Music took Jason McKinney from the orchestra pit to center stage.
McKinney, a bass-baritone who portrays Ashby in the Opera Carolina, New York City Opera and five Italian companies’ production “The Girl of the West” (April 23, 27 and 29 at Belk Theater), began his journey in Wisconsin.
“When I started high school I really wanted to be a musician,” McKinney said. “I was very fond of the school band in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin. I started on saxophone and then switched to clarinet because I was also in a jazz band. Eventually, I settled on a bass clarinet. I also sang in the choir, as my brothers before me did.”
In addition to playing instruments, McKinney also sang.
“I didn’t know if I was going to do music with my voice or with talents on wind instruments,” he said.
As his musical journey progressed, McKinney fell madly in love with the theatrical world.
“I really fell in love with the theater, the whole idea of the theater,” he said. “From the lighting to the stage management to the set movers to the pit musicians and the conductors, everything about the theater was very romantic to me. I knew I wanted to be involved, and I thought ‘maybe I’ll be a pit musician.’”
A literal blow to the head changed his mind, though.
“While at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, I was playing and also singing,” McKinney said. “At this time, I had finally reached my full height of 6-feet-4 1/2 inches. The pit that we were playing in did not accommodate tall people very well, and when the maestro called break after two and a half hours of rehearsal, I stood up and promptly hit my head very hard on the pit. I decided perhaps I should be on top of the stage rather than under the stage.”
Inspired by his family’s history, McKinney decided to pursue a path unavailable to his grandfather.
“I knew that he had always wanted to be a singer, but did not have that opportunity, because of the family business needing him to remain a baker,” McKinney said. “Plus, being a baker kept him out of World War II, as it was a necessity of the home front. Hoping to realize his dream, even though I never met him, I decided to sing.”
Singing gave McKinney an unexplainable validation about his decision.
“There was just a feeling that I would get inside my soul and heart whenever I would sing—especially when it came to singing sacred music in the synagogue as well as the church, but mainly the synagogue,” he said. “Once I started doing that, I knew there was really only one path that would make me happy when it came to my vocation and my professional career, and that was going to be making music with my voice.”
McKinney decided to pursue opera, which he considers the “highest form” of music with his voice.
“It combines just about everything I love in the theater,” he said. “It has everything. It has music. It has visuals. It has crazy props and set pieces—the more the better in my opinion.”
Earlier in the Opera Carolina season, McKinney played Dr. Grenvil in “La Traviata.”
“This is the first time I’ve done two shows in one season for Opera Carolina,” he said.
By fostering relationships throughout opera, such as with James Meena, Opera Carolina’s principal conductor and general director, McKinney’s musical map includes performances all over the world. However, he calls Winston-Salem home.
“Maestro Meena and I have a great relationship,” McKinney said. “He is familiar with my abilities, and has referred me to other opera companies, especially if they need somebody at the last minute. Last year, when Augusta University needed someone to sing Figaro [in “The Marriage of Figaro”], there was two weeks’ notice. I actually did not know the role for Mozart’s great work. I was up to the challenge, and I thank Maestro Meena for putting me forward for that. It’s one of the things that you have to do sometimes in the opera world. You have to be on the spot and ready to go, sometimes, at a moment’s notice.”