Amory High School graduate strives for greatness in opera

By Ray Van Dusen/Monroe Journal

AMORY – For many vocalists, their roots originate in the pews and choir pits of their local churches and grow whenever the opportunities are presented.
For Okolona native Ryan Milstead, the vocals didn’t present themselves until he was at Amory High School.
“One of the faculty members asked me to try out for the production of “Footloose” where I played the role of the Rev. Shaw Moore,” Milstead said. “When I started in high school, I had my doubts, but while I was at Ole Miss, I had a lot of positive reinforcement from peers and faculty. I’ve been blessed with a talent; so many people who are good in high school fizzle out in the real world.”
Milstead earned a bachelor of music degree in vocal performance from the University of Mississippi and is awaiting graduation in May from the University of Illinois’ master of music in vocal performance and literature degree program. He also is preparing to compete at New York’s prestigious Metropolitan Opera in March.
Milstead’s semifinal performance will be March 6 in the Met Opera National Council Auditions, and if he advances, he will compete in the finals the following week.
The vocal competition is held each year through four levels, beginning with a district level in each state.
Ten to 15 competitors then compete regionally, where two winners from each region go on to a group of 20 to 25 for the semifinals.
The final competition consists of 10 singers and five will be determined as winners.
“Winning this competition is one of the highest opera honors in the country. Several very influential people in the opera world come to see this competition, which really opens doors for roles and performances,” Milstead said.
Milstead competed last year and made it as far as regionals. This year he’s secured first place out of 10 singers from the Indiana, Illinois and Ohio region.
To keep his skills fresh, Milstead will work with the Santa Fe Opera this summer.
“In my early years, I did have a few issues with stage fright since I had never sung publicly. My mom had never even seen me perform when I was in “Footloose.” While at Ole Miss, I was fortunate enough to land some large roles and that forced me to overcome the fright pretty fast,” Milstead said.
While north Mississippi’s younger sets are more associated with aspiring country, rock and rap stars, Milstead defines himself with the more classical styles.
“The young generation needs to keep opera going. It’s such an under-appreciated music in the South. At one point, I had thought about musical theater, but felt my voice lent itself to the opera and everyone thought I should give it a shot.
“I haven’t done many other genres outside of karaoke bars, but if you’re a trained vocalist, you can pretty much sing anything. Opera is where I find my passion and it’s an eye-opening experience,” Milstead said.
As far as a five-year plan goes, Milstead sees himself in a major city performing and traveling around with his talent.
“With opera, you go where the work is. Europe started the opera tradition long before us and there’s always a demand, but I’d rather stay closer to my family at first, but there’s certainly a potential in it for the future,” Milstead said.