ST. GEORGE — Lisa Hopkins Seegmiller said she her journey came full circle when she stepped onto the Eccles stage, in Salt Lake City, to sing Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera” in early May.
“There’s a moment in that song,” Seegmiller told St. George News, “when the singer has to hit a high E6. It’s very difficult… But if you get it right, the audience goes crazy.”
An E6 is two octaves above Middle C on the piano.
“The Phantom of the Opera” was the first audition piece Seegmiller learned as a teen. That was before she’d been cast in Baz Luhrmann’s “La Boheme;” before she’d won a Tony award; before she chose to eschew cultural capitals like New York City in favor of moving to St. George with her husband Travis Seegmiller.
Hitting that note at that moment, Seegmiller said, combines the singer’s voice with the audiences’ spirit. When she hit that high E, standing on the Eccles stage, Seegmiller said she’d achieved her goal of “lifting audiences to heaven through her voice.”
“And that’s the magic of the theatre,” Seegmiller said. “The performers and the audience coming together in the same space to share this moment. We can never really achieve this from our homes.”
Seegmiller said she’s struggled with a singular choice that is at the heart of most of the choices we make in our daily lives. That is, to act for oneself or others.
“As young artists,” she said, “we’re necessarily self-centered. We have to be. We’re so focused on our craft, there’s not room for much else.”
Seegmiller described opera singers as “Olympic level vocal athletes.” Seegmiller credits her mom, a classically-trained pianist who attended Juilliard, with instilling in her the drive to be great.
“She also taught me to seek out the best teachers,” Seegmiller said. It was Seegmiller’s mom who sought out Marlena Malas, who teaches at Juilliard, the Manhattan School of Music and the Curtis Institute. Malas would become one of Seegmiller’s great teachers, encouraging her to fulfill her potential as singer and citizen.
“I knew I could achieve my dream of becoming an opera singer when she said I had what it takes,” Seegmiller said. “But she also said that you will know by 21 if you’ve got it.”
These two comments clashed inside Seegmiller’s mind, as she wanted more than anything to become a world class opera singer. But she was also preparing to serve a two-year mission in Austria.
“I was called upon to leave my voice on the altar,” Seegmiller said, referencing the Abrahamic sacrifice. “I had to have faith that I wouldn’t lose my gift while I served my mission.”
She didn’t. Instead, she spent two years singing while also serving her mission. She also had an epiphany, which linked her voice and spirit in an unexpected way.
“I put my voice on the altar,” she said. “And I learned that it’s not about me. It was a complete shift. I found my ‘why.'”
The reason she was working so hard to become a great opera singer, she said, was to transform others through singing, rather than merely establishing a career. That realization set the stage for the next phase of her life.
When Seegmiller returned to the U.S., at age 23, her first big break was right around the corner. She quickly got a spot to audition for Baz Luhrmann’s Broadway production of La Boheme. Though she said she wasn’t in top form, she’d just graduated from Yale University. Her acting experience piqued the company’s interest.
“I was called back seven times before Luhrmann was finally in the room,” she said. “I auditioned for a principal role, but I was offered the lead.”
She claims to have heard a voice before the first callback. It urged Seegmiller to buy a black ensemble – boots, jeans and jacket. She said it was the same voice that told her to marry Travis Seegmiller. She won the role.
“To get a role, you’ve got to be diligent, prepared… and lucky,” she said.
Ben Brantley, chief theatre critic for The New York Times for 27 years, said that La Boheme’s cast was “sexy, vital, utterly committed to the moment . . . (they) brought tears to my eyes.”
Seegmiller said she was so focused on building her career and perfecting her craft, she didn’t know what a Tony award was when she received one. She was just 24. She hadn’t even earned her master’s degree in music from The Music School of Manhattan. And yet, she’d arrived.
Of course, Seegmiller would still have to audition to get parts. But the audition grind, which unfolds over the holiday season, was becoming tiresome for Seegmiller. She and her husband had started a family, so her priorities were shifting.
“I was taking my daughter, Ellie Felice, who was a baby, to auditions,” Seegmiller said. “I’d ask the women in the room to hold her so I could sing for a few minutes.”
Then, during a trip to visit Travis Seegmiller’s family in Washington Fields, the couple stepped out onto a north-facing balcony, overlooking a field on the Seegmiller family farm.
“We saw Travis’ dad plowing the field below,” Seegmiller said. “There was a great shaft of light cutting across the field. And we looked at each other, and said: ‘We’ve got to buy this house… and now is the time.'”
In short order, Seegmiller parted with her long-time manager and the family moved from Washington D.C. where Travis Seegmiller had been working as a partner at the law firm of Squire Patton Boggs.
Lisa Hopkins Seegmiller also decided that she wasn’t going to audition anymore. “If I should play a role,” she said, “let it come to me.”
And the roles have found her. Besides being nominated for a Grammy for a recording of the opera, “Volpone” at Wolf Trap Opera, she’s played major theaters across Utah, including Tuacahn, St. George Musical Theater and the Utah Lyric Opera to name just a few.
“Living in St. George has been great, because it aligns with our service-oriented values,” Seegmiller said. “Travis and I are both trying to be the best we can be, whether inside the home or in the community. So, it really is the perfect place for us.”
The pandemic was hard for Seegmiller. Though she chose to live in St. George more than a decade ago, to put her family before her career, she still needs to share her gift with audiences. Seegmiller is preparing to take a show to Sun Valley Idaho, where she will share the stage with her 12-year-old daughter, Ellie Felice.
Today, Seegmiller dedicates most of her time to her family and mentoring young artists. She’s an ardent supporter of Dixie’s Got Talent. She also sets aside one day a week, during which she teaches for 12 hours.
“There’s so much raw talent in St. George,” she said. “I’m the mother of 50 children. I try to give each of them a piece of my heart and soul.”
Lisa paused before continuing.
“By doing that I hope they’ll follow my example and do the same.”
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