Opera star returns to Onawa where it all started
Dorothy Jepson of Onawa looks over publicity photos of her daughter, Kristine, now an international opera star, who will return home this month for a special concert to benefit the Onawa Public Library's capital campaign. (Photo by Terry Turner)

ONAWA, Iowa -- Former Onawa resident and international opera star Kristine Jepson will return to her hometown Oct. 25 for a special concert to benefit the Onawa Public Library's capital campaign.

Jepson has been acclaimed as one of the finest young artists in opera today. She has performed in leading theaters around the world including the Metropolitan Opera in New York, La Scala in Milan, Theatre Royale de la Monnaie in Brussels, Opera National de Paris, Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich, Hamburg Staatsoper, the Dallas Opera, the Washington Opera, the San Francisco Opera and the Santa Fe Opera Festival.

While growing up on a farm outside of Onawa, Jepson showed a talent for music and singing at an early age, said her mother, Dorothy. She said her daughter was very active in vocal music and band at West Monona High School.

"She could always sing," Dorothy said. "But she also played softball and was a varsity pitcher for three years."

For Kristine, growing up in Onawa has in some ways benefitted her career.

"I think in some ways I'm a little more sane because of my upbringing," she said in a phone interview from her home in New York City. That's because I grew up in a rural area and I had pretty great parents. If I had grown up in the city but had those same great parents I'd probably be the same adult but I wouldn't have wanted my childhood any other way."

Kristine credits the schools in Onawa and her family for getting her off on the right foot as a young girl.

"Because it was a relatively small school I got to participate in everything including sports, music and drama. So I got a very well-rounded education," Kristine said. "I was lucky at the time because when I went through West Monona Junior High and high school because they had an outstanding music program and I had great teachers who set me up to go on. In a way I think I was better prepared because of that than other people who have gone on to professional careers."

Kristine said her father, Mangus, was a singer in the local area and her mother was an organist at their church. Her brothers are also involved in music. Marlon is a piano tuner in the Onawa area, Paul teaches junior high band in Spencer and Timothy is the principal timpanist with the Kansas City Symphony.

After graduating from West Monona High School in 1980 Kristine went to Morningside College which she also credits with having a tremendous effect on her professional career.

"The music department there was so unbelievably large and strong," remembered Kristine. "I had a great voice teacher, Harlan Buss, who was also at the time chairman of the department. He really started me off on a healthy vocal path that hopefully continues to this day. I was very blessed and lucky to go through there when I did."

Buss encouraged Kristine to pursue an advanced degree at Indiana University. Her experience in opera up to that point was limited but Indiana University provided her an opportunity to perform and study opera.

"That's really what that is," Kristine said. "It's an opera school. That's where it really became obvious where my voice flourished and that's what I should be doing."

After graduating from Indiana University with a master's degree and performing with smaller companies for several years, Kristine received a call that would change her life. The call was from the Metropolitan Opera.

"I was singing something in New York but it was with a very small company and of course in a situation like that you don't really know that anyone from the Metropolitan Opera is sitting out there," she said.

Someone was there and she got a call to audition for the Metropolitan but couldn't quite believe it.

"I still can't believe that I've worked there every season since 1993 either. I just feel incredibly lucky."

The upcoming library benefit concert came from Kristine's desire to not only return to Onawa for a performance but to also help out with the library project. Unfortunately her hectic schedule over the last several years has prevented her from making the trip home. Then her mother asked if she would be available sometime this year for a benefit performance.

"It just so happens that I had a couple of months off this fall," ristine said. "And I've always been a big fan of that library. It's such an historical building. It's a Carnegie library and I always thought it was quite a beautiful building. Plus I'm thrilled to be coming back to share some great music."

Her schedule picks up again immediately after the Onawa performance.

"I begin rehearsals at the Metropolitan Opera the day after the recital and then I don't really have more than a couple of weeks break until sometime in 2005," she said.

Along with Kristine will be pianist Thomas Bagwell who is one of the most active young pianists in the fields of song recital and opera. For the past seven years Bagwell has been the assistant conductor for the Metropolitan Opera. He has also taught at Yale University and is on the faculty of the Mannes College of Music.

The project to remodel and expand the library in Onawa has an estimated cost of $2,850,000. The capital campaign goal is $1.6 million.

"We're going to keep the original building as it is," Dorothy Jepson said, "and then build a handicapped-accessible new addition on the back in the same architectural style as the library. The interior is virtually unchanged from when it was built in 1908."

The expansion will give the library 14,980 square feet of space.

The concert to benefit the library is sponsored by the Onawa Kiwanis Club and will be held Saturday, Oct. 25, in the West Monona High School auditorium at 1314 15th Street. Tickets are $20 and are available at the library at 707 Iowa Street. For more information about the concert call the library at 712-423-1733 or Dorothy Jepson at 712-433-3911.

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