May 2 2014 04:40 PM

Chorister Anishka Lee-Skorepa hopes to carve out a career with her powerful voice

Anishka Lee-Skorepa
Photo by Kinsee Morlan

    The sound of an opera soprano spills out into the warm Santa Ana winds whipping through South Park. Christmas lights brighten a walkway leading up to a Craftsman home, adding to the ambiance as Anishka Lee-Skorepa rehearses near an old, wooden piano just inside the open front door. She's prepping for an upcoming performance—a night of operatic arias and art songs with piano accompaniment, an event she organized, funded and promoted herself.

    Lee-Skorepa is one of 28 core San Diego Opera choristers, having performed with the embattled local opera for the past seven years. Though the work is only seasonal, the position is a dream job for the 33-year-old, who's struggling to stitch together a serious singing career in a city without many options.

    "This piano's been here my whole life," she says, welcoming me into her mother's charming, colorful home where she was raised. "My mom always listened to music. I remember hearing Carmen at a very young age and being fascinated just instantly—like, What is this? I need to know."

    From the moment Lee-Skorepa started singing, first on her own and later with the San Diego Children's Choir, she sounded like an opera singer—popular music was never in her future, thanks to her distinct, classical sound. She took singing seriously right from the start. As a kid, she was told she had the voice of a young dramatic soprano, which meant she'd have to be patient and persistent in her career, because her type of powerful, rich voice is generally considered not fully mature until a singer's early 30s.

    The San Diego Opera was an early and important influence on Lee-Skorepa. A student at San Diego High School, she had a teacher who took advantage of the opera's outreach programs, inviting his kids to see live dress rehearsals and asking docents to speak to his classes.

    "I remember San Diego Opera did Madame Butterfly, a production I later got to be in," Lee-Skorepa recalls. "I remember it so vividly. One of the docents came in to talk about it, and she had us tearing little pieces of paper, because, for the scene where [Madame Butterfly] kills herself, if the opera crew cut the paper, it didn't fall quite right. It had to be hand-torn. So, all the docents would take the paper to the schools and have the kids tear up the paper while they were talking. It was so cool to go and see the production and see the pieces of paper that we tore falling. Just to experience how tragic and beautiful that scene is. I remember crying and being completely hooked, like, OK, I need to be a part of this."

    She eventually earned her bachelor's degree, and then her master's, in voice performance at schools outside of San Diego. She returned to her hometown in 2006 and eventually mustered the confidence to audition for the San Diego Opera chorus. She made the cut and fell in love with the job immediately, calling it an "incubator" that allowed her to grow as an artist as she waited for her voice to mature.

    On March 19, under the guidance of Ian Campbell, the San Diego Opera's general and artistic director, the opera's board of directors unexpectedly voted to close the 49-year-old institution. Lee-Skorepa was working at her day job as the head of catering at Whole Foods in Hillcrest when the news broke. Just weeks before, she'd given notice at her job—a big and important step in her quest to make singing her fulltime gig. Sitting in her car, desperately trying to piece together text messages from friends and fellow choristers, she eventually registered the gravity of the situation and broke down in tears.

    "I was a mess," she says. "It just seemed to come out of nowhere. We had been told a year before that everything was fine, that the opera wouldn't be expanding anytime soon, but it wouldn't be going away, certainly. I had always worked under the [impression] that the opera was in the black."

    The abrupt announcement prompted strong, emotional responses, not only among opera employees like Lee-Skorepa, but also from the community at large. Criticism and questions about Campbell and his ex-wife, Ann Campbell, deputy general director at the opera, and their high salaries, generous compensation packages and unwillingness to innovate or make budget cuts continue to swirl. The Campbells have since been placed on paid administrative leave, and several board members have quit over the controversy.

    Meanwhile, employees and board members fighting to save the opera have managed to delay the closure date and have launched a $1-million crowdsourcing campaign. Advisors have recommended the opera raise $3 million for its 2015 season by May 19. Carol Lazier, the new board president, has pledged $1 million; the opera plans to raise another $1 million through major donors and the last million will hopefully come from the crowdsourcing campaign, which was at $515,925 as of press time. Last Wednesday, the city of San Diego's Commission for Arts and Culture also recommended giving the opera $160,000 for its next season; the opera had asked for $380,000, so while the grant wouldn't be huge, it would signal city support.

    Lee-Skorepa and the rest of the choristers are doing what they can, too, by pledging 10 percent of their annual earnings to the company. Lee-Skorepa hopes the full funding will materialize and a leaner but just-as-interesting 2015 season will be staged.

    "Opera can be done in so many ways," she says. "I got to sing excerpts of the role of Aida in Tijuana last year with the Opera de Tijuana for their Opera de la Calle festival. It was the most incredible experience, because there's opera, this grand art form, right on the streets in Tijuana.

    "I feel like, if I can pull off something like this," she continues, pointing to a poster promoting one of her alternative-opera performances, which have attracted robust audiences. "If I can help people have this opera experience with just me on stage, then I feel like this art form is valid in whatever package you put it in."

    Aniska Lee-Skorepa will perform at 4 p.m. Sunday, May 4, at The Sunset Temple (3911 Kansas St. in North Park). Tickets are $10 to $15.

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