Atlanta Opera production close to home for singer

Cast members for Atlanta Opera productions typically arrive from around the world to perform on the stage of the Cobb Energy Centre for the company’s two-week performance runs.

The upcoming production of “La bohème” is no different. Both the leads, Maria Luigia Borsi, who plays Mimì, and Gianluca Terranova, who plays Rodolfo, hail from Italy, and the rest of the cast is likewise a mix of singers from around the globe.

However, one cast member won’t have far to travel. Soprano Leah Partridge, who plays the supporting role of Musetta, is an Atlanta resident and Georgia native. Partridge has been a professional opera singer for 13 years, most often traveling like her fellow cast members, but occasionally appearing in Atlanta Opera productions.

It’s a life she speaks of with so much passion and enthusiasm it’s surprising to learn that, as a child, she never considered it as a career — or even realized such a life was possible.

Partridge grew up in Lincolnton, about 40 miles from Augusta. Although there was no music program at her school, Partridge developed a love of music early, singing in church along with her family, many of whom were members of the choir at New Hope Baptist Church. She first began to play music on her mother’s old three-octave synthesizer organ, learning through an instructional book that used numbers instead of notes.

“I could play whatever was in that book,” she said. “I decided if I could figure that out, I could take the church music from the hymnal and write the numbers down and learn to play more music. … My mom was like, ‘We have to get her some piano lessons.’”

Even at 9 years old, Partridge had a high and powerful voice. Her new music teacher joked that Partridge could become an opera singer one day. It was an idea that seemed so outlandish at the time that they both just laughed.

Even as she began to formally study music, most of her singing was still in church or at social occasions. “That was my first experience of getting up in front of people and performing,” she said. “Growing up in a small town, I was the only one at that time playing the piano, singing at church, singing at weddings, singing at funerals, singing at banquets.”

It was her piano teacher, Betty Campbell, who first realized that Partridge’s talents and interests should be developed. She sent Partridge to what was then Augusta State University to take voice lessons during her senior year of high school.

Partridge went on to study music at Mercer University with the intention of teaching or becoming a choir director. She also attended her first opera, an Atlanta Opera production of “Der Rosenkavalier” at the Fox Theatre, in 1996. “I fell in love with it. It wasn’t challenging to sing country music or pop tunes or Broadway anymore, but training myself to be really articulate and clear with things like Rossini, being able to be heard over an orchestra, that just blew my mind.”

After Mercer, she attended Indiana University’s renowned graduate program for opera. Since making her professional debut in 2003 as Lucia in “Lucia di Lammermoor,” Partridge has had a busy career, appearing all over the world. She made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 2008, and she’s a popular leading performer at Florida Grand Opera.

“It’s been an incredible journey,” Partridge said. She teaches voice at Kennesaw State University, and she still goes back to her high school in Lincolnton every year to encourage students to pursue whatever it is they love, no matter how unlikely it may seem.

The career requires a lot of travel, of course, but performing so close to home gives friends and family from Lincolnton the opportunity to see her perform.

And, this time, it also provides another advantage. The Atlanta Opera production of “Bohème” calls for Musetta to have a dog, and the role will be taken on by Bingo, Partridge’s Jack Russell.

“He’s keeping singer’s hours these days, just like me,” she said. “He had an audition, and he made it. But he might upstage me a little. He’s pretty cute.”

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