It wasn’t just Kaitlyn Johnson’s professional debut. It was also a homecoming. Last Saturday, the 25-year-old Atlantan – recognized in some circles as the only child of Georgia Tech football coach Paul Johnson and his wife, Susan, in others as a powerful soprano whose star is on the rise – performed the supporting role of Frasquita in the Atlanta Opera’s production of “Carmen.”
The stage she graced at the Cobb Energy Centre sits about five miles from the Cobb County residence that has been her family’s home since her father became the Yellow Jackets coach before the 2008 season.
The first opera she ever saw was performed by the Atlanta Opera. She sang in the company’s high-school program as a senior at the Westminster School.
“So it was really neat to kind of come full circle and then make it to the main stage,” she said.
Those who would know believe her career is only lifting off. Johnson’s vocal voice professor at Indiana, where she earned her master’s in vocal performance, called her “a world-class instrument,” and that was only the beginning of what she had to say, from her “creamy, good-sized voice” to her spunk to her always being the most prepared student in the room.
“I think she will have a really good, high-level and long career,” Heidi Grant Murphy said. “Every time she goes away for a while and she comes back to us to take a lesson, I’m surprised at how much she’s improved and how much she’s grown. I can only imagine if that continues, the sky is the limit for her, and that’s kind of exciting for her.”
To some degree, her debut was a moment that Johnson had been pointing to, consciously or not, since she began taking private singing lessons as a child in Maryland, while her father was coach at Navy. She continued lessons in Atlanta.
“I kind of wanted to be a country singer,” she said. “I ended up being a lot better at opera.”
She was encouraged to study voice in college, which led to acceptance at Rice University’s prestigious music school. Surrounded by gifted singers and exposed to the Houston Grand Opera, she developed a greater appreciation for the nuance and beauty of the form.
“By the end of my freshman year, I was in it to win it,” she said.
To that end, she is her father’s daughter. She comes across as lively and genial like her mother, but she is competitive to the core. It is a trait frequently ascribed to the Tech coach who thrives on slights, real or imagined.
“Because she was at Rice, I encouraged her to sing and maybe think about law school, think about something like that,” Paul Johnson said. “And she’d hit me with ‘You don’t think I’m going to make it, do you?’ I’m like, No. (As in, “No, I do think you’ll make it.”) I think I gave her more motivation when I said that. She’s got enough of me where she’s like, Let me show you.”
Graduation from Rice (GPA: 3.87) led to Indiana’s graduate school, likewise one of the most acclaimed music schools in the country. She supplemented her education with performances in Europe and across the U.S. To Murphy, her professor at Indiana, Johnson not only has the talent, but the determination to develop it.
“She puts in a lot of preparation work, good ethic as far as preparing herself, listening to your teachers, doing what is necessary to get better vocally,” Murphy said. “It’s like a weightlifter or anybody in any sport. You don’t just have the talent and go do it professionally.”
Still, the path has not always been smooth or well-marked. In the fall of 2016, as she completed her master’s at Indiana, she auditioned for spots in young artist programs with at least 10 different operas and struck out on all of them. She often received positive feedback, recognized she was young, had the support and encouragement of coaches and mentors and stood on her Christian faith, but the rejections still gave her pause.
“It’s very challenging in that I just kind of needed to take a step back and think about, Is this what I wanted?” Johnson said.
She spent the summer of 2017 interning for an Atlanta startup selling a health-care app. She performed with a small local opera company (Capitol City Opera). She was headed back to Indiana that fall to pursue a doctorate with the idea of a possible teaching career. Towards the end of the summer, her mother told her that if she wound up singing for fun and not as a career – in the community, at church – that would be great.
“And I said, ‘Yeah, I’m totally fine with that,’” Johnson said. “And four hours later, I got an email from the Atlanta Opera.”
The email was the invitation to perform in Carmen. Johnson had auditioned that February to join the company’s young artist program, but was turned down. This was quite the consolation prize.
“I was shocked,” she said.
At the end of the year, she auditioned and was accepted into the Arizona Opera’s young-artist program. Christopher Cano, the program director, said Johnson beat out 300 other sopranos for the spot.
“She was really sort of the standout in terms of her interview, which was wonderful, and the voice, I think, is quite remarkable,” Cano said. “I think she’s capable of some really wonderful things.”
So it was that Johnson’s parents watched her perform at the Cobb Energy Centre last Saturday with full hearts. (There are two more performances, Friday night and Sunday afternoon.)
“I was really proud of her,” Paul Johnson said. “She’s worked so hard to get to where she is. I’m sure I’m biased, but I think she’s really good.”
After last Saturday’s show, the opera held a reception on stage. Worn out from a long day, Kaitlyn’s dad was content to take a seat and make sure no one took her bag. Kaitlyn said an opera staff member who is a Tech fan told her “I think this is probably the only time in Atlanta your dad has ever been in the corner with no one talking to him.”
(The Tech coach said he gets recognized at Kaitlyn’s shows, but “it’s a little different crowd. Nobody’s coming up to you yelling ‘Go Dawgs!.’”)
Her profession may conjure up notions of self-centered divas, but Johnson does not match the stereotype. Her musical tastes include hip-hop, country and contemporary Christian. She grew up a sports fan and considered a career in sports broadcast journalism strongly enough that she once looked up colleges that had both schools of journalism and music. The idea didn’t last long, as heading north to a school like Syracuse didn’t appeal to her, “and I definitely wasn’t going to Georgia.”
She is quite proud of her two fantasy football championships (team name: Dominating Diva) in a league with former dormmates from Rice, likes bargain hunting at Nordstrom Rack and gets into the “Real Housewives” franchise.
“She’s just a good person,” said Calvin Griffin, who is performing Morales in “Carmen” and has known Johnson since she was a freshman at Rice and he was a grad student. “Easy to get along with, prepared, all the things you’d want in a colleague.”
This fall, she’ll begin the year-long residency with the Arizona Opera, where she’ll perform in two operas and cover (that’s opera speak for understudy) two others. It could turn into two years. She’s hopeful that her performance in “Carmen” will lead to an invitation to return. And there’s even teaching, which she discovered she loves.
“We’ll see what happens,” she said, “but I’m excited for whatever the future holds.”