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Patrons of the Virtuoso Series go to Libby Gardner Concert Hall to hear artists of international acclaim, not local talent. This week, they'll get both at once in the petite form of Erin Morley, a Utah soprano whose burgeoning career has taken her to the stages of New York's Carnegie Hall and Metropolitan Opera, and Opéra National de Paris, among many others.
And for Morley, the best is still to come. She has been engaged for a solo recital at Carnegie next year, a supporting role this season and future leading roles at the Met, and future leading roles at Vienna State Opera and Munich's Bavarian State Opera.
The roots of a performer • Morley, 30, was born in Salt Lake City to David and Elizabeth Palmer. Her father is a physician who sings in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and her mother is an accomplished violinist in the Orchestra at Temple Square, so Morley's upbringing was filled with music.
She began studying piano and violin with her mother at age 3, and fell in love with piano around age 11 when she began lessons with legendary Utah pianist and teacher Solveig Lunde Madsen, who died last June. Erin also began singing in the Salt Lake Children's Choir under Ralph Woodward Jr.'s baton. Both experiences were formative, instilling solid musicianship and providing inspiration.
At age 12, Erin attended a Utah Symphony Salute to Youth concert and was transfixed by hearing young Utahns performing with the orchestra.
"I decided right then that I was going to be a performer," she said. "I wanted so badly to be able to do that for other people provide that stirring emotional experience."
Perhaps Erin's most important inspiration came from listening to her mother play the violin. Elizabeth Palmer performed in a piano quintet and brought young Erin along to rehearsals and performances.
"I got to be exposed to the great chamber works, and it had a huge effect on me," Morley said. Before long, Erin was a teenage pianist accomplished enough to perform difficult chamber works with her mother in a violin-piano duo.
While attending Midvale Junior High, Erin Palmer met fellow student John Morley, whose importance in her life story would not be known until much later. The two went to separate high schools and lost track of each other for about a decade.
Discovering her voice • In the meantime, Erin discovered a love of stage performance when she won the role of Princess Tuptim in Brighton High's production of "The King and I." Her parents discovered something they hadn't realized about their daughter when they attended a rehearsal.
"My husband and I were sitting there listening, and one of us said, 'We have to get this girl to a voice teacher. She's got a voice!' " Elizabeth Palmer said.
That's when Betty Jeanne Chipman, a singing teacher known for steering many of Utah's finest vocalists toward successful careers, entered Erin's life. "She was a fantastic teacher, especially for a young voice like mine," Morley said.
What made Erin's voice so remarkable was her range. "As a young singer, she had access into the extremely high voice," Chipman said.
Yet piano remained Erin's first musical love. She set her heart on a professional career and sent audition tapes to the major Eastern conservatories as she neared high-school graduation. Almost as an afterthought, she included a vocal audition tape.
"I was really surprised to hear from Eastman School of Music that I was accepted in voice and not in piano," Morley said. "I wanted so badly to study music in any form that I decided to study voice, because that's what they wanted me for."
At Eastman, she double-majored in voice and piano, continuing her piano studies with Douglas Humpherys (whose Utah connections include a gold-medal win at the Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition and a stint on the music faculty at Brigham Young University).
Morley adjusted to living away from home and being just one of many ambitious young musicians at Eastman. After two years, she realized her double major was impractical. She would have to choose between piano and voice, a decision that agonized her.
Her Utah piano teacher offered honest advice. "I think your voice will take you further than the piano," Madsen told Morley. "This is where your real talent lies."
A singer's apprenticeship • Morley embraced the life of a singer and got to work, but took time for a visit to Utah. A portentous meeting occurred when she went to a concert of the Salt Lake Symphony to hear her mother perform.
John Morley was in the audience, and the two renewed their childhood acquaintance. A long-distance courtship culminated in marriage in 2003, after Erin's graduation from Eastman and John's from the University of Utah.
Fate smiled, as it often has on Erin Morley. She and John got their graduate school wishes: New York's Juilliard School for her, and Yale's law school Connecticut for him. They lived between the two and commuted.
Later, John practiced law in New York City as Erin completed the Metropolitan Opera's prestigious Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, formed to nurture young artists through training and performance opportunities under guidance of conducting colossus James Levine.
Some of Morley's supporting performances at the Met during her apprenticeship have been screened at Utah movie theaters through the company's "Live in HD series. That's how Chipman has been able to enjoy the thrill of seeing her former student performing on the Met stage.
There's now a maturity in Morley's low midvoice, which her former singing teacher describes as full of "warm color." "She sang the Beethoven Ninth Symphony soprano part with the Utah Symphony a few weeks ago, which demands a lot of warmth and color in the voice," Chipman said. "She is so versatile and lovely onstage, because she is very expressive.
"I thought that she had the talent and the ability, but it takes a very dedicated person," Chipman continued. "It's not an easy profession, and the schooling to prepare for it is not easy. Erin had this goal, and with the support of her family, she made all the right decisions, went to the right schools and was chosen for the Lindemann program at the Met. That is really the most wonderful training a young singer can get."
Beyond raw talent • Another Utah influence on Morley has been Craig Jessop, now dean of Utah State University's Caine College of the Arts. Jessop was conductor for Morley's first Carnegie Hall appearance, as soprano soloist for a national high-school choral festival performance with the Orchestra of St. Luke's.
Jessop first heard Morley's voice when she was a Utah teenager and says he was "just blown away." He offered Morley precious encouragement at that time toward a life that could encompass a world-class music career and a family. Now Jessop takes pride in what she has accomplished.
"She is the combination of not only a phenomenal natural talent, but the intellectual power that makes for great artistry," Jessop said. "Quite honestly, this is just the beginning of a long and important career as a singer."
The acceleration of that career hasn't changed Morley's dedication to the principles ingrained in her Utah home, but her worldview has expanded.
Adding another dimension • "Something I enjoy about all of this is that I get to meet people who are different from me," Morley said. "I think that enhances my life as a person and as a performer. As long as people don't ask me to be different from who I am, and who I want to be, I have not found that to be a problem."
Morley's career paused briefly when she gave birth to baby daughter Maria last March. She sang throughout most of the pregnancy, covering a demanding role at Opéra National de Paris during her second trimester.
Morley worked to strengthen her singing muscles after a Caesarean delivery and quickly resumed her career, thanks to the help of a supportive husband. Having a new baby taught her that music isn't everything.
"She is the greatest accomplishment I have on my list," Morley said of Maria. "What a wonderful dimension motherhood brings to this art. And the same is true vice versa!"
John and Erin Morley now live in Charlottesville, Va., where he teaches law at the University of Virginia. Erin Morley plans to continue her career, balancing it with her family life.
"She loves that little girl so much," said Elizabeth Palmer, Erin's mother. "But she would not be a happy woman if she did not continue to sing. I think she should, and she knows it, too."
On the Virtuoso concert, Morley will sing a program similar to the what she will perform at Carnegie Hall in February with the same piano accompanist, Vlad Iftinca: works of Haydn, Poulenc, Rossini, Schumann, Barber and Rachmaninoff.
"This program is very special to Vlad and me," she said. "We've worked on many of these pieces for years together. He is a genius vocal collaborator, and I am always honored to make music with him."
Singing her way home
The University of Utah's Virtuoso Series presents soprano Erin Morley in concert. Pianist Vlad Iftinca, of the Metropolitan Opera music staff, is her accompanist.
When • Thursday, Nov. 3, at 7:30 p.m.
Where • Libby Gardner Concert Hall, 1375 E. Presidents Circle, U. campus, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $25; $5 for students; free to U. students with ID; 801-581-7100 or http://www.kingsburyhall.org