Diane Kalinowski

Diane Kalinowski

An opera singer on a dairy farm sounds like the beginning of a funny story. But for one local resident, she lived it.

The Crawford County Historical Society presents Diane Kalinowski, a soprano who grew up on a dairy farm outside of Cochranton, in concert at 7 p.m. Saturday at Unitarian Universalist Church of Meadville, 346 Chestnut St.

From an early age, Kalinowski showed promise as a musician and singer although, as she puts it, no one else in her family had any musical background. By age 7, she was taking piano lessons, and she performed in an elementary school production of "Of Mice and Mozart," which quickly became a fixation.

"I was obsessed with Mozart," Kalinowski said. "And I came home crying one day from school and said to my mom, ‘I’m so far behind. Mozart wrote all this music by the time he was 7. I haven’t written anything. I haven’t done anything.’"

She began performing in musicals with Meadville Community Theatre and The Academy Theatre and was 13 when she met Vicki Jamison, a voice professor at Allegheny College. Soon she was taking voice lessons from Jamison.

"She really introduced me to art song and opera," Kalinowski said. "Art song, in particular — I fell in love with learning all these languages and the history of the pieces and the composers. It just had all of those elements tied together."

Jamison encouraged Kalinowski to pursue vocal performance in college, which she did at Mercyhurst University. She later studied opera at the University of Kansas and proceeded to grace the stage at Lyric Opera of Kansas City, Rochester Lyric Opera, New Jersey State Opera, Annapolis Opera and Opera Connecticut where she starred in "Tosca." She was one of five finalists in the inaugural Elizabeth Connell Prize, an international competition for aspiring dramatic sopranos in Sydney, Australia.

"Especially in Cochranton, but in Meadville, too, I have a huge support system here," Kalinowski said. "When I get to come here, the question I get the most from anyone on the street is, ‘When can I hear you sing? When are you singing locally?’ So whenever there’s an opportunity, I try to always say yes if I can because so many people here never get to hear me live."

Historical Society Board President Josh Sherretts admitted he was "shameless" in reaching out to Kalinowski in February about a possible performance.

"The Historical Society/Baldwin-Reynolds House is looking at trying to take our programming more Chautauqua Institution-style to reach a broader audience with more cultural activities in the area," Sherretts said. "More than just the small town history of one building or one person in the community, these things try to reach a broader group of people, educationally, inspirationally."

The Chautauqua Institution, a nonprofit with educational and resort amenities northwest of Jamestown, New York, showcases a variety of arts events and performances in a historic setting.

Sherretts confirmed that the free programs on local history will continue, but the organization is moving in a direction to host larger, cultural events in the area. He also said he wanted to present talent "in our own backyard."

"It’s not often that many of those people with that kind of talent come back to live here," Sherretts said. "It’s nice to showcase those local stars that are considered appreciated far more nationally than we even realize when we see them on a day-to-day basis."

When she's not in an opera role or competing for another award, Kalinowski works as a legal administrative assistant for law firm Steptoe & Johnson. But she moved quite a bit, living in New York and Washington, D.C., for a time before she realized she missed her family and rural community.

"Ultimately, I just felt really lonely each time I was in a big city," Kalinowski said. "You’re used to walking around here and people hold doors for you. People say hi to you. It’s just a nice little boost to run into someone you know."

As for the concert, Kalinowski will perform a blend of art songs and opera arias in the first half and then a blend of arias and showtunes to cap off the night. Her first voice teacher, Jamison, will offer narrations to give context for each song, and Ward, Jamison's husband, will accompany on piano.

"I think people who are non-opera listeners maybe don’t understand and are a little bit intimidated by opera," Kalinowski said. "But it’s actually the movie of (a prior) generation. It’s the same themes that we see. There’s love, there’s murder, there’s drama. All of the things that you see in the movie theaters are on the opera stage, sometimes all in one performance."

Tyler Dague can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at tdague@meadvilletribune.com.

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