LOCAL FOLKS: Okolonan to compete in opera program

By M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal

OKOLONA – For most people, “Mary Had a Little Lamb” is a nursery rhyme, plain and simple.
For Ryan Milstead, it was a turning point.
The son of Suzanne and Mike Milstead, he was born and raised in Okolona. He attended Oak Hill Academy in West Point, then transferred to Amory High School for his junior year.
“I grew up as kind of an introvert,” he said. “I had never sung in front of anybody until I was 17 years old.”
Somewhere, he found what he called the “gumption” to try out for AHS’ production of “Footloose.”
“They had me come and sing ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb,’” the 25-year-old baritone recalled. “I was horribly nervous, but they gave me a supporting role, Rev. Moore. It was a pretty big part for someone who’d never performed on stage before.”
The next year, Milstead was cast in the lead role for “The Music Man.”
“At that point, I knew music was what I wanted to do,” he said.
After graduation, he went on to study vocal performance at the University of Mississippi. He’d planned on a career in musical theater, but another turning point occurred during his freshman year.
“I had never been exposed to opera until I started my undergraduate,” he said. “First semester, I joined the opera studio class and I did a complete switch. I felt like my voice really lent itself to opera.”
Now, he’s working toward a master’s degree in vocal performance at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
He’s also a national semifinalist in The Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. He’s already won at the district and regional levels.
“I’m going to New York on March 3,” he said. “I get to work with an accompanist and coach at The Met before the semifinals on March 6.
“If I do make it to the final round, you have to stay the entire next week in New York, working with an accompanist and working with The Metropolitan Orchestra,” he continued. “The finals are a big-ticket event, so they want to make sure you’re prepared.”
Just to review: About eight years after singing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” for a high school audition, he’ll be performing arias at Lincoln Center in New York.
“I’ve never been to The Met. I’ve never been to Lincoln Center,” he said. “I can’t think of a better way to go than as a semifinalist.”
He’s picked five arias, and he must demonstrate the ability to sing in French, German, Italian and English.
“Diction and translation are really two of the most important things about singing in a foreign language,” he said. “You have to start with the words and know what they mean before you sing anything to an audience. That’s definitely something I’ve been working hard on.”
In the semifinals, Milstead will compete against 20 to 25 men and women. They’re all focused on becoming one of 10 finalists, then getting selected as one of five grand finalists.
“If you are a grand finalist, you get to be part of the young artist program at The Met, which is among the cream of the crop,” Milstead said. “It’s not about getting a job at The Met. That would be nice, though.”
No matter what happens during the auditions, he’s committed to a career as an opera singer. He’ll take part in the Santa Fe Opera Company’s young artist program in the summer.
“When you’re starting out in the opera world, you go where you’re wanted,” he said. “You start out in smaller roles.”
The past eight years have been filled with new opportunities and challenges. No one can predict the future, but Milstead certainly has a plan.
“I’m set on becoming a professional baritone at a U.S. opera house,” he said. “Right now, I want to focus strictly on performing. That’s my goal.”
And if you have any prayers or good wishes to offer up when Milstead is on stage at Lincoln Center in March, they’re sure to be appreciated. It could be another turning point for the talented young man from Okolona.
Contact M. Scott Morris at (662) 678-1589 or scott.morris@journalinc.com.