OWEN RILEY JR./Staff
The living-room bookshelves speak volumes about Sarah Reese, Greenville's unpretentious opera star.
One photo captures an energetic, elegant Reese during the opening-night performance at the Peace Center. Another offers a glimpse of a simple childhood in a small wooden frame house that was modest even by 1960s Pelzer standards.
On another shelf is a copy of a Sammy Davis Jr. book titled, “Yes, I Can.”
As a performer and teacher, the title is fitting for Reese, often undaunted as she traveled the long road from Pelzer to international fame.
Buoyed by her Christian faith and passion for music, Reese's soprano voice has taken her to stages such as Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera and to performances with internationally acclaimed orchestras of Berlin, Vienna and Moscow.
She's mindful, each step of the way, of humble roots in rural South Carolina.
“Only God can take a little chubby girl from the woods of Pelzer and do that,” Reese told the Greenville News in a 2004 interview. “Man can't do that. Only God.”
Reese has been busy making music since those earliest days in Pelzer, where she grew up singing at the Shady Grove Baptist Church. Along the way, the Furman University graduate has also learned to appreciate the simpler rewards of flower gardening, teaching and Saturdays at the Anderson Jockey Lot.
On a June afternoon, shortly after completing her third year as choral director at Pendleton High, Reese shares a song with Peanut, a 5-year-old overweight Chihuahua who loves to provide backup during voice practice.
Reese, who has inspired others with her voice, is herself inspired on this day by the news that she has been asked to perform in the world premiere of “The Scarlet Letter,” an opera to be staged in Boston in the fall.
“I'm very excited. It will be very different than anything I've done before,” says Reese of the upcoming role.
Reese's most recent performance, a May “Holocaust Memorial” concert in Greenville, came barely a month after surgery to remove a malignant tumor in her throat. The next one will require several weeks of summer rehearsals at the University of Arkansas.
The rapid recovery from serious surgery seemed easy for Reese, whose career is dotted with many unlikely but successful steps. Her performances in theaters around the world have been praised often by professional critics, who frequently compare her voice to the legendary Leontyne Price.
Reese sees acting/singing as a progression of the traditional opera role and welcomes it.
“The days when a singer stood there, detached from the audience, are gone,” says Reese. “Audiences today want you to connect, and you need to do that with stage presence.”
An abundance of charisma makes that easy for Reese, who first fell in love with opera while watching the “Ted Mack Amateur Hour” on her mother's small black-and-white TV in the early 1960s. It forever changed the life of a young girl who considered herself “tomboyish” and loved picking blackberries, climbing trees and hunting along the Saluda River.
“When I first heard an opera singer, it gave me chills,” Reese recalls.
She'd go out into the woods with her dog, “Sweet Stuff,” and mimic the sound. The dog never seemed to mind that she didn't know the words. Nor did her grandmother, Mable Shorter, or mother, Louise Shorter Reese.
“I was a happy kid who didn't know we didn't have anything,” Reese says. “I thought we had everything.”
Her voice was first noticed in the eighth grade at Bryson High by choral teacher Laura Gamble.
Even in the first of her 30 years as a teacher, Gamble realized she had a special talent in her midst.
“Her voice was beautiful. The first time I heard it, she was singing in a group. I said, 'Is that you?' She said, 'I don't know.'“
But Gamble, who now teaches voice at Austin Academy, credits Reese's tenacity for much of her success.
“I've never had another student quite like Sarah. I've had some with the talent to go far,” Gamble says, “but they didn't have the determination that Sarah had.”
Gamble tried to prepare Reese for disappointments that would come in the competitive field of music and vividly recalls a defeat in a talent hunt during Reese's sophomore year.
“She was so hurt and crying. I said, 'I'm glad you lost,' and that shocked her,” Gamble recalls. “But I thought it was important for her to know that she could lose.”
Reese may have been shocked, but not defeated. “She told me she'd get up and try again,” Gamble says, “and she always did. That's why she was a success. I also think it helped that her mother was very supportive of everything she tried to do.”
It was Gamble who also provided Reese's first access to a record player. When Reese heard Leontyne Price sing “Summertime” from “Porgy and Bess,” Reese “thought I had died and gone to heaven, because I could play it over and over.”
It was 1967. Reese told Gamble she'd someday sing at Carnegie Hall.
Gamble began the push in that direction by encouraging Reese to audition for Katherine Gene, a private voice coach in Greenville, who agreed to take Reese as a student for $3 a week. Gamble, trying to find someone more experienced than herself, discovered that Gene had been an opera singer in Europe.
Gene agreed to coach Reese on the condition that she'd drop any boyfriends. Gene eventually arranged for Reese to audition with the music department at Furman, which offered a full scholarship.
There she connected with Milton Price, “a Christian man from Mississippi who helped me learn about music” and pointed Reese toward auditions that led to work with the Chicago Symphony.
Later, she would work under world-famous conductors such as Andrew Davis, Leslie Dunner, David Zinman, Paul Dunke, Christian Badea and Maestro Herman von Karajan.
“God put someone there each time,” Reese says, looking back at a connecting chain of mentors who helped her reach the next level. “If a door closed, another one opened.”
In 1992, Reese received Furman's Distinguished Alumni Award. A year later, she was the featured soprano with the Chicago Symphony on an album that earned a Grammy Award. And Karajan chose Reese to sing the soprano solo in the Brahms “Requiem” with the Berlin Philharmonic.
But by 1995, after nearly 20 years on the world's most famed stages, Reese felt the lure of home. Already discouraged by the deaths of legendary conductors Karajan and Leonard Bernstein, she learned that her grandmother, Mable Shorter, was ill.
“The joy of singing was gone,” says Reese, referring to what she calls “an overwhelmingly sad” period.
She came home to spend more time with Shorter, once one of her two primary caretakers and her singing companion at church. Shorter, whom Reese calls “Mama,” died in late October 1997.
Reese, who taught school briefly before her singing career soared, accepted a position in '98 as choral instructor at Pendleton. While she continues to accept some major on-stage assignments, such as one last year at the Spoleto Festival and another this fall in Boston, Reese has grown increasingly interested in her second love.
When she describes taking 70 students on a 2004 trip to New York, Reese's face beams with an excitement normally reserved for singing.
“We competed and placed third in an international competition,” says Reese. “But it was more than a competitive experience. A lot of these kids had never flown, had never seen the inside of an airport.”
Their glimpse of the Big Apple included a visit to the Statue of Liberty and a meal in Times Square. “I don't just teach them music,” says Reese. “We show them how to tie knowledge into life, and that means teaching manners, compassion and how to show respect.”
Reese considers herself “very demanding” as a teacher.
“This is my ministry. I have some little Sarah Reeses in my class,” she says. “I owe it to them not to let up and make things easy.”
Reese believes hard work can open a world of opportunity, for youngsters in Pendleton or anywhere else. And Reese is living proof.