Whether inhabiting the roles of Countess Almaviva in the Show Me Opera’s production of Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro” or the title role in Giacomo Puccini’s “Suor Angelica,” Pax Baker does so with gusto and passion.
Opera singers are referred to as singing actors and that’s definitely true for Baker. A consummate performer, the soprano has always been in her element on stage. For Baker, 23, it’s the moment of truth, where all of her vocal training has led, a time when she’s on and can finally deliver.
“I may be nervous until I get in place, but when the curtain opens I’m calm. I’m completely calm on stage and I know what I need to do. Every performance is a whole new world,” she said.
While she grew up in the small town of California, Missouri, only 45 minutes away from the University of Missouri–Columbia, where she just graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in vocal performance, singing has opened up a whole new universe.
“I remember when she came to me as a freshman and I asked her what she wanted to be and she said, ‘I want to be an opera singer.’ She just knew that in her heart and spoke it,” said Christine Seitz, director of Show Me Opera and voice area coordinator for the School of Music.
Certainly the young Baker wasn’t exposed to opera but she did love performing. Her mother enrolled her in dance when she was 3 and she loved it.
“When we had recitals I would be the one that would not get off the stage,” said Baker, an only child who always drew strength from her supportive parents Renee and Mike Baker. “They’re definitely my biggest cheerleaders.”
Her mother knew Baker was a natural performer when her daughter sang a solo about a snowman while in the elementary school group California Kids. Baker continued performing in “Sounds of Joy” in high school, was part of the drama club and performed in various musicals, like “Thoroughly Modern Milly,” but she viewed these as fun, extracurricular activities.
“I planned to go into political science. I never thought I could make singing a career,” she said.
That all changed in her junior year of high school when she attended the Missouri Fine Arts Academy (MFAA), a three-week summer residential program for students in the visual arts, theater, writing, dance and music at Missouri State University in Springfield.
“I always felt different in high school but then you go to this place where it’s only people like you, doing stuff in the arts and it was such a cool experience. The friends I made there, I am still friends with today,” she said.
That experience led to voice lessons with Jana Fox, director of Choral Activities at Helias Catholic High School, and then to auditions at the University of Missouri School of Music.
“The School of Music is really a secret and it’s not that well-known,” Baker said. “As part of our audition process I sat through an opera class and I told my dad that’s what I wanted to do.”
Baker received a full scholarship and then immersed herself into a brand new world.
“I tried to be as involved in as much as I could my freshman year,” she said. “It was also a big academic year for me. I was learning about concepts I had never seen or heard before but they expected you to know. You also had to work hard for your roles.”
She became one of the University Singers her sophomore year and as part of the group did a tour in Austria, where she would love to return. Throughout her studies, she has competed in regional competitions through the National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS), where she received second place in a regional competition in 2014 and a first place finish last year.
While talent is a vital element of any performer’s success, it’s an inexact formula of luck, timing, preparation and intangibles like drive and confidence.
“Pax will not give up, and she works very hard. If we are working on new music, she goes off and learns it,” Seitz said. “For the countess role she had to learn scads of Italian. Just to speak it is difficult, much less to sing it. She’s also got such a performer’s psyche. When she’s on stage she really performs, she inhabits her characters fully.”
Whether in more comedic operas like “The Marriage of Figaro,” performed at the Missouri Theater in Columbia, or Valegerd in a world premiere of a one-act opera, “The Outlaw,” by fellow student and composer Justin Pound, Baker throws herself into the performance.
Last year she was Ann Putnam in Show-Me Opera’s production of Robert Ward’s “The Crucible,” and she’s performed scenes from the iconic operas like “La Traviata,” “Falstaff” and “La clemenza di Tito.”
“Every performance or role I learn something new about myself; it’s like this huge adrenaline rush, like a runner’s high. I love singing and I’ve gotten to perform with my friends all these years, too,” she said.
Her boyfriend, Ben Worley, also a graduate of the School of Music, stayed on to receive his masters. Baker plans to earn a masters degree in arts administration at the University of Oregon in Eugene.
“I still want to perform but I want to learn how to be an administrator of an opera, too,” said Baker.
She admires the great opera singers like Renee Fleming and Leontyne Price, the first African American to receive notoriety, while also grasping the realities of a very competitive business.
“This career is not guaranteed, and there’s always someone better than you and it’s based on what you look like and other factors that are often out of your control,” she said.
While singing is her passion, she’s currently an administrative intern with Columbia Chorale and Columbia Youth Choirs and has held the executive board position of vice president-membership and sergeant at arms in the international women’s music fraternity Sigma Alpha Iota-Iota Lambda.
“Pax has the voice to be able to work professionally, and continuing to train her instrument further she should be able to do that,” Seitz said. “If she were getting a degree in another field, like engineering, she could walk into the job market and command a salary, with voice there’s no such thing.”
Whatever is ahead, Baker has soaked in the experiences of the past five years. As she geared up to graduate, her final weeks were full of bittersweet rites of passage. She’s performed in the emerging artists showcase at the Missouri Theater and at her senior recital, where she performed Puccini, Mozart, Verdi, Debussy, Wolf and Hoiby. This summer she’ll perform in the national NATS competition in Chicago and then move to Eugene where she begins her masters studies in September.
“I feel like I’ve grown so much. There’s so much to learn and you are never ever a master of it and there’s always bumps in the road. I’m really proud of myself and how far I have come,” Baker said.
“I planned to do something completely different so this is a big jump from wanting to be a lawyer to being an opera singer, but I’m doing what I love to do,” she said.