Mamma Mia!

Opera singing in Italy sets stage for Belgium student’s career in music
Ozaukee Press staff

Just a few years ago in high school, Katie Gruell didn’t know someone could major in music.
The Cedar Grove-Belgium High School alumna is now entering her senior year at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee with dreams of performing as a career.
Just what she’ll be singing remains the question.
Gruell has equal passion for theater and opera. She played a lead role in UWM’s production of “9 to 5” last spring, and took advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity this summer to perform an opera in Italy.
Voice coaches and judges involved in La Musica Lirica who heard Gruell sing suggested she audition for the youth opera training program. Among applicants from across the world, Gruell was selected as an understudy to a lead part.
Gruell was ecstatic. She had never been out of the country before or performed a full opera.
The opera book arrived in winter. Gruell hoisted the 410-page beast all in Italian from its packaging and thought “Oh no, what did I get myself into?”
Gruell never studied the language. Highlighting her lead parts was “slightly terrifying.”
She had months to learn, but she was in school and rehearsing “9 to 5,” which had show dates the week before exams.
Once school ended, she spent two and a half weeks straight working at her Belgium home. “Just me and the piano,” she said.
She found an Italian translation and had to be ready by the time her plane left in June.
“In the opera world, you have to be completely memorized by the first rehearsal,” Gruell said.
Gruell got into music in fifth grade when she started taking piano lessons.
Still, she had planned to go to law school until she attended a political science camp. “Wow, I hate this,” she said.
Her step-grandfather, a music professor at Carthage College, then heard her sing and suggested she take voice lessons. She loved that, and discovered she could major in it. She’s minoring in theater.
Gruell won the prestigious Ruth DeYoung Kohler Scholarship for Artistic Excellence in 2015 and went off to UWM.
A few years later she was heading to Italy to perform Mozart’s “Cosi Fan Tutte,” which means “All women do it.” It’s a comedy in which an old man bets two young guys that their fiancees would cheat on them if they had the chance. Gruell played Dorabella, one of the engaged girls.
After a couple of busy stops in Paris and Rome — Gruell planned the schedule down to 15 minutes — she went to Novafeltria, a city of 13,000 people that’s a several-hour bus ride south of Rome.
Gruell roomed with a fellow UWM student and fortunately got to stay with a host family instead of a hotel or apartment. She quickly began immersing herself in Italian culture.
“The stereotype that Italians only eat pizza and pasta is true,” she said.
Most restaurants’ menus have one page of each, along with a page of wines, which in some places is cheaper than water, she said.
The pizza was more similar to American versions than she anticipated, with a light and airy crust. But, she said, Italians don’t share pizza; they eat their own by themselves.
When she showed her host family a photo of a deep-dish variety, they were grossed out and informed her “That’s not pizza.”
Italian pasta, she said, tasted better than American versions. She tried one that was made without using eggs. Fresh Parmesan was inexpensive and delicious.
Gruell was excited to try Italian basil and got her wish, albeit in an unexpected form. Stores didn’t sell basil in a jar. She had to buy a plant for $2 and “somehow kept it alive.”
Gruell soon craved American fare. She found a place that served a hamburger, but it was unseasoned ground beef not in patty form on the wrong type of bread only offered with mayonnaise packets. She asked her parents if they could stop by Kopp’s after they picked her up at the airport in Milwaukee.
They said sure, but pointed out she still had a month left in Italy.
The language barrier was another challenge. Gruell learned to say “Pizza, please” and “This” as she would point to things.
The nuances of the region’s dialect drove her language teacher crazy.
It was a crammed several weeks. Italian class ran from 8 a.m. to noon, with special speech coaching from noon to 2 p.m. Rehearsal was from 2 to 5 p.m. and more language coaching went from 5 to 6 p.m. A second rehearsal ran from 6 to 9:30 p.m.
While Italians typically take hours to eat — most restaurants don’t open until 7:45 p.m. — the theater group scarfed down food when it could. To-go orders from restaurants could get lost in translation. Gruell didn’t understand when she was asked “ to the door” or “with foot” when she ordered food.
Opera language was even worse. Gruell confused her host family when she tried to describe a “bush” while pointing to a plant. Much like Shakespeare, “Cosi Fan Tutte” was written in old Italian with words and phrases people don’t use today.
Gruell performed the lead in two of the six three-hour shows.
Performances were all in small theaters — each small city in Italy seems to have one, the equivalent of Belgium, Cedar Grove and Port Washington here, Gruell said. That made it easier since opera doesn’t use microphones.
“You’re your own amplification,” she said. “You have to sing down to the pelvic floor. It feels like the sound is moving you.”
The $6,000 trip, she said, was worth every penny, but it didn’t provide definitive direction. Gruell still loves theater and opera.
“I really, really enjoyed both. I was like, darn it, I hope I’d hate one,” she said.
She plans on choosing one this school year.
For more information on the youth opera program, visit



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