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Central Illinois Opera Singer Wins International Competition Amid COVID

Kate Tombaugh performs
Kate Tombaugh
Kate Tombaugh performs. A singalong concert full of festive carols, a Hanukkah medley, and orchestral seasonal favorites, Maestro Muspratt and the New Philharmonic will be hosted online Dec. 12, 2020.

A central Illinois opera singer has won a prestigious singing competition.

Kate Tombaugh topped 155 other mezzo-sopranos in the Mildred C. Miller International Competition

Tombaugh, a Streator native, graduated from Illinois Wesleyan University and has been competing and winning competitions for years.

She said the competitions are a great way to put yourself in front of people who don't know anything about you as a person and musician.

“Throw yourself out there and see how other people perceive your talents and your level of development,” said Tombaugh. “And in this particular case, it was really such a huge boost.”

Since graduating from IWU, Tombaugh has performed as a soloist at Carnegie Hall upon winning the Barry Alexander International Vocal Competition; won the Harold Haugh Light Opera Vocal Competition; placed second in the Nicholas Z. Loren Vocal Competition, hosted by the Holland Chorale; and was awarded the Grace Keagy Award by NYC-based Kurt Weill Foundation in its annual Lotte Lenya Foundation.

Tombaugh holds a master’s degree in voice from the University of Cincinnati’s College Conservatory of Music, and dual undergraduate degrees in English literature and vocal performance from Illinois Wesleyan.

‘Where I want to be’

Tombaugh won a $3,000 prize in an all-mezzo-soprano edition with 13 finalists. She was the only finalist representing the Midwest in the event hosted by Pittsburgh Festival Opera. Applicants submitted preliminary audition videos and a list of five arias for repertoire considerations, and the five-member all-star panel of mezzo-soprano judges requested that Tombaugh present “Nobles Seigneurs, salut!” from Gioacomo Meyerbeer's “Les Huguenots” and “Things Change, Jo'' from Mark Adamo's “Little Women.”


“It just really wasn't on my radar as something that was possible that I could do. I have performed professionally all across the country, but really when I think about it, my ultimate goal hasn't changed. Even from when I was 23, I love being based in the Midwest,” said Tombaugh. “And this is very much where I want to be. I want to help improve and be a part of the scene because there is a lot more than we think there is some times.”

Tombaugh runs a nonprofit music training program in her hometown of Streator. She works with professionals she has met in her 10-year opera career to help mentor high school and college musicians. 

However, in terms of getting jobs, that's a very different story. Tombaugh said it is challenging because she is currently self-managed.

“Not having somebody in there who is regularly working with a company and continuously putting out visibility and promotions and all these things for you, it is an uphill battle in that way,” she said.

Taking precautions

Earlier in the pandemic, there was a horrific example of a chorus that rehearsed when one person was positive, nearly all of the singers caught COVID and some died. Singers put out a lot of air, which clearly makes COVID harder to navigate in opera. Tombaugh said that’s why a lot of performances just aren’t happening.

Careful steps were taken by Pittsburgh Festival Opera to ensure safe recording amid the pandemic. Sound and video recording devices were mailed to each finalist to ensure a more level playing field for everyone competing from home, as well as a chance to work with the pianist creating the accompaniment tracks.

Tombaugh is currently high risk due to her pregnancy, and she utilized the safety steps. 

“I regularly work in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, at the College of DuPage at the McAninch Arts Center, and in September and October, I recorded two concerts with them,” said Tombaugh. “We were outside and completely distanced and everyone was masked, including myself, and we recorded a holiday concert which is going to be live streamed starting next weekend and an opera and Broadway concert.”

Tombaugh has performed professionally for a decade throughout the U.S. in works that range the gamut of classical and musical theater repertoire. 

Her most recent engagements include singing with Chicago Opera Theater in the world premiere of “Freedom Ride,” an American opera by Dan Shore celebrating the hundreds of young volunteers who risked their lives to desegregate interstate travel in 1961.

“I'm really impressed and grateful to the organizations that are taking a leap of faith,” said Tombaugh. “They're working overtime, and there’s not as much money to be had right now. And I know people are struggling.”

Vaccines are close to being ready in the U.S., and Tombaugh is slated to sing in Bloomington with the Illinois Symphony Orchestra in April.

“I know that they are in current conversations about that and figuring out everything they can do. I did just recently hear from a company that I'm singing an opera with in Virginia that they're postponing again until 2022. I'm still making a point of collaborating on a regular basis with contacts and colleagues from across the country,” said Tombaugh. “We're just figuring out things in a new platform.”

Tombaugh said some art organizations get 75% of their revenue from tickets, and it is hard for organizations to get people excited if they aren’t physically there. 

“But I also know that art organizations are resilient, and that we all inevitably work in the nonprofit business in a sense that our margins are always going to be very small,” said Tombaugh. “But I do know colleagues of mine that have stepped away from performance. I do also know of organizations that are on hiatus or more permanently so.” 

She is impressed by the business savvy she’s seen.

“Part of our existence in the arts is knowing that we've always been on the chopping block. I mean, it's just a reality of our existence. Whenever things get tight, art is always the first thing to go. It's really unfortunate,” said Tombaugh. “But I think with growing pains like this, if people can sustain, it's really teaching us a lot.”

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