Spotlight: Freshman opera singer hits high note

BY NINA EARNEST | APRIL 13, 2011 7:20 AM

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University of Iowa freshman Jessica Pray lightly tapped each of the white keys of an upright piano, searching for the perfect pitch.

The 18-year-old tried to match each note, using her years of classical vocal training.

On a normal day, Pray said, her soprano voice can reach an octave above a high E. But on a better day, she can stretch one note higher, to an F.

“It’s such an amazing sound when you finally get there,” she said.

The Johnston, Iowa, native officially began taking voice lessons her freshman year of high school. But her mother, Rita Pray, said even as child, Jessica could sing in a perfect tone even if she couldn’t pronounce the words.

“She’s always had a pretty, pretty voice,” Rita Pray said. “It was sweet when she was little, and now it’s getting really full and rich.”

Pray took voice lessons at Drake University in high school. She learned the classical style of singing and came to love opera.

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By her junior year, someone had taken notice of her talent.

Mel Bush — a concert promoter who has worked with the likes Led Zeppelin, Queen, Paul McCartney, and Elton John — saw videos of Pray singing on YouTube her father had uploaded.

Bush said he chose Pray for a group he was developing because of her ambition, “excellent” opera voice, and charismatic personality.

“She’s a very open, easy-going young person, always smiling, and always ready to work hard,” Bush wrote in an e-mail from England.

In May 2009, she flew to New York City and auditioned at the Plaza Hotel. By August of that year, she was attending rehearsals, voice lessons, and living in London for weeks at a time — free of charge.

“I can’t believe that actually happened to me,” Pray said.

She became part of the international vocal group MODA, along with now-friends Lucy Ely from the United Kingdom and Hana Huljic from Croatia.

“Though we work hard when we are together, we have such a great time,” Huljic wrote in an e-mail. “Because we do something we like and want to, and we always laugh and have jokes.”

Pray didn’t attend her senior year of high school — she was flying back and forth between London and her hometown. Instead, she completed online classes to graduate in the top 15 percent of her class.

But despite all the hard work, complications ensued in securing a record contract. Negotiations for MODA’s deal stalled, and she decided to enroll in college.

Pray moved to Iowa City and attended the University of Iowa to pursue a double major in vocal performance and theater during the fall 2010.

Her majors brought her to one of the soundproof practice cubicles in the UI’s School of Music building.

Again, she tapped the piano keys to look for her starting note. Finding it, Pray began to sing. The vibrato soprano notes of “Summertime,” from *Porgy and Bess*, filled the small room.

“Summertime” is her selection for the talent portion of the upcoming Miss Iowa pageant in June. She entered and won the Miss Muscatine pageant on her first try.

But in the meantime, Pray is tackling 21 credit hours and the four-hour practices necessary for her understudy role to the lead in the spring opera, The Elixir of Love.

She said she hopes to work for a professional opera company in the future, and she is also optimistic about MODA’s future.

“I’m not expecting to be the next Renee Fleming or Ana Netrebko,” she said, referring to two opera greats. “But I might as well try.”

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