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Alumnus Nicholas Nestorak ’11 works as an opera performer. Here, he is Albert Herring in “Albert Herring.” Nicholas Nestorak | Courtesy

Alumnus Nicholas Nestorak ’11 sings opera for a living, and he hasn’t thought of a backup plan.

“This profession is unnerving,” Nestorak said. “You never know when your next opportunity or job will come up. If you have a backup plan, you’re most likely going to fall on that. I’ve lived by one rule that my teacher in graduate school taught me: He said, ‘sing for whoever will hear you, no matter who it is.’”

This philosophy has steered Nestorak into an education he said he didn’t plan for and a career he can’t map out. But even before his teacher articulated this mantra to him, he had already stumbled upon this secret, the key to a successful opera career: Sing to whoever will listen.

Nestorak found his first audience as a child at Hillsdale First United Methodist Church, where he trooped out to the front of the congregation with his friends to sing in  the choir. When he moved to Hillsdale’s Davis Middle School, he joined the choir there and found more people who would entertain his developing voice.

“When he was in middle school, he sang a solo for the first time: ‘I’ll Be Home for Christmas,’” Nick Nestorak’s mother, Kathy Nestorak, remembered. “My husband and I … looked at each other and said, ‘Whose kid is that?’”

After that, the young tenor couldn’t stop himself from joining every musical activity available: cello lessons, jazz band, and musicals galore.

When Nestorak entered the college from Hillsdale High School, he intended to graduate with a double major in chemistry and cello performance. His plan didn’t last long: “I was introduced to opera at Hillsdale,” Nestorak said. “One day my teachers approached me and said ‘Hey, we don’t think you have a successful career with the cello … You might look into going to graduate school for singing.’”

Between his lessons in Voice Teacher Melissa “Missy” Osmond’s studio and practice sessions in the basement of Howard Music Hall, Nestorak began to discover the true talent he had once considered a hobby.

“I remember I was so impressed with his young tenor sound and musical delivery,” Osmond said. “Nick was always a very curious student and so desirous to learn. He was an incredible musician on all levels. He was always willing to try new things.”

Osmond praised Nestorak for his work ethic —“He was the hardest worker I had at the time,” she said. After he swapped his chemistry major for one in vocal performance, he logged hours in Howard’s basement practice rooms exercising his voice and improving his cello technique. This dedication earned Nestorak a foundation in music that would benefit him throughout his career.

“Missy taught me the basics of singing technique and gave me chances to explore. And I have to nod my hat to my cello professor, David Peshlakai. Even though I went in as a cello major and didn’t pursue it, I learned practices in his lessons that I still use today,” Nestorak said.

Hillsdale’s Opera Workshop program played a big part in Nestorak’s musical maturation. Nestorak said the program allowed him to experiment with singing and acting in a safe environment.

“As singers, it is our job to move people and take them into a different space in their minds and hearts,” Osmond said. “Sometimes that requires a lot of risk and transparency. To perform, we let go of all we want to protect about ourselves. We have to dig deep into our souls.”

Nestorak took on multiple roles in each year’s Opera Workshop performances, portraying characters who often had little in common in back-to-back scenes. As he honed his talent on stage, he also took a seat in the director’s chair and managed a few “op-shop” scenes his senior year.

Upon graduating from Hillsdale, Nestorak kept singing for anyone who’d hear him, and successfully auditioned for University of Michigan’s graduate program in opera, where he studied under Professor of Voice George Shirley, the first African-American tenor to sing leading roles at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

“The University of Michigan’s music program runs like a conservatory program, but it’s at a state school,” he said. “You get high-quality and high-caliber teaching and experiences like you would at a conservatory, but you get it for a state-school price.”

Since Nestorak’s graduation from University of Michigan in 2013, he has continued to sing, and sing, and sing.

It wasn’t easy. Nestorak said the start of his career was scarily still: “The ball eventually started rolling, but that was after I started taking every opportunity to sing for whoever I could.”

Auditions and performances have zigzagged him from opportunity to opportunity all over the country, and even around the world. Most recently, his rich tenor voice has landed him three contracts at the Toledo Opera, a quick jaunt from his hometown and alma mater. For the past couple months — a long haul in the opera world — he has performed with the voice he discovered in the practice rooms of Howard and trained at the University of Michigan. His next move is anyone’s guess, but one thing is for sure: He’ll always keep singing for whoever will hear him.