Caleb Thompson earned a spot on the roster of the most prestigious opera house in the country, the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. (Photo: Demarcus Bowser)

One year after enrolling in an opportunity-driven opera class, 12-year-old Caleb Thompson – a Stax Music Academy student – will join the roster of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

Thompson’s upcoming experience with the most prestigious opera house in the country grew from creativity that surfaced after a pandemic-forced cancellation.

Opera Memphis was set to present “Beale Street Boheme,” which would have featured a chorus of youngsters from the Stax Music Academy, when the pandemic forced those plans into no-go mode. Enter McCleave Directing Fellow Bethania Baray, who saw an opportunity.

Working with Stax lead vocal instructor Keia Johnson, Baray developed a new curriculum. Four students participated in the year-long class, which took place largely through remote learning due to COVID protocols. 

“Ms. Bethania” – as she is affectionately known by her students – instructed the class on the history of opera, exploring language and musical styles unknown to the curious novices. The year concluded with a performance of “The Evening Prayer” from “Hansel and Gretelsung by the four students in English and German. 

The Metropolitan Opera will begin its 2021-22 season with “Fire Shut Up in my Bones” by award-winning jazz musician and composer Terence Blanchard. Thompson will understudy the role of Char’es Baby, the production’s only singing role for a child. After a search that included hundreds of applicants, Thompson, who persevered through numerous auditions and callbacks, landed the spot.

Caleb Thompson at the Metropolitan Opera. (Photo: Tichanda Thompson)

The piece marks the Met’s first performance of an opera by a Black composer in its nearly 140-year history. Blanchard’s adaptation of Charles M. Blow’s memoir features a libretto by filmmaker Kasi Lemmons and will star baritone Will Liverman as Charles (2020 Marian Anderson Vocal Award winner; 2019 Sphinx Medal of Excellence) and sopranos Angel Blue as Destiny (Grammy award winner, Bess in “Porgy and Bess”) and Latonia Moore as Billie (Grammy award winner, Serena in “Porgy and Bess”).

“What a privilege to help expand this relationship with Stax Music Academy and offer an opera ensemble class,” Baray said. “I knew these students would be one-of-a-kind, but students like Caleb have completely surpassed my expectations. 

“Two semesters later, I find myself meeting with Caleb via Zoom to coach his audition for a role at the largest opera house in the world. He is incredibly hard working and talented, and I could not be more elated for him!”

The relationship with Opera Memphis and Stax stretches back to 2011, when students serenaded audience members at a performance of “Tosca” from the grand staircase in the lobby of The Orpheum. Since then, students have performed as part of numerous Opera Memphis events, Opera Memphis guest artists have made classroom visits, and at one point a faculty position was funded in part by Opera Memphis.

The class with Thompson was the first year-long class that focused specifically on opera.

Johnson said Thompson is “the kind of student every teacher wants. He’s joyful, hardworking, funny and so talented. 

“But it’s how his family supports him that warms my heart,” Johnson said.

“When Caleb wins, they all rejoice and I consider myself lucky to be a part of his village. I am so proud to teach voice to him but mainly to be someone in his life that gets to see him win; go Caleb go!”