Opera surprised Courtney McKeown.
In 2001 she enrolled at DePaul University in Chicago to study voice performance. In high school, she has starred in musical and plays -- as Helena in Shakespeare's "Midsummer Nights Dream," the witch in "Into the Woods" and the leading player in "Pippin." But her freshman year of college McKeown was cast in her first opera, the role of Ottavia in "The Coronation of Poppe."
"I had never felt so comfortable singing anything in my entire life,' she said. "It kind of felt like my voice had found its home when I started singing classical music."
That first casting led McKeown to a career in opera, which has included the New York City Opera, Opera Tampa and Florida Grand Opera.
McKeown, 30, is one of more than 70 voice artists in the Savannah Voice Festival, an opera study program presented by Voice Experience with 12 performances in various downtown Savannah venues from Aug. 3-17. Students come for a two-week intensive training with some of opera's most celebrated musicians, who also put on shows for the community.
Opera legend Sherrill Milnes and his wife, Maria Zouves, founders of the Voice Experience, have committed the festival as an annual event in Savannah, beginning this year. The festival strives to make opera accessible to the community. Zouves, the festival's executive director, creates a "best of" opera experience for attendees.
"She picks popular pieces, and people can get kind of hooked that way. They may think 'I've heard this before, in a commercial or in a cartoon.'" McKeown said. "It's easy for people to connect with music that they feel is familiar to them, and that will get them interested in hearing more."
Not every performance takes place in an elaborate, formal theater; singers wear costumes and clothing besides medieval gowns or hoop skirts; attendees aren't subjected to a dress code of white gloves and tuxedos.
"Maria has a real gift for reaching out to the community in that way and making it familiar to people, putting it in more casual settings," McKeown said.
Opera opened McKeown's voice to an entirely new experience, with its unique facets and challenges, she said. It was the different languages of opera -- the fluidity and inherent expressiveness of Italian and French, words that in themselves sound lyrical, the intonation used in sentences -- that made a spoken sentence sound almost sung.
"You sing on vowels, so these languages lend themselves to an amplification line in the voice that just doesn't happen in English," McKeown said.
And there's drama in every operatic note.
"It's that challenge of finding a hundred percent of what you're capable of with every note," McKeown said.
"There's something about the way that you pour your voice onto classical music," she said. "It's almost more freedom than it is in any other kind of music."
A Pittsburgh native now living in Miami, McKeown has participated in five Voice Experience Festivals. This year, as the festival comes to Savannah, she gets a little bit of home with it as her mother and grandparents live in Bluffton. Her mother, Denise McKeown, is the director of employee services for the Beaufort County School District.
McKeown went on to earn a master's of music degree from Northwestern University in Chicago where she met Milnes, who was teaching at the university. He invited McKeown to attend Voice Experience in Chicago in 2007, then again in 2008 in Tampa, where she stayed as a young artist with Opera Tampa.
In March, McKeown and her fiance, fellow opera singer Ryan Milstead, were the entertainment for Zouves' birthday party in downtown Savannah.
During the Savannah Voice Festival, McKeown will appear in "Death by Aria" at the Westin Savannah Harbor at 3 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Aug. 3 , and "An Evening of Sacred Music" at First Presbyterian Church in Savannah at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 6.