Reflections from Cape Girardeau

Friday, October 1, 2004

lthough she now lives in New York City, opera singer and vocal teacher Judith Farris has never forgotten about her Cape Girardeau beginnings, and the people who were part of those beginnings have never forgotten about Farris. Which is why Farris' Tuesday performance at her alma mater, Southeast Missouri State University, means a lot to both parties.

It has been 33 years since Farris graduated from the university and left Cape Girardeau, but Farris still keeps in touch with several of the people she grew up with or met while she was in college.

Farris said many of those she met in Cape Girardeau, like Martin and Tootie Hecht, Dr. Raymond Ritter Sr. and Dr. Doyle Dumas, to name a few, helped her to get where she is today.

"The many, many people from Cape who encouraged me to sing and follow my dream are too numerous to mention," Farris said.

Farris' cousin, Rhonda Young, who lives in Cape Girardeau, is not suprised that Farris has stayed in contact with those who encouraged her.

"She really values the relationships with those she loves. She's not going to forget those who have helped her get where she is," Young said.

One of those people is Ernestine Kirk, who was a piano accompanist for Farris on various occasions, particularly at the First Presbyterian Church in Cape Girardeau, where Kirk was an organist for 16 years.

Ernestine Kirk and her husband, Dr. Paul Kirk, now live in St. Louis, but when Farris was in college, Paul Kirk taught low brass and theory at the university and Ernestine Kirk was a music teacher at Jackson's junior high and high schools.

"Mr. and Mrs. Kirk became like second parents to me," Farris said.

Ernestine Kirk said Farris is an emotionally deep person who is very positive and a lot of fun. And then there is her voice.

"I love her contralto voice," Kirk said. "It is beautiful and from the heart -- it is just so moving."

With Farris' mixture of natural talent and determination, Ernestine Kirk said she and her husband never had any doubts about Farris' future success.

"We knew where she was going," Ernestine Kirk said.

The Kirks met Farris once she had decided to study voice at the university and embark upon a singing career. Farris entered the university seeking a piano degree and thinking she would be an elementary school music teacher until a fateful voice class with Mary Lou Henry changed her plans.

Dr. John Shelton, who taught piano at the university when Farris was attending (and whose children Farris babysat) said Farris made the right decision in turning to a singing career.

"She was an adequate piano player," Shelton said. "When she started singing it became readily apparent that she had a gift for that. It just produced better results because the potential was there."

The level of success Farris has reached, however, takes more than just potential, Shelton said.

"There's a lot of performers who are not good enough to do it full time professionally. Many, many people who just don't have the ability want to do that. And it also takes some breaks," he said. "Judy had a mixture of natural talent, support and some breaks."

In addition to her obvious singing abilities, Farris has turned out to be a talented voice teacher.

"She's an excellent teacher," said Shelton, who went to a master class Farris taught at the university last year. "She was able to work with students she hadn't seen before, and that takes great ability."

Farris has held voice lessons at the Kirks' house in St. Louis on a couple of occasions, so Ernestine Kirk has had a firsthand look at her teaching techniques.

"It's remarkable how she's able to take a person and within an hour have them relaxed and hitting that high note," Ernestine Kirk said. "They feel inspired and energetic, and she's worn out at the end because she pours everything into it."

Mary Joe Moxey, a friend of the Kirks who became good friends with Farris when she was at the university, also attended last year's master class.

"The ideas on how to breathe [for singing purposes] were just fantastic. I learned more in that hour than I've ever learned before," Moxey said.

Moxey also knew Farris through singing in the choir at First Presbytarian Church where Farris occasionally performed solo. And while she was impressed with Farris' voice then, at the master class she was amazed by the power of Farris' voice.

"I had no idea she could knock the shoes off someone in the back row," Moxey said.

Farris' cousin, Rhonda Young, was also at the class.

Twelve years younger than Farris, Young said she was not particularly thrilled by the idea of opera when her cousin started performing. "I've come a long way with appreciating what she can do," said Young, who now often listens to Farris' recordings.

Over the years, Young's relationship with Farris has grown closer, even though distance now separates them, unlike when they were growing up near each other in Cape Girardeau.

To Young, it is still strange to think of the Farris she knows as an opera singer or vocal teacher to famous people like Matthew Broderick or Anthony Quinn.

"To me she's cousin Judy," she said. "The Judy I know is different. Everybody sees her wonderful accomplishments and the career she has made for herself. I see a person who has overcome so many obstacles by herself and is an amazing person."

Young, who teaches sixth grade at Cape Christian School, is excited about Farris' Cape Girardeau performance and is planning on bringing her 12- and 16-year old children and some of her students.

The only downside will be that Young will not be able to spend much time with Farris before the performance because of rehearsals and practice sessions.

"She's got to be Judith until the performance and the she can go back to being cousin Judy," Young said.

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