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With Help From A Dedicated Booster, South Sider Whitney Morrison Became A Star At The Lyric Opera Of Chicago

CHICAGO (CBS) -- On music's biggest night with the Grammy Awards, we're reminded our theatres and concert halls have been dark all through the pandemic.

In Chicago, that means we're missing an extraordinary homegrown talent – Whitney Morrison. As CBS 2's Jim Williams reported Sunday night, Morrison has had a big booster who saw the South Sider's potential long before she made it to the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

In her highly-acclaimed performances, Morrison – a soprano - has her sights set on the entire venue.

"You've got to sing to sing to the back of the room," Morrison said. "They've got to hear you in the back row, and even more so, they have to understand what you're saying - all the way from a block and a half away, really."

From any distance, Morrison has captivated audiences - from church pulpits to the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

She described the experience of performing on the Lyric stage as "daunting and exhilarating."

The journey to the one of the world's most celebrated stages began when Morrison was just a baby.

"My parents say they found me in my crib before I could talk with my head just down singing a familiar church song," she said.

Gospel music was the native South Sider's first love. But Morrison's life took a dramatic turn at Rich South High School in Richton Park, where she met music teacher Lana Manson.

"She kept saying, 'I'm digging for gold, I'm digging for gold,'" Morrison said.

Manson saw a budding classical singer.

"Sometimes, what's inside of a voice is not always obvious. You have to really mine out that talent," said Manson, of the Musical Arts Institute. "But I heard something immediately."

Morrison enhanced her studies at the Musical Arts Institute, founded by Manson and her husband, Michael. It is located at a refurbished house at 9244 S. Lafayette Ave. right off the Dan Ryan Expressway.

The institute gives young people on the South Side a music education they might not get in their public schools.

"When I was a young lad learning how to play an instrument, there was a teacher who told me that, 'You are really good and you could do this for the rest of your life,'" said Michael Manson. "Well, there are 1,200 kids that we teach that we want to tell that same message to."

The message to Morrison was that an African-American girl could indeed embrace classical music.

"There was a lot of peer pressure for her," said Lana Manson. "There were many days she came in my office in tears: 'People call me weird. I'm singing opera, and you've got me signing in Italian.'"

"The Mansons believed in me when I didn't know to believe in myself when no one knew me as a person who could sing classically," Morrison said. "They opened the door and gently nudged me through because I didn't know how to do that for myself."

"If you're into a classical music, you're not going to get the peer pressure here," added Michael Manson.

Today, Morrison is a world-class talent - nurtured by her mentors and influenced by her South Side community.

"I think of myself as a sound painter, and so I can choose so many different colors and so many different styles and so many different dialects, as well as languages, to express myself," she said.

One day, Lana Manson travelled downtown, where outside the Civic Opera House hung a 20-foot poster of her prized student.

"Just so I could take a picture with me underneath that picture," Lana Manson said. "It reminds me every time I look at it that you have to be the shoulders for someone to stand on."

You can see why Dan Novak of the Lyric Opera calls Whitney Morrison "an incredibly talented artist."

"She has a distinctively beautiful voice, and her deeply committed performances are always compelling," Novak said.

Morrison has worked hard, earning a bachelor's degree and master's degree. She has also stayed busy during the pandemic, hosting a podcast called "The Artist Sanctuary."

Photos seen in this report are courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago/Cory Weaver and Todd Rosenberg,

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