Artist to Watch: Vanessa Thomas

The Lawrence-based soprano performs regularly with Grammy award-winning maestro Doc Severinsen and holds her own.

Lawrence-based singer Vanessa Thomas works as a vocal coach, accompanist, church music director, and full-time single mom to her four children, all while regularly performing nationally with Grammy Award-winning maestro Doc Severinsen. Vocally, she is known for her seamless four-octave range and her unusual musical versatility. Thomas sang a “show-stopping walk-on” role in the world premiere of the Kirke Mechem opera “John Brown” with the Kansas City Lyric Opera in 2008 and has sung the national anthem at several SportingKC matches. On June 8, she and Severinsen, along with the Kansas City Symphony, will be gracing the stage at Helzberg Hall with a concert celebrating Doc’s 90th birthday. For Thomas, music has been a lifeline. In a recent email interview, she shared her triumphant story.

How did you find music? Or how did music find you?

As a newborn I was abused by my parents, so at six months old I was placed in foster care in Clay Center, Kansas, a rural farming community of 4,000 to 5,000 people. When I was a toddler, my biological father kidnapped me and abused me to the point of near death. My foster parents went to court, and the state severed my biological parents’ rights. I have no memory of any of this. My first memories are at around age four, in what became my home with my adoptive parents. But I had serious emotional needs that I couldn’t quite process because trauma before memories is a kind of no-man’s land.

In preschool I felt the need, a true need, to learn to play piano so that I could sing along with the piano. There was one piano teacher in Clay Center, and she said I had to wait until second grade to begin lessons. I tearfully resigned myself and waited. When I finally started lessons, I couldn’t get new music fast enough. Looking back, I really feel that this was my only healthy outlet for expressing and releasing all of the tough emotions I felt raging inside of me. My fingers, though most had been broken, gained an agility that overruled their rough beginnings. Music actually healed my scars.

What was your first on-stage role?

The entire fifth grade was singing Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All,” and I was given the solo by our music teacher about a week before the concert, then a mic at the last minute that night with an amp that they actually plugged in! The crowd of nearly 300 parents went wild, and I was transported to a place of complete happiness. A fire was in my heart before this night, but after that, I knew that fire would always be with me.

What’s the oddest odd-job you’ve ever had?

When I was 19 I was an au pair for Joseph Volpe, the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera. In that role, I did a range of things, substitute-teaching as an assistant at the child’s private school, washing dishes, fixing snacks, scheduling and hosting playdates, answering the phone in case Pavarotti or Domingo called, and attending performances at the Met no fewer than three times per week. I saw every major singer who appeared at the Met in 1995 and 1996. It was just my life for a year, but it had a huge impact on me; it made me a discerning listener, fine-tuned my languages, and taught me about being on stage, just by observing. I call it the oddest job I’ve had since there is no way it really happened. Except that it did!

What’s your dream job?

I’ve been doing my dream job for seven years now, working with Doc. The rehearsal process with Doc is thorough, but speedy. We might have two rehearsals before a big show, and that’s it. When we do a symphony pops show, I get to sing Sinatra-type ballads, Ella Fitzgerald, opera, sometimes a light country tune, pop music, musical theater, and jazz/blues. The sheer volume of variety of our programs delights me.

Thomas performs regularly with Grammy Award-winning maestro Doc Severinsen. From the artist

How did you and Doc find each other?

Clay Center has a very unexpected arts culture. I attended barn dances in high school, and there were square dances occasionally in the middle of the street downtown, but there was also an organized Arts Council that regularly had stand-up classical musicians and artists coming to share concerts. In the 50s, when my mom was playing French horn in the band, she backed up Rafael Mendez in concert. They invited Doc for the first time in 1964, and Doc and Wayne Snodgrass, the high school band director at the time, became friends.

By the time I came of age, Doc was way too busy with “The Tonight Show” to guest at any more concerts in our small town, but in August of 2010, Wayne Snodgrass’s wife, Pauline, turned 99. They didn’t feel she was going to make it to 100, so they planned a concert in her honor. They invited me to sing for Pauline. I went to Clay Center a couple days before the event to run a sound check with my accompanist. Doc was there. He walked onto the stage after I’d finished and stood in front of me. He looked me square in the eyes and said, “Do you know who I am?” I assured him I did. He then asked me what else I could sing of a festive holiday and classical nature, so I sang Mozart’s “Alleluia.” Then, the next day, I had my sound check with the big band. I sang Natalie Cole’s “Orange-Colored Sky,” and Doc went nuts. He asked if I wanted to do a little show with him. My first “Jingle Bell Doc” was in Minneapolis. After our last number, the auditorium fell silent for a good five seconds, and then people leapt to their feet, screaming. Doc pulled me in for a kiss on the cheek that first night and shouted to me onstage over all the clapping and yelling from the audience, “I was right about you. You and I are gonna go places.”

Vanessa Thomas will perform at 7 p.m. June 8 as part of the “Doc Severinsen with the Kansas City Symphony” concert at the Kauffman Center. For more information and tickets, www.kcsymphony.org

Above: Photo by Jim Barcus

Krista Lang Blackwood

Krista Lang Blackwood is an award-winning educator, performer and freelance writer. When she's not teaching or performing, she combs the greater Kansas City region for off-the-beaten-path arts and culture offerings, usually in the company of her husband and precocious, French-speaking son. 

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