Dr. Marja Kay, soprano, found her niche in contemporary music. She is artist of the week. Photo by Marshall Smith
Dr. Marja Kay, soprano, found her niche in contemporary music. She is artist of the week.
Photo by Marshall Smith

Dr. Marja Kay developed many areas of expertise in her youth – 17 years of dance classes starting at 3, piano beginning at 6, singing and acting in theatre in high school, and all-around academic proficiency with particular strength in math. She performed well in all areas and always hit her marks.

“I had always sung,” said Kay. “But at a certain point in high school I knew I needed to become a singer. My mother was very upset I went into music rather than math.” But her academic excellence and musical talent served her well, earning her a full ride to Chapman University in Orange County as a Presidential Scholar. “Chapman didn’t have a musical theatre component at the time, only classical vocal training,” said Kay. “I really didn’t like it [the classical emphasis] but my voice did.” She continued to follow her voice.

Perseverance, part of Kay’s makeup, paid off. In her second year of music history and theory at Chapman, she discovered modern music – Edgard Varèse’s “Poème Électronique.” “Modern music was where I found my niche,” said Kay, “and all that math paid off, with 12 tone and microtonal music being so mathematical.”

From Chapman University, Kay progressed to Cal Arts in Valencia where she obtained an MFA in multi-focus vocal performance. “Cal Arts was defining,” she remembered. “They allowed you to push the envelope. I had so much to do.” While there Kay began her special relationship with avant garde composers that led her to premier many new works for soprano including Michael Gordon and Richard Foreman’s “What to Wear,” Georges Aperghis’ “Sextuor: L’Origine des espèces” and Anne LeBaron’s “Wet.”

Kay, with innate curiosity and animation, seems always in motion, interested in and moving on to some exciting new career frontier. “I knew after Cal Arts I wanted to get a Ph.D.,” said Kay. “I wanted to go to the Sibelius Academy in Finland [her family has Finnish roots]. They auditioned only two Americans. I was one. But I didn’t get in.”

Kay instead attended the University of York in Birmingham, United Kingdom, on recommendation of her Cal Arts mentor Jacqui Bobak and Bobak’s mentor Bill Brooks, then at the University of York. While there she continued to develop her expertise in contemporary music including performances of works by Luciano Berio and Karlheinz Stockhausen. She was one of the first at York to obtain a performance doctorate, in which she had to support her thesis with illustrative performances.

In interviewing Kay, one is impressed by her accomplishments, her knowledge of and dedication to her craft and her breezy self-effacing modesty, as if all that she has done and plans to do is “no big deal.”

Upcoming for Kay in Los Angeles is a moveable opera, in which audience members are driven to venues where parts of the opera occur. Segments also occur in the cars in which audience members are driven. Called “Hopscotch, A Mobile Opera for 24 Cars,” the innovative production is created by “The Industry,” founded in 2012. It opens on Halloween weekend. Since its inception, The Industry has established itself as a breathtakingly original new force in the L.A. opera scene. Also on tap, Kay will be emcee and featured soloist at a Holiday Pops Concert with the Symphony of the Redwoods in Mendocino on Dec. 19.

In addition to her musical career, Kay has served and continues to serve in important administrative capacities: in the past as assistant to the music program and concerts box office manager at the University of York, site administrator for the Mendocino Art Center, and currently as assistant director of admissions and database administrator for the Idyllwild Arts Academy.

There is about Kay a sense of delight and merriment when she speaks – whether discussing her family life, her training, her performance career or her teaching. Of her teaching she said, “The voice is a unique instrument, as it involves the whole person rather than isolated muscles and vocal folds. In many ways it’s similar to the training of an athlete. While I teach from a classical point of view, I embrace all styles and forms of vocal production, and feel that, ultimately, vocalists should always strive towards their particular goals.” Just as she has.

Kay smiles easily and often and sparkles when she does.