000 in prizes. “It was one of those pinch-me moments.”

Kalinowski knew she wanted a career in music, although she initially thought a role in education or music therapy would fit the bill. Her vocal instructors, Vicki and Ward Jamison, encouraged her to pursue performing arts.

During her senior year of high school, she was accepted into the Pennsylvania Governor’s Schools of Excellence, a five-week program that gave junior and senior high school students opportunities to explore career interests in subjects such as the arts, science or technology. It was held at Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pennsylvania, where Kalinowski later attended school and earned a bachelor’s degree in vocal performance. Her time there proved invaluable. Because the university offers only an undergraduate program in music, students don’t have to compete with more experienced graduate students for leading roles in the school’s productions.

“I got so much experience on stage with an orchestra in a big performing arts hall that I wouldn’t have gotten at a Juilliard or Northwestern, where I would be one of 20 undergraduates and the graduate singers would get all the leading roles,” Kalinowski says. “I walked out of Mercyhurst having learned 27 arias.”

She auditioned for graduate school at KU and did so well she was asked to sing for the Lyric Opera of Kansas City, which has a training program for young singers attending school. “I ended up getting the apprenticeship and the position at KU,” she says. “It was kind of serendipitous how it worked out.”

After three years of study at KU and professional exposure with the Lyric Opera, Kalinowski left the Midwest for Washington, D.C., with the hope of auditioning for roles in New York City. To pay the bills, she took a job as a receptionist at a real-estate firm. But after two years, she hadn’t made any progress with her
music career.

“I really didn’t sing much,” she admits. “I was just unhappy.”

She moved back to Pennsylvania and contacted Vicki Jamison, her first vocal instructor. She scheduled a voice lesson and has been working with her ever since.

Kalinowski knew it would be tough to break into the industry in her 30s, so she investigated competitions as a way to improve her vocal capacity and become more comfortable in auditions. Her efforts paid off.

In the past 18 months, Kalinowski has participated in several competitions worldwide, including the Elizabeth Connell Prize last fall in Sydney, Australia, where she was one of five soprano finalists after the semifinals held at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. “It was pretty incredible,” Kalinowski says of the experience. “I mean, just having an audition in the building was cool. It was pretty humbling.”

She will venture into academia this year, heading back to Mercyhurst University as part-time instructor of voice and vocal literature. But she won’t give up performing. She will play the title role in Giacomo Puccini’s “Tosca” this fall with the Connecticut Concert Opera.

“I definitely want to have a professional opera career,” Kalinowski says. “Never in my life do I feel more at ease, more comfortable, more like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing than when I’m performing on stage. It doesn’t matter where the stage is or if it’s for anybody, it’s just when I open my mouth to sing…it’s indescribable. I feel like my purpose has been met.”

Originally published in Kansas Alumni Magazine