A student’s first experience with opera

This story is part of a series of 50 stories we are releasing to commemorate 50 years of opera in West Michigan. Browse more stories and follow our journey throughout the season.

A recipient of Opera Grand Rapids’ five-dollar student ticket program shares her first opera experience and why she believes the performing arts should be accessible to everyone, not just those who come from a background of privilege.

“Art is a way of living,” says Kelsey May. She sees the creative process everywhere, from great works of literature to the banality of everyday obstacles. For Kelsey, living is more of an art than a math problem. “Even if you do have a plan, intentions, and goals, how those goals are met changes, and because of the mistakes you make along the way, it never ends up being the exact plan you had in your mind.” Whether it’s an unexpected hurdle with a child, or simply an accident blocking the highway, Kelsey sees creativity as the force behind most solutions.

She has witnessed firsthand how teaching young minds the power of creativity can fill their spirit and pace them for success. As the Education Coordinator at a Boys and Girls Club in Grand Rapids, Kelsey’s duties are broad: she teaches, helps with homework, does yoga, and creates gardens with students. She feels enriched by a very broad range of interests, and she wants to be sure the children in her care are exposed to as many opportunities as possible. Her own mother’s investment in her education meant she was reading at three years old. The result wasn’t just advanced literacy—her mother helped cultivate a bright inner life that she retains to this day.

“I read every day, and I try to write every day as well,” she says. Kelsey is a poet and podcast host who also loves music and photography. She is also a frequent theatergoer, when time and money allow. It was only a matter of time until she made it to the opera. But she was initially a bit apprehensive. “When you say ‘opera,’ I start picturing this gorgeous building in France, like in Phantom of the Opera. Everyone is all dolled up and getting dropped off in their carriages, and the door is held open for them. It’s a mindset of luxury.” There is certainly some truth to this; opera and high society often go hand in hand. But many people aren’t aware that there are low-cost inroads to opera, and the art form is more inclusive and welcoming to the uninitiated than ever.

Kelsey hadn’t considered opera until a professor of hers suggested the idea. She wasn’t aware of Opera Grand Rapids’ five-dollar student tickets at the time, so a low-cost ticket was incentive enough to wade into an unfamiliar art form.

Tosca, 2015

Her first opera was filled with surprises. “I didn’t know beforehand that it was going to be in a foreign language, which speaks to my never having attended before,” she says with a laugh. She was surprised, but grateful, for the supertitles. Even as someone new to opera, the talent of the singers and the elegance of the production left an impression. “The people who were performing were just amazing. Their voices had so much emotion,” she says. “The stage, the set design, the costumes were all beautiful. It was a great experience in the theater.”

Opera Grand Rapids is committed to bringing students and newcomers through our doors—not just for us, but for the future of opera. For many people, an opera ticket is more than they can justify for an evening’s entertainment. If those people have never seen a live opera, they likely never will. Kelsey echoes a sentiment we hear from students often: “My husband and I have to be really picky with where we can go to a concert or attend a musical, just based on our income. The fact that I could still see the show and appreciate the art, but have it be accessible for my level of income, was really fantastic.”

People like Kelsey are why OGR offers five-dollar tickets to students, whether they are in middle school or getting their PhDs. As a young renaissance woman, Kelsey is the perfect face of our next generation of fans. As a writer and educator, she is a conduit for her newfound appreciation of opera. In fact, after attending Tosca at OGR, she wrote about her experience for HowlRound, a website dedicated to writing about the theater.

Student Dress Rehearsal, Tosca 2015

From her article “Art for All: My First Experience with Opera” at HowlRound: “As a working-class college student, it is easier to splurge on dinner at Olive Garden than shell out enough to see an opera, let alone sit only twenty rows from the stage! But the fact that I was offered the opportunity to go speaks to the attitude of Opera Grand Rapids—that the performing arts should be accessible to everyone, not just those who come from a background of privilege.”

We’re very pleased to enable students like Kelsey to experience what we do. We’re also grateful to the donors and schools whose sponsorship allows us to offer low-cost student tickets. Kelsey’s perspective on creativity and art as a way of understanding life is one we love to see passed to future generations. If all of our new patrons are as inspiring, enthusiastic, and eloquent, our art form has a bright future in Grand Rapids.


OUR FOUNDERS HAD A BOLD PROPOSITION: to build a professional opera company that would put Grand Rapids on the map for a very discerning audience. 50 years later, we are humbled to be the modern bearers of classical standards and modern ingenuity. Learn more.



As an integral part of our city’s artistic fabric, it’s our responsibility to see to its continual flourishing. Please consider donating to Opera Grand Rapids to ensure our artistic excellence for the next 50 years and beyond. You’ve already made us great. With your support, there’s no limits to the height our voices can reach together. Give today.