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Voice Pro­fessor Melissa Osmond per­formed in the opera “La Traviata.” Melissa Osmond | Courtesy.

Not many people know someone who has gone out for coffee with one of the world’s most famous singers. Even fewer know someone who was a renowned singer them­selves, still less who per­sonally trained one of Europe’s most highly regarded sopranos.

Melissa “Missy” Osmond, Hillsdale’s pro­fessor of voice, has done all those things. Not only that, she’s been a key player in taking Hillsdale’s tiny music department and growing it into what it is today.

Although she began singing when she was only in high school, Osmond quickly jumped into an operatic career. After attending Simpson College, she was hired at the Chicago Lyric Opera.

“I got to work with all the greats, and I was only 22 or 23 years old,” Osmond said. “Right from the get-go, I was learning from Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo.”

Domingo was labeled the “greatest tenor of all time” by BBC Music Mag­azine, based on a 2008 poll. The New York Times reported that Domingo has played over 150 operatic roles, three times the number most inter­na­tionally-renowned musi­cians reach. Domingo has been asso­ciated with pop music as well, from his hit, “Perhaps Love,” recorded with John Denver in 1981, to his more recent ren­dition of “Silent Night” with The Piano Guys.

Osmond got to know Domingo well.

“He was a very good friend of mine, and a good mentor and teacher. He taught me a lot, espe­cially as a young per­former,” she said.

Osmond said that she became a fan of Domingo as a college student. When she began working with the Chicago Opera, she dis­covered that Domingo was going to act in one of their pro­duc­tions. She rec­ol­lects, “I went up to him and told him this story, and he said, ‘That’s so great! Do you want to go out for coffee and talk?’” Domingo began reg­u­larly going out for coffee with Osmond, encour­aging her to con­tinue pur­suing her career.

Three years later, Domingo returned to Chicago. He found Osmond’s phone number and gave her a call. She remembers him saying, “It’s me, Placido. I was won­dering if you wanted to go to the opera with me tonight. Come back­stage first, and meet my friends, and then we’ll all go to dinner at their house after the show.”

That night, Osmond drove her old beater down to the opera to hear Domingo and meet his friends. After the show, they had dinner in one of the wealthiest areas of Chicago. The topic turned to adver­tising.

“The four of us, we’re sitting around talking, and Domingo says, ‘What do you think I should do? Here’s Pavarotti with his American Express com­mer­cials.’ So I said, ‘Why don’t you do Rolex? That’s classy.’ He said, ‘What a good idea!’”

Domingo did indeed go on to advertise for Rolex. In fact, his Rolex adver­tising career would span nearly four decades, including dozens of print and tele­vision ads.

“He asked me if he could have a ride home, so I took him back to his hotel, and he said, ‘Well, I’d invite you out to coffee, but I’ve got to be on the Johnny Carson Show tomorrow,’” Osmond con­tinues.  “I remember sitting watching Domingo on the Johnny Carson Show and thinking, ‘I just had dinner with him last night.’”

Osmond con­tinued her friendship with Domingo, taking lessons from him wherever she could, including in Detroit, Chicago, New York, and London.

By this time, Osmond was beginning to become more well known. She was singing across the country and even made some inter­na­tional appear­ances. Some of her roles included Mimi in “La Bohème,” Ros­alinda from “Die Fle­d­ermaus,” and Anne Tru­elove in “Reich’s Progress.”

Her friendship with Domingo con­tinued over the years. She remembers him giving her and her husband free tickets to operas and sending them a card to con­grat­ulate them on their first child.

“He’s just such a gen­tleman,” Osmond said. “It was all very pro­fes­sional and sweet.”

In the mid-1980s, Osmond already taught at two other col­leges when a friend asked her to teach at Hillsdale, which had a very small music department. There was only one person majoring in music at the time, and the choir had only 12 members.

Soon after Osmond arrived at Hillsdale, a group of very tal­ented freshmen women also arrived. Osmond realized that the girls needed some­thing more.

“I went to the chairman of the department at the time and said, ‘I’ve got this group of women that are really quite amazing. Can I create some classes for them? Some of them are really going to sing.’”

The chairman, Pro­fessor Eldred Thier­stein, approved, and so Osmond, together with Debra Wyse, the accom­panist for Hillsdale’s choir, began to put together a new cur­riculum.

“When you care about what you do, and you see a need, you have to meet it, and so that’s what we did,” Osmond said. “We did an opera history class together. We dragged the stu­dents all over the country and Canada doing audi­tions and com­pe­ti­tions.”

Wyse remembers those days well.

“We even shared an office together,” Wyse rec­ol­lects.

“We went to the NATS com­pe­tition up in Toronto,” Wyse con­tinued. “It was the division for the Great Lakes region, so all these schools were com­peting — Michigan State, Uni­versity of Michigan, Indiana Uni­versity, all these big music schools,” she said. “But our girls placed in the top five in each of their respective cat­e­gories.”

Under the tutelage of Osmond and Wyse, the girls excelled; several gained recog­nition after grad­u­ation. One in par­ticular, Diana Higbee ’96, became a world-famous singer. She per­formed throughout Europe, ran a weekly tele­vision show cov­ering live per­for­mances and art exhibits, and sang the French National Anthem in Le Mans in front of 250,000 people with an addi­tional 15 million watching worldwide. Today, Higbee resides in France.

“Studying with Missy was a priv­ilege,” Higbee said in an email. “She taught us so much about stage presence, movement, and per­forming. It is thanks to her putting me on stage in ‘Bastien and Bastienne’ by Mozart that I realized what my calling was.”

Osmond’s teaching has con­tinued to help stu­dents achieve their full potential, and she enjoys it.

“When you teach on a one-to-one basis, the stu­dents leave as your friends,” she said. “You become very close to them, and you care about what happens. It’s just a really per­sonal way of teaching, and I love it.”

One of her current stu­dents, sophomore Michaela Stiles, agrees.

“The lessons are the high­light of my week,” Stiles said. “There are days when I go into a studio lesson, and it may have been a rough week, and I might break down sobbing in the middle of a warmup. We’ll talk about whatever’s going on. Or we’ll just sit there and laugh.…She really cares about all of you as a person, and that’s what makes Missy so special.”

  • Alexan­derYp­si­lantis

    What a great article. Hillsdale is for­tunate to have such instructors.