South Charlotte

His voice is taking him to new places

Paul Whitsett, 20, went from a young boy not interested in singing to a young man traveling to Italy to perform the lead role in an opera.

As an eighth-grader at Carmel Middle School, he was scheduled to take choir as an elective class and was not thrilled. Although he took piano lessons, he never considered himself a singer.

"I was mad about it," said Whitsett. "I was already in orchestra and I figured I didn't need anymore music than that."

But his teacher, Jolanta Wilson, heard something in Whitsett's voice and entered him in the N.C. Middle School Honors Chorus. He was accepted into the program every year except his freshman year of high school.

As a freshman at South Mecklenburg High School, Whitsett was accepted into the Chamber Choir, a class usually reserved for seniors.

Whitsett also placed in the top 10 in the national Classical Singer magazine competition when he was 16, which made him think more seriously about his music career.

"I really didn't know what I wanted to do at that point, but I knew I wanted to go to school for music," he said.

Music seemed like a natural talent for Whitsett, but his mother, Debbie Whitsett, wasn't sure how far he would take it.

"I forced him to play piano as a kid because I wanted him to have something outside of school," she said.

Debbie said she never thought her son would want to major in musical performance but supported his decision. When Paul was accepted into the Conservatory of Music at Oberlin College in Ohio, she said she was thrilled but also saddened.

"I was really proud of him but I also knew I would miss him," said Debbie. "A lot of kids haven't found what they want to do and it's great that he's found his niche."

Paul said applying to the conservatory was difficult. He submitted a screening CD with his application and was asked to come for an in-person vocal audition.

"Everything else before college was really big, but finally getting accepted into a world-renowned conservatory was amazing," he said. "It's very hard to get in and I was terribly nervous. Oberlin only has 90 voice majors from all over the world."

Paul, now a sophomore vocal performance major at Oberlin, was invited in March to audition for the conservatory's summer program to sing in the Italian opera, "The Elixir of Love." Students who are invited into the program will travel to Italy for five weeks to rehearse and perform the opera. Paul won the lead baritone role of Belcore.

"As a baritone, this role is something I could potentially play throughout my entire career," said Whitsett. "It's one of the biggest roles for baritones in opera."

Paul called his mother with the news that it would cost $6,000 plus living expenses to participate.

"Our family has been struggling in this economy and he knew that," she said. "I told him the opportunity was rare and to tell his professors he was going. I didn't know how yet, but he was going."

Debbie, a local artist, has had her own business for 11 years selling sculptures and paintings and teaching classes out of her home studio. She thought the best way for her to earn her son's tuition would be to have gallery showings.

She created custom garden sculptures, paintings and clay pendants and had two shows in the backyard of her home in the Quail Hollow area. The pieces ranged from $30 for jewelry to $800 for paintings, and Debbie made $1,700 at the first showing and $1,000 at the second.

She also took a part-time job at South Mecklenburg High creating programs, banners and materials for the school's musicals. Through her art and second job, Debbie was able to raise the money to send Paul to Italy.

"It felt good knowing that my hard work would help my son have his dream realized," she said.

Debbie was able to raise the tuition in two months but still needed additional funds for his living expenses. To raise extra money, Paul will perform selections from "The Elixir of Love" and other pieces at Covenant Presbyterian Church for donations. His father, Paul, a salesman, and his two sisters, Rachael, 30, and Victoria, 19, will attend the performance.

"In the future, I want to grow and just keep getting better," he said. "My goal is to perform in a main stage opera in the U.S. with a full orchestra.

"Hopefully I can do this for the rest of my life."