Majors: Studio Art & Asian Studies
by Christopher Poore '14
It's a cold night circa 1990, and as Christine Steyer '92 walks across campus,
delving into the warmth of her coat, the chill night air rushes with her, playing with those famously barren branches of the Illinois winter. Steyer is headed to Kresge, as has become her habit.
"I used to get one of the security guards to let me into Kresge, which has such great acoustics," says Steyer some 20 years later. "He would let me in at 11 o'clock at night, and I would have the whole place to sing to myself."
Singing to Knox's empty recital hall, it would have been difficult for Steyer to imagine singing to an audience of more than 1,000; yet this is exactly what Steyer found herself doing in May 2010, for California's Townsend Opera Company, as she sang the title role Giacimo Puccini's famous opera Madam Butterfly. The opera follows the story of a young Japanese woman, nicknamed Butterfly, who is abandoned by the American Navy lieutenant she loves and marries.
To help prepare for the role, Steyer tapped into her knowledge of the Japanese culture, which she accrued during her junior year abroad.
"It's kind of personal for me because I lived in Japan for a year," said Steyer. "So I've been able to incorporate a lot of movement and a lot of what I learned about the culture -- the geisha idea, the idea of art and life not being separate."
This is just the most recent accomplishment in a musical career that spans nearly two decades. Since Steyer graduated from Knox in 1992, she has gone on to secure bachelor and master degrees in music from University of Illinois, Champaign/Urbana, and to perform with such prestigious companies as the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Bellissima Opera. Steyer's voice has also garnered various awards -- most recently, she was announced as the winner of the American Prize in Vocal Performance and of the American Tradition Competition's Johnny Mercer Award, a prize for singing American repertoire, which she began performing while at Knox.
"When I was a student at Knox, Laura Lane encouraged me to sing what we call 'our music' -- music of the 1930s and '40s," said Steyer. "Cole Porter, Ella Fitzgerald -- that music really resonated with me. There is something about music in your own language."
Steyer attributes her recent successes not only to her time as a student but to the time she has spent in the last two years running an outreach program to school-age kids. Since, 2009 Steyer has sung for more than 11,000 students in the Chicagoland area -- frequently at little or no charge to the schools. These performances, often in underprivileged neighborhoods, are intimate and exciting events -- no larger usually than a classroom can contain -- where Steyer brings her passion for music to the students.
"I think I need to work from my heart," said Steyer. "I think we can find ourselves singing in places where our hearts are not being moved. But when I sing for the kids, I sing pieces I love and pieces that I think they will love. It's allowed me to come back to my heart. It's just about presenting beauty. And that's very powerful for me."