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The accidental tenor

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Zach Hetrick | Inside

Andy Lunsford

Andy Lunsford is the rising opera star whose name and story you'll remember.

Published on Nov. 29, 2010 | Print | Share | Recommend ()

The basement
was where he found his voice. Three years ago, in Colorado, Andy Lunsford walked down the stairs. He put on a CD he’d bought on a whim years ago from Target, “Lifescapes: Opera.”

It was the only opera music he owned, and he thought it would be a soothing break from what was happening in his life.

He was declaring personal bankruptcy, and he had a long way to fall. The granite business he’d started was on track to sell $6 million in countertops that year. In slacks and a tie at 26, the young entrepreneur employed 40 people. Now, with the economy crashing, Andy watched his world collapse. He would lose his home, his cars, and his credit. The only things left were his wife and two young sons.

So he listened to opera in the basement he no longer owned.

He enjoyed musicals growing up, but the only opera he’d heard was on spaghetti commercials. When he put on the CD, it was a blur of Italian noise. He closed his eyes, then started humming. Then he sang. Sounds, not words.

He tried to sing a phrase, but he couldn’t make sense of the language.

“So I just tried to sing along,” he says. “I was just trying to imitate how an opera voice was high and loud.” He could do it. Later he would find out he’s a tenor who can sing in three octaves without falsetto. It’s impressive for most singers to sing in two.

He liked singing high. It felt good when everything else in his life didn’t make sense. It was simple. He wanted more.

The next day, he and his dad drove to a music store.

“Have you got any opera songs?” He asked the clerk.

“Do you mean arias?” The clerk corrected him. “Which do you want?”

He hummed the first song that came to his mind.

“I think that’s Puccini’s ‘Nessun Dorma,’” the clerk said, walking over to the sheet music. It’s a familiar opera song made popular by Luciano Pavarotti. Andy had no money, so his dad spotted him $7 for the music.

At home, Andy propped the sheet in front of his computer, looked up Pavarotti singing it on YouTube, and followed along. Finger tracing the lines, he started to read the notes. He hit all of them.

What happened next can only be described as remarkable. Andy started singing in a local tavern, where his bankruptcy lawyer heard him and encouraged him to sing more. He auditioned for a local performance of “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” where he met Amy Stuemky, a fellow singer who just happened to run a boutique opera talent agency.

Andy asked Amy if she’d listen to him sing. They found a side room in the theater and Amy sat down. That was a good thing. She was overwhelmed by the power of his voice.

“I turned to him when he was done,” she says, “and I said, ‘I don’t know if you believe in this sort of thing or not — I don’t even know if I do — but I think God made me take this gig just so I could meet you.”

She explained that he could take the easy “pop” opera route and make a living with scattered gigs. Or, he could study the true art of opera and have a difficult career with the pay-off of a trained, polished voice capable of performing in opera houses around the world.

Andy was up for the climb. Amy began introducing him to opera singers in Colorado, who agreed to teach him. Eventually, he met Ken Cox, a famed bass and voice professor at the University of Denver.

The first time he heard Andy’s untrained voice, he heard a future.

“The basic instrument that I heard when we first got together was singular,” Ken says. “I can’t think of another voice that I’ve heard in raw form with such screaming huge potential.”

Ken says Andy has the comfort in high notes (the famed high C is a breeze) that made Pavarotti the best. As a tenor, Andy’s high notes are his money notes.

Tenors are most often the male leads in operas and the highest-paid stars. Their notes are the ones that make an auditorium hold its collective breath. Ken knew Andy was headed there, but he needed training.

A graduate of IU’s master’s program in music, Cox helped Andy arrange an audition at his alma mater.

Andy prepared songs for a handful of colleges and got in everywhere he sang. Every school offered him scholarships.

But he’ll never forget his IU audition. He sang in front of professor Carol Vaness, a world-famous soprano.

Andy stood before her with nothing to lose. He’d lost it all already. So he breathed in and let go. When he stopped, Carol looked at the student assistant sitting next to her. She looked at Andy. Then back at the student.

“Can you believe that just happened?” she asked. “I can’t believe that just happened.”
Andy remembers thinking, “This is either really good or really bad.”

Carol picked up the phone and called the dean. Andy walked away with a full ride to one of the world’s most prestigious music schools. He was ready, and his family supported him. He moved his wife, Kenya, and their two boys away from their extended family and the only home they had ever known in Colorado. They were taking a risk on their dad’s voice. Together. In fall 2009, Andy became the oldest member of his class as a 30-year-old freshman.

The practice room

is full of beautiful girls with sweet voices, but Andy is the big guy with the big voice and the big smile. He takes all three up to the front of the room during his weekly master class with Carol and her other students. She owns the room in jeans and a baseball cap with white stitching: “Life is Good.” When Andy stands in front of the piano, she takes off her hat and leans forward.

He breathes, and sings the first notes of a piece from “La Bohème” by Puccini. He smiles. This is why he’s here: to let everything go.

“When I sing a high note, I just feel like I can breathe,” he says. “It’s as comfortable and as warm as taking a deep breath.”

This year, Andy decided to pursue a Performer Diploma instead of a Bachelor of Music degree. Although he enjoyed the general education classes, he can focus on performing and graduate in two years.

The high notes are no problem for him. He breathes through the song, chest rising, booming, beautiful.

Just like the first time he sang, music comforts him. “I can sing into the stratosphere with a full voice,” he says. “It’s always been easy for me. I came prepackaged with the top. A lot of people work for years to get those top notes.”

When he stops, he puts his confidence away, slides his hands in his pockets, and lets the criticisms fly.  That’s what master class is for.

Andy knows he needs to work on blending his top, middle, and bottom voices.
“You love to sing in the place where most tenors have a hard time, but how do you come down from those notes?” Carol asks.

Audiences don’t want to be jarred by a voice that jumps around. Andy’s biggest project lately has been working on unifying his voice for a consistent sound. He’ll need that confidence in February and March for “Faust,” his first major role.

He presses his hands, prayer-shaped, to his lips.

Carol tells him to retry the part where he lost faith and faltered slightly. “This is the hard part,” she says. “We know it. We know you know it. We can hear it in your voice.”
With master class and a weekly private lesson, Carol will teach him how to come down from notes, how to even his tone, and how to build his confidence for the stage. But the stage is only one place where Andy has a role to fill.


The living room
is a joyful tornado. Colin, 9, is Andy’s older son. He’s sitting on the couch in a house on the far west side of town. Colin holds a Wii controller and plays Super Mario Brothers while Max, 6, loudly demands someone look at his “I Spy Pokemon” book. Like dad, he’s got the gift of projection.

Andy sits down on the couch with a cup of coffee, and Colin hands him a controller so he can join in. As Andy presses the buttons, Max clambers over him, a mess of growing sprawling limbs and a kindergarten smile. Dad wears a baseball cap and sweatshirt. They’re all boys together.

Near the couch stands a digital piano. The bookmarked “Faust” songbook sits on top. In the kitchen, Andy’s wife Kenya pulls a pan out of the oven. The smell of warm banana bread swirls into the living room.

Andy calls Kenya his strength. They married when he was 20 and she 21. She practices lines with him late into the night. The family has one car, a white SUV, and every day she drops Andy off on campus.

While he sings, she works at home doing data entry for a little extra money. With her small income and Andy’s full-time student status, the family lives on food stamps. They are methodical about planning meals and buying only the groceries they need.

This family has been rich in money before, and in hope now. Through it all, Andy and Kenya lead the boys in daily Bible readings. The boys still talk about Colorado, where their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins live. They support dad, but they all miss home.


Carol’s studio

requires an entrance fee. This week, it’s coffee and Hershey’s Miniatures. In their private lessons, Andy carries treats. She contributes world-famous soprano sass.

Andy brings songs and Carol breaks them into pieces. Words become sounds, which are just shapes of the mouth. Andy and Carol speak a language only they know. She tells him to “darken” his sound or “add a little ‘Otello’ to it.”

Andy is special to her. Without softening the crisp edges of her voice, she calls him “sweetie heart.”

She exudes that blend of skill and ice that only a diva can pull off. But the posters on the wall from opera houses all over the world and pictures — of her and Pavarotti, for example — show she’s sitting in a place she deserves.

And right now that place is on a stool, leaning on the piano, across from her protégé who is singing “Ah, la paterna mano” from “Macbeth” by Verdi.

As he moves his mouth, she mirrors.

She notices his head drooping. She speaks over his singing, but he knows what to do.

Just sing.

“Keep your head up, sweetie!” she says. “Stay up!”

They both pull up their chests.

“Your voice follows where your head goes.”

She waves her hand side to side, then lifts it for him to notice. He lifts his chin and continues singing.

“Don’t squish! You have more low voice than anybody on this whole campus!”

His brows knit around earnest eyes, he sweeps his hand, sticking his neck out to keep his head up.

“Go for that beautiful open sound!” He puffs out his chest and lets the final note soar.

She claps frantically as he rounds out the last note. He kept his chin up.

Andy sweeps his arm across his body, holds it out, then lets it drop. He’s beaming. “I felt it!”

His mentor grins and looks him in the eye.

“Pretty damn good, kid.”

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