Born to Sing

How Three Tenors inspired Lucas Meachem to find his voice and opera stardom

By Deborah Salomon

 

 

Lucas Meachem sings lead roles at the Metropolitan Opera.

Lucas Meachem struts the stage at the Paris Opera, San Francisco Opera, Los Angeles Opera, British Royal Opera, Hollywood Bowl, as well as premier concert halls throughout the U.S., Europe and Asia.

Lucas Meachem belted out the national anthem at Los Angeles Clippers and New York Rangers hockey games.

Lucas Meachem took home a Grammy in 2016.

Lucas Meachem has been dubbed “opera rock star!” by music critics.

Lucas Meachem, 6 feet 4 inches, is a rugged, blue-eyed, ebullient, earthy 39-year-old — a fan of karaoke and Elvis, an attentive son and tenderhearted clown, as comfortable in T-shirt as tux.

Yet the former Whispering Pines resident, Union Pines Student Council president and football/basketball/soccer standout remains virtually unknown to Tar Heel audiences. Lucas had never performed locally until a recital at the Sunrise Theater, in September. No press, no home-state hero status.

“Yeah . . . I wondered about that,” he says.

Blame opera, not exactly a kingmaker like America’s Got Talent or The Voice.

Opera! Its Golden Age peaked early in the 20th century, when ladies in tiaras and men in capes occupied boxes at the old Metropolitan Opera House in Manhattan. Then, opera was as much a social as musical event. Plump divas and temperamental tenors performed the classics by Verdi, Puccini, Wagner, Bizet, Strauss and Mozart. As high society waned, so did the opera scene. English librettos, supratitles and modern dress versions attracted a boutique audience who identify with ripped younger singers. Porgy & Bess, Evita, Les Miserables and smash hit Hamilton proved the success of opera by another name.

Moot, for Lucas, who grew up on Led Zeppelin, The Who and Boyz II Men. At Union Pines he was athletic and popular but not Mr. Cool.

“I was always the friend, never the boyfriend. I had acne.”

He also had a barrel chest to support that booming voice. Lucas sang everywhere — in the house, mowing the lawn, in the church choir and school chorus where he caught the attention of choral director Anita Alpenfels:

“He gathered such joy from music.” It’s an example, she says, of how public schools should tap into talent. She promoted the 15-year-old to advanced chorus, advised his mother to seek private instruction. Following his career, Anita noticed, “Lucas has remained grounded, not self-serving or full of ego. He has made an intimidating art form approachable.”

Despite Opera Carolina (Charlotte), Opera North Carolina (Raleigh) and UNC School of the Arts A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute (Winston-Salem), opera wannabes don’t proliferate in the land of basketball and NASCAR. Early on, singing — especially classical music — didn’t seem a likely career. As a young teen Lucas worked part time installing pool liners. “I wanted to be a landscape artist like my stepfather (Vince Zucchino).” Or perhaps an architect, like his father, who lives in California. He even started a business with his grandfather’s old riding mower. Then, for his 16th birthday, Lucas received a 4-track recording device. “I’d lock myself in my room for the whole weekend.” Not recording arias, safe to say. “But I knew who the Three Tenors (Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo, José Carreras) were from their tape.”

Lucas attended Appalachian State — “the cheapest college I could afford” — where he studied vocal performance and music education, also discovering that “chicks dig karaoke,” which he mastered easily. The singing part of college was great, the studying, not so. In 1998, he and a buddy scraped together enough money for a Three Tenors concert in Charlotte. “We stayed at a Motel 6,” Lucas recalls. “Our seats sucked, but everything else was really impressive.”

And, just maybe, possible.

Soon after, Lucas ditched his drawl (“Nobody could understand me.”) and left App State for a summer program at Ohio Light Opera, a company specializing in repertory, which meant learning several parts — a trial by fire for most novices, less for Lucas, who has a “magic memory” that absorbs and retains music in a flash. There, he dated a harp player who was studying at the prestigious Eastman School of Music in upstate New York. When summer ended, Lucas visited her. His harpist, duly impressed, arranged for an audition. “At first the guy didn’t look at me. Then I opened my mouth and he sat up like, ‘Oh, my God.’”

Lucas went home, packed his stuff and returned on a full scholarship, still never having witnessed the performance of a proper opera from out front. “The first one I actually saw was one I performed in.”

Sounds almost like a plot in progress.

Lucas was recruited by the Yale School of Music, another stellar institution. “First they offered me a half scholarship. I told them I was poor and that I didn’t want student loans. We negotiated.”

Guess who won.

“I’m not good at the school part. I just wanted to get jobs singing.” Rather than complete a degree, Lucas followed his father’s advice: Do whatever gives you chills.

When invited to join the San Francisco Opera as a prestigious Adler Fellow, Lucas jumped.

The yellow brick road was fast approaching Oz.

Inside the rehearsal costume of Bohemian artist Marcello in Puccini’s La Bohème are sewn labels bearing names of famous baritones who have sung the role at the Met. Add Meachem to that list. “My goal was to sing at the Met by the time I was 30,” he says, with a wicked grin. Lucas made it in 2008, at 29, as a nobleman in War and Peace, a five-hour marathon sung in Russian. His reaction to stepping onto that famous stage: “Awe and joy.” Now, he is a regular; in 2015 he sang a leading role in Pagliacci for “The Met: Live in HD” seen on 2,000 movie screens worldwide, including the Sunrise. “These simulcasts allow more people to experience the excitement of the Met’s high quality performances . . . an easy, affordable method of checking out a new art form,” a Met blurb reasons.

New, indeed, meaning instead of a stationary frontal view the camera moves around and up close, exposing facial expressions, agility and acting ability — Meachem fortes, all. Jitters aren’t a problem. “I have this burning desire to be onstage, to sing. I just love it.”

However, tenors are usually the glamour boys and baritones the sidekicks or villains.

The baritone may survive but rarely gets the girl.

Not in this opera.

Enter, smiling, Irina Nedelcu-Erickson, born in Minnesota of Romanian refugee parents — petite, dark-haired, exotic, with flashing eyes and a million-dollar smile. When she settles at the piano, optics disappear. Like Lucas, music is her lifeblood. After piano lessons in Minneapolis, Irina’s parents sent the 15-year-old back to Romania for two years of serious instruction. Her education continued with noted teachers at universities in the U.S. and elsewhere. She became a soloist, an accompanist and voice coach. Irina and Lucas crossed paths in 2013 when he showed up a week late for rehearsal, yet “all confident.”

“From that first night I knew he was the one,” Irina says. “He was a natural. He had an energy — very intellectual and smart, but funny and cool and handsome, passionate and unpredictable. I was floored. I deleted every guy in my phone.”

Lucas explains over sushi that he had just gotten out of a relationship.

Irina became his accompanist, traveling the recital circuit, seeing the world from first-class accommodations while enjoying his teddy bearish joie de vivre.

They married in July 2016, in Wilmington, N.C., celebrated their first anniversary by hitting 10 European countries in 10 weeks — from Greece to Albania, Hungary to Spain — combining gigs with sightseeing.

“Lucas learned Romanian just so he could talk to my grandmother,” Irina says.

What a life.

The supportive wife helps. But first, every opera star needs . . . Mom. Susan Zucchino, a longtime speech pathologist at STARS Charter School, oozes pride speaking of her firstborn. “Lucas was always singing, from the time he was 3 or 4,” she recalls. Maybe earlier: “I came out of the womb singing,” is his recollection. By the time he turned 12, Lucas and his two little sisters put on plays with costumes and props. “He was always easygoing, never went through a snarly phase — a good boy, kind and considerate, stood up for kids not in the group,” Susan says. The family listened to classical music but never opera. Now, Susan speaks confidently about roles and plots, venues and singers. She has attended music festivals and, overcome with emotion, applauded Lucas at the Met.

“I did all I could to support him while he was in North Carolina,” she says. “But don’t forget, I was working and taking care of three younger children.”

Lucas didn’t forget. He flew her to Paris and Rome for performances, Susan’s first trips abroad. “He had an apartment in Toulouse; he took me to the market — the cheese folks greeted us, they knew him already.”

But really, how many grown men squire Mommy to karaoke bars in Paris? Or, for that matter, how many sons get a private after-hours tour of the Louvre, where “I had Mona Lisa all to myself.”

Modern-day stars, be they opera or otherwise, must cultivate a fan base. An autograph scrawled on a concert program doesn’t suffice. Groupies demand an offstage presence, online. Not hard for Lucas, as pictured in dreamy promotional stills.

Wanna watch him, from underwater, dive into the seas (catch that tat) off Albania and Malta? Eat a banana? Treat a cold? Emerge from his dressing room shower? Sing all four parts of Carol of the Bells? Wanna see his precious pooch Teemo (who stays with Irina’s family) board a plane in Chicago? Have a beer and flop on the bed in their new Minneapolis condo? Shop for a designer gown in Bucharest with Irina? Speaking of clothes, notice that Lucas prefers orange swimsuits, baseball caps and silver gray down jackets with mufflers round his golden throat.

Don’t miss how he turned vegan and lost 50 pounds. “Lentil soup and ratatouille for dinner,” Irina smiles.

These juicy details and reams more texturize his image on his website, Baritone Blog, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. Then, absorb his philosophy, poetically expounded, on life, love, everything in between, including, “It’s never over until you say it’s over.”

Far from over for this baritone whose voice has not fully matured. “We plan four years in advance,” Irina says. “When Lucas’ voice gets bigger he will venture into Verdi — maybe 10 years before Rigoletto.” The title role in this tragic tale of the hunchback court jester who loses his daughter to a scoundrel is considered the pinnacle of the baritone repertoire. And if he manages to pull it off at the Met.

Through a life packed with acclaim and applause, long-stemmed roses and Moet, Lucas, along with James Taylor, keeps a bit of “Carolina on my mind.”

“The second I get off the plane in N.C. I feel it . . . there’s a palpable energy here. I love the smell of the pine trees” that surround Mom’s ranch-style house across from a lake in Whispering Pines. His travel schedule does not allow many trips South, which made the Sunrise gig arranged through the Arts Council of Moore County Classical Concert Series momentous. Lucas played to a full house, including many familiar faces who got a shout out from the stage. Ever the showman, their soccer goalie wore pink socks and patent leather shoes — hardly noticed when Irina appeared to accompany him wearing a clingy black lace gown. The program included Aaron Copland, German lieder, some Gershwin, a ballad from South Pacific and “Me” from Beauty and the Beast. His encore, dreamy Elvis: “I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You.”

Before leaving, our hometown hero gave a master class at Union Pines. “He was so good at connecting with the students,” Anita Alpenfels says. “He gave them and the teachers a pep talk about staying focused and setting goals,” lessons that apply beyond opera.

Of course there have been regrets, disappointments, tense moments — like falling off the back of the stage in Madrid, without the conductor noticing. Or botching a first audition at the Met because of a cold. Playing Figaro, his favorite role, in The Barber of Seville with various opera companies requires finesse, since directors and co-stars bring different interpretations. Hopscotching time zones 9 or 10 months a year takes its toll; flights are delayed, tempers flare. “When everybody else is being mean, I’m nice.”

Unlike the baritone-role stereotype, Lucas isn’t a brooder. Rather, he is an upbeat philosopher and entertainer of the highest echelon who, thank goodness, doesn’t take himself too seriously. Offstage, anyway.

For now, his goals are to stay booked, keep traveling, but with a bit more bye time. Baritones age into their roles better than tenors. And he’s not yet 40.

“Even though I’ve sung at every major opera house in the world, I think every day there’s so much I haven’t accomplished. There are roles inside me that I have yet to sing.” And, despite admitting, “There’s nothing I love more than singing with my wife at the piano,” he allows, “I’m still chasing a dream.”  PS

Saturday, February 24 THE MET OPERA: LIVE IN HD. 12:30–3:25 p.m. La Boheme. Franco Zeffirelli’s classic production features an exciting young cast. This opera about starving artists falling in love in 1830s Paris is said to be the most popular opera in the world. Cost: $27. Sunrise Theater, 250 NW Broad St., Southern Pines. Info: (910) 692-8501 or sunrisetheater.com

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