SHERIDAN — The Baltimore Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Naples Philharmonic, The Vancouver Symphony, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Greenhorse, Wren — local soprano Karen Clift has sung with them all and more. Clift was raised in Nebraska and moved to Wyoming in her high school years. She has been singing all her life with the dream to make it as a professional performer and she did.
Beginning her education at Sheridan College and finishing at the University of Minnesota with a vocal performance major, Clift’s career took off quickly as she attracted professional attention through her post-secondary musical activity. From then on, Clift collaborated with a variety of composers, conductors and musicians including David Zinman, John Churchwell, David Evan Thomas, Charles Dutoit and Christoph von Dahnanyi.
“(She’s) always prepared … (and) is an extraordinarily communicative signer… when Karen sweeps onstage you know you are in the presence of a generous artist and she lights up the stage. It’s impossible not to watch her,” Thomas said of Clift.
From the Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall in Manhattan to Napa Valley wineries and Sheridan’s WYO Theater, Clift has sung a diverse selection of pieces.
“Her voice carries emotional weight as well as great light; it’s as if tears and laughter are being expressed simultaneously,” Thomas said.
Her favorite piece is the beautiful and challenging C Minor Mass by Mozart, which she has preformed several times.
“I am attracted to the understated … to simple song. I like a beautiful melody … I believe it can be as exciting as the most visceral opera,” Clift said.
Clift has also sung in a diverse range of languages such as Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French, German, Mandarin, Russian and Polish. Family friend and local writer, Sam Western, said “she has a clarity and simplicity to her voice that is pretty rare.”
As for musical influences in her career and style, Clift admits there have been several, varying with the different phases of her career, which she admired as professional musicians.
These included Joni Mitchell, Elton John, Arleen Auger (American soprano), Gillian Welch and Thom Yorke of Radiohead.
“(However) I felt like I didn’t have a specific role model for what I wanted to be,” she said.
She continued by saying while she is typically defined as a classical singer, she prefers to be flexible in her genres of performances.
“I’m not an opera singer at heart … and I’m working to expand my image,” she said, “I’m very grateful for classical music, as being (initially) focused on classical gave me flexibility … (however) I’m happiest when I’m mixing it up.”
“She has an ability to cover many genres…I admire how Karen is open to new ideas, most people stick to a specific genre…(but) she is not afraid to delve,” Western said.
Clift is also looking forward to a CD production with Thomas in the 2014-15 season, featuring four works specifically written for her voice and ability along with solo piano and chamber music Thomas composed.
“I’ve written more music for her than for anyone else. It’s been a dream of mine to record some of that music…(and) each work has different aspects of Karen in it,” Thomas said about the idea behind the recording.
“It’s a great opportunity for me,” said Clift, “I’m very excited.”
Clift’s most recent performance was with the local group Wren at the WYO Theater in April.
Clift said the group hopes to perform again locally sometime during the upcoming fall season.
“Sheridan is lucky to have her,” Western said.
Thomas echoed the sentiment.
“The state gained a great artist and activist when Karen returned to Wyoming …at the same time, the Twin Cities of Minnesota lost a beloved performer,” he said.
In addition to her musical performances, Clift also teaches voice lessons.
“What I prize the most in performance is authenticity and using your real, true authentic voice…that’s what I love to help people find as a teacher….to be honest in your expression.”
Clift is wife to Sheridan High School English teacher Mike Clift and mother to two children, Maddy and Tom.