For Megan Gillis, a Milledgeville native with an angelic soprano voice, life in New York City for this small town prodigy is a fast moving scene of endless preparation and the blinding lights of opening nights. She is an emerging artist in the operatic field in performance, producing, and directing.
She is the daughter of Georgia College (GC) professors Lee Gillis and Marianne Edwards; she grew up surrounded by music and said she was always the happiest when doing something creative. She recalls there was rarely a time when she wasn’t surrounded by music-making at home in some capacity. As a sixth grader at Georgia Military College, she first learned to play the trumpet on her dad’s childhood horn.
“I was fortunate to grow up in an extremely musical family on all sides. Some of my earliest memories are sitting at my grandmother’s piano while she played out the Methodist hymnal, dancing around the house to The Doors or The Blues Brothers with my dad or making up musicals with my stepmom and performing them for our neighbors,” she said.
Gillis is not only a product of her musical family but was nurtured from a young age in the performing arts community in Milledgeville and Baldwin County. Her earliest performances included being a munchkin in “The Wizard of Oz” at Davis Elementary as a kindergartener and as a mouse in the Georgia College Community Dance Program performance of “The Nutcracker.”
After those groundbreaking roles, she was hooked. Her childhood musical journey led her to partake in nearly every arts program the area had to offer the budding star of the stage. She attended Allied Arts summer camps, the GC band camps; she participated in the school choir, talent shows, the Baldwin High School Marching Band, Jazz Band, and BHS Theatre.
According to Megan, all along her life’s theatrical path, members of the community have molded her talent, and her character, for success through personal growth.
“Some of my biggest influences and role models as a performer and now as an educator and company director are the people who shaped my career from the very beginning-Ruby Werts, Carolyn Guitton, Charlotte Bearden, Clint Raburn, Mark Weaver, Kathy Carroll-to name a few,” she said. “These are people who taught me to work with a shoestring budget and still make art that was magical and impactful. I wouldn’t be where I am without their support and encouragement, no matter how tough it may have seemed at the time.”
In addition to the stage, Gillis cherishes performing in church, especially the church she grew up in-First Presbyterian Church of Milledgeville (FPCM). She counts her church family within the community that shaped her as a person and as a musician and mentions that she would be remiss not to mention their influence. On her visits back home, she often sings in the church choir to give back to the love that the congregation of FPCM has shown her over the years.
Always wanting to pursue a career in music and theatre, Gillis earned her Bachelor of Music in Vocal Performance at the University of Georgia. At UGA, she was a member of the award-winning Hodgson Singers in addition to holding many roles in university productions. She appeared as a featured soloist for many UGA choral ensembles and in 2013 was awarded the Pierce Arant Concert Choir Award for Outstanding Choir Member.
Upon graduating from UGA, Gillis immediately moved to NYC to attend the Manhattan School of Music (MSM). The cultural shock to her system was minimal, with more excitement than fear emerging.
“It was quite the adjustment my first year in NYC having moved straight after my graduation from UGA. I love it, though. New York has a drive and a hustle that’s unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been, and it’s infectious. Whatever you want to create, no matter how out there it may seem, has a place here in New York if you’re willing to work hard enough for it,” she observed.
At MSM, she sang roles such as Gertrude Stein in Virgil Thompson’s “The Mother of Us All” and Donna Anna in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. She has also been involved with many summer music festivals including Opera in the Ozarks, The Harrower Summer Opera Workshop, and The Franco-American Vocal Academy. She received a Master of Music degree in Vocal Performance from MSM and decided to stay in New York where creativity abounds, and roles are available to earn.
“I love the energy of the city. I love that there is always something to do and something new to experience,” she said. “Also coming from a small town, I’m big on finding my people and my community in any given group. New York is where you get to choose those people who become your second family.”
She did find “her second family” when, in 2016, she and colleague Kathleen Spencer, formed the City Lyric Opera (CLO). The talented duo wanted to redefine the way opera is perceived and produced by putting the artist first in a welcoming environment to the greater NYC community. CLO will launch its fourth season this September with the production of Gian Carlo Menotti’s “The Medium” and Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel.”
Gillis said that the general public might perceive opera to be stuffy and outdated in certain contexts, but that the art form used to be the people’s main source of entertainment. She notes that people of all backgrounds would flock to the opera to be entertained and to socialize-much like modern concerts with the opera singers being the rock stars of their day.
“There is a certain kind of magic that happens when you are close enough to be able to watch a singer perform and emit that kind of power in their singing. Even if you don’t know what’s going on, or the opera is in a different language, focus on how the music makes you feel and how the singing compliments the orchestra,” she suggested.
Gillis may be the small town girl living her dreams in one of the world’s largest and busiest cities, but she has never allowed her southern feet to leave the ground beneath them-whether that’s paved asphalt or red-clay dirt. In addition to the community, she recognizes that her extended family has played the largest role in her life. She said her parents, step-parents, and grandparents were at every play, recital, and concert possible, but they were concerned, at first, on her career choice.
“I do think they were all a little nervous when I decided to pursue a degree in music performance rather than something with a little more job security,” she reflected. “But, once I set my mind to something, I can be quite tenacious, and my career in music was no exception.”