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Boy carves out a career in opera

By Chuck Conder, CNN
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Pre-teen kid makes splash in opera
  • Michael Kepler Meo, 12, performs pivotal role in "The Turn of the Screw"
  • He plays a troubled boy threatened by menacing ghosts in English country home
  • L.A. Opera director: Only handful of boys have voices strong enough for opera
  • Meo also had role in an operatic version of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"
  • Classical Music
  • Opera

Los Angeles (CNN) -- Michael Kepler Meo isn't nervous. As befits a singer playing a principal role in a major opera production, he suffers the last-minute adjustments to makeup, hair and wardrobe.

Then finally he is left alone to prepare for this night's performance of Benjamin Britten's "The Turn of the Screw." Alone except for his mother. Michael Kepler Meo is just 12 years old.

"It's really fun to sing," the 'tween confides, as he runs through a series of scales and brief snatches of the music that he will soon be performing on stage. His voice is high, crisp and crystal clear. A boy soprano. And behind the voice is a power and control that seem almost alien in one so young.

Los Angeles Opera Music Director James Conlon briefly peeks into the dressing room to wish young Meo good luck. "Places please..." echoes through the dressing rooms and sends Meo scurrying through a maze of backstage cables to the massive turntable stage that will soon deliver him to the spotlight.

Michael's professional singing career began just a couple of years ago. He had been singing in a boys' choir in his native Portland, Oregon. It was one activity among many along with soccer and learning guitar. The Portland Opera company was holding auditions for "The Turn of the Screw" and Michael's choirmaster suggested he give it a try.

"I had a very vague idea even what opera was," Michael remembers, "All I got was the version I got in school of the fat lady singing."

Michael won the role of Miles, a troubled boy threatened by menacing ghosts in a rambling English country home. It is a pivotal role in the production. He also starred in the premier performance of "The Golden Ticket," an operatic version of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."

Conlon says only a handful of boys are capable of taking on operatic roles. "You have to find somebody whose voice is strong enough, and somebody who can sing at all levels with a very focused tone. And Michael fits all of those characteristics."

"He was always making goofy noises all the time, from the time he was a toddler," says Michael's mother, Trudy Meo. Meo says she isn't sure where Michael came by his musical talent. "I'm not musical at all," she says, "When he sings I'm almost useless in helping him."

An opera career has meant occasional separations from the rest of his family, as Michael and his mom travel the opera circuit. "I don't have too much contact with kids my age," Michael says. "I'm always working with adults ... I miss that a little. But I think it's worth it."

Michael works hard in rehearsals, enjoys the performances and loves the applause.

"He is lucky that he found something that he is so good at at so young an age," says his mom.

By almost any measure, Michael's rise in the world of opera has been meteoric. As soon as his role in "The Turn of the Screw" ends in Los Angeles, he's off to New York and a New York City Opera production of "Séance on a Wet Afternoon."

But how long can it last? It won't be long before the boy soprano's voice changes. What then?

It will be a challenge, but, "It may be better," Michael says. "In opera you can sing even if you are old."

And Michael is already thinking about a whole new world of roles he could sing as an adult.

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