• Dana Zenobi (left) stands in front of the Fine Arts Building with her students Abigail Jackson, Melissa Krueger and Kelsey Debner.
  • Senior Melissa Krueger was a finalist in The American Prize competition this year. Krueger has participated in the Opera in the Ozarks program and the Austin-based Spotlight on Opera program, and has sung with the Austin Lyric Opera.
  • Senior Abigail Jackson has attended summer opera training programs in Brazil and Italy, and has been selected to perform in two productions staged by the Austin Lyric Opera.
  • Junior Kelsey Debner says Dana Zenobi's teaching played a major role in her decision to be a voice major. She is one of three Southwestern students who received received Career Encouragement Citations from The American Prize this year.

Although she attended a high school that focused on the performing arts, Abigail Jackson was by no means decided upon a career in music when she came to Southwestern three years ago.

“I just wanted to get a liberal arts education,” she said.

All that changed in her first semester when she took voice lessons from Dana Zenobi, an assistant professor of applied music at Southwestern.

“I didn’t realize my potential in the opera world until Professor Zenobi showed me what I could do with my voice,” Jackson said. “It opened up a whole new world for me.”

The summer after her sophomore year, Jackson spent a month in Brazil working with the Festival of International Opera of the Americas. This past summer, she went to Italy to participate in a three-week intensive Italian immersion course for opera singers called Lingua e Canto.

Now, Jackson has her sights set on attending graduate school for vocal performance. She has already started working as a professional opera singer, having been hired by the Austin Lyric Opera Chorus to perform in last year’s production of “Tosca” and its upcoming performance of Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet.” 

Jackson is one of three students of Zenobi’s who recently received Career Encouragement Citations from The American Prize, a national competition for music performance. They were among the youngest to enter the competition in the college/university opera division, which can include students at any level through the doctoral degrees. To enter the competition, students had to submit recordings of themselves singing three to five arias.

Junior Kelsey Debner and senior Melissa Krueger were the other two Southwestern students who received citations from The American Prize judges. Debner and Jackson made it to the semi-final round in the competition, and Krueger was a finalist.

“When we realized that all three of these young women came from Southwestern and exhibited many of the same positive attributes in their presentations, it was clear something special is going on in your music department,” said David Katz, chief judge of The American Prize competition. “Each displays a fine, young technique, good preparation of appropriate repertoire, enthusiasm, stage presence and spirit.”

The citations from The American Prize are not the first national recognition that Debner, Jackson and Krueger have received. Earlier this year, Debner was a finalist in the 2014 Hal Leonard Vocal Competition, a national competition for singers under age 23. Krueger earned the same recognition as a first-year student in 2012.

Jackson was selected as a preliminary round winner in the 2014 Classical Singer National Vocal Competition and performed at the Classical Singer National Convention in San Antonio in late May.

Last year, Zenobi took Jackson and Krueger to the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, which is the highest-profile competition for young opera singers. While neither was selected, Zenobi said they “really held their own.” Jackson has been invited to audition for a prestigious program called OperaWorks.

Zenobi said it is unusual for a school of Southwestern’s size to have three students who have gained national recognition as vocalists, but she isn’t surprised.

“I think it speaks to the quality of the music program we have here,” she said. “I think it is also related to the fact that we have a school of fine arts within the larger liberal arts university. This structure allows students who are serious about music to get that level of training without going to a conservatory.”

Like Jackson, Debner and Krueger did not come to Southwestern planning to major in vocal performance. Krueger was interested in becoming a choral conductor and Debner planned to major in violin, which she has studied since she was in second grade.

“Dr. Zenobi’s teaching was a huge factor in my decision to become a voice major,” Debner said. “I’m so glad I was placed in her studio. She has high standards, but is also very nurturing and has helped me grow so much as a musician. Dr. Zenobi has a calming presence, and if I’m stressed out, I always feel better after I go and talk with her.” 

This past summer, Debner had offers to participate in four different programs. She ended up selecting to go to Italy with Jackson to participate in the Lingua e Canto program.

“This is an extremely successful first round of outside auditions for a young singer,” Zenobi said.

Krueger has participated in the Opera in the Ozarks program, an intensive eight-week summer training and performance program for young singers, selected from competitive national auditions. In spring 2014, she was hired by Ensemble Settecento (Austin Baroque Orchestra) to sing a role in the C.H. Graun opera Montezuma. Krueger also has sung with the Austin Lyric Opera, and this past summer, she performed the role of Cherubino in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro with Spotlight on Opera, an Austin-based program that provides training for up-and-coming singers.

Zenobi says it was a “happy coincidence” that she ended up teaching at Southwestern. After earning her master’s degree in voice performance from The University of Texas at Austin, she embarked on a full-time singing career and received critical acclaim across the country for her performances in roles ranging from Mozart heroines Konstanze and Donna Elvira to Verdi’s Violetta Valéry.  

One of Zenobi’s singing jobs was at the University United Methodist Church in Austin, where she met several Southwestern students who were paid to sing at the church. One of those students, Neal Mann, told Zenobi there was an opening for a voice professor at Southwestern and suggested she apply. Zenobi was hired in 2007, and completed her doctorate in 2011. She teaches Song Literature, Vocal Diction and Vocal Pedagogy in addition to Vocal Performance.

After realizing that Debner, Jackson and Krueger all study with Zenobi, The American Prize judging panel also awarded her a Citation for Inspiration in Teaching this year. She has been a finalist in the competition’s Art Song category the past two years.

Because the music field is very competitive, Zenobi says she tries to be as committed a mentor as possible for her students. She sits down regularly with them to talk about potential career paths and tries to suggest careers that will match their skill sets.

To help her students get their singing careers started, Zenobi founded a nonprofit organization called BELTÀ (Building Empowered Lives Through Art) that connects singers with potential donors.

“It is very expensive to start a singing career,” said Zenobi, who credits a generous benefactor for helping her launch her singing career. The BELTA website offers free crowdfunding services and free web space for aspiring performers. Debner used the site to raise funds for her trip to Italy last summer.

Zenobi’s latest project is a national competition for high school singers, which she is starting at Southwestern this fall. The program will also include workshops and master classes.

In the case of Debner, Jackson and Krueger, Zenobi said all three have what it takes to be successful performers – vocal ability, performing ability, stage presence and professionalism.

“All three have that ‘X’ factor, which gives me great hope for them,” she said.