ELBURN - You might not expect a teenager with blue hair to be classically trained in opera.
But Lauren Parnell of Elburn, who at the moment is sporting a pastel-to-turquoise blue ombre effect, likes to defy the odds, whether it’s choosing an interesting hair color or singing some of the hardest music a performer can muster.
Parnell, 18, recently sang in her last “official” classical opera performance as part of The Fox Valley Rising Stars – A Young Artist Program in Concert through Soirée Lyrique, NFP.
During the performance, which took place July 17 at Evangelical Covenant Church in Elgin, she sang the mezzo part in the trio "Soave sia il vento" from the opera "Cosi fan tutte" by Mozart, as well as "Il dolce suono" from the tragic Italian opera “Lucia di Lammermoor” by Donizetti.
The latter piece, known by many as the opera sung by the blue alien Diva Plavalaguna in the 1997 movie “The Fifth Element,” is a particularly long and difficult scene, said Solange Sior, founder and artistic director of Soirée Lyrique, who has given Parnell voice lessons the past four years.
But Parnell – who chose the piece at the suggestion of her father, Brian – performed quite well, Sior said.
“I don’t know anybody who has worked harder than her,” Sior said. “Her big solo from ‘Lucia’ is full of acrobatic, ornamental music and … I didn’t think she could learn it. She’s the one who [suggested it]. I didn’t think she could do it, and she’s doing it.”
The 2016 Kaneland High School graduate will head to the University of Illinois-Springfield this fall to study pre-med with the hopes of becoming a neonatal surgeon – a field well-removed from the musical arts.
But she’ll take with her all that she’s gained from singing opera – courage, self-confidence and discipline – and she encourages others to give it a try.
“If nothing else, it’s fun for the experience,” she said. “You get to learn so much … You get to meet so many people and get so much more active in the arts.”
Beating the odds
When Parnell was in kindergarten, she sang in a talent show. Rather, she was supposed to sing in a talent show.
“She freaked out and started crying, and almost ran off the stage,” recalled her mother, Jennifer Parnell, noting her daughter suffered from terrible stage fright from then on. “She never sang again, not for years and years. I never even knew she had any talent.”
Fast forward to high school, when Parnell heard "The Queen of the Night Aria" from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.”
“My music history teacher said it was an impossible song to sing, and I thought, ‘I could probably sing it,’” Parnell said, adding, “I like to prove people wrong; I like the challenge.”
She searched online for an opera instructor and found Enchanted Voices, now Fox Valley Music Studio, headed by Sior.
The honors student had no idea what to expect, but she enrolled in lessons once a week, hoping to use the time to de-stress and break away from academic work.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t the relaxation tool she imagined.
“It was pretty rough,” Parnell admitted. “I had a lot of trouble learning to hear the different tones – sharp or flat – it got really frustrating to me. I’m a complete perfectionist, so it’s hard for me to know I’m not doing it right, but I can’t figure out why I’m doing it wrong.”
Sometimes Parnell would cry in the car after lessons, Jennifer Parnell said. But the teenager practiced harder, and by the next lesson, she would nail whatever section of music had given her problems the previous week.
“I’ve seen a huge progression in ear training – being able to hear her voice against other voices – and rhythm,” Sior said. “She’s a very, very hard-working person. Anybody else probably would have quit. She just works harder … . I’m very impressed with her personality and the heart of this young lady.”
Parnell's training helped her overcome her stage fright.
“Recently, she and her sisters were at a park in Naperville [and she started singing]," Jennifer Parnell said. "People were asking for requests.”
Parnell has sung the national anthem at various events, including the Sycamore Steam Show and Threshing Bee, wrestling tournaments, the City of Elgin’s parade and more.