Made in Cola Town: Jacquelyn Stucker

Jacquelyn Stucker’s journey from Irmo to the Royal Opera House

Sometimes happenstance puts a person in the exact place they’re meant to be. Maybe it’s taking a left instead of a right, going on that date instead of staying in, moving to one city instead of another. For Jacquelyn Stucker, it was taking chorus instead of interior design. 

Jacquelyn didn’t grow up singing in the choir. David Stucker, her father, is an amateur musician and part of a barbershop quartet. When his group would sing, Jacquelyn could often be found bobbing and swaying in her bouncy seat as a young child. Even then, music moved her, but it wasn’t something that really interested her in any significant way. She did play in the orchestra and in the band. Her first instrument was the clarinet, and she could tickle the ivories a bit, but singing? It wasn’t really an interest of hers. In high school, that all changed.

Jacquelyn attended Dutch Fork High School in Irmo and was interested in taking AP European History, but she wasn’t able to fit it into her schedule. She still needed a few credits and had a choice of either chorus or interior design. All things being equal, she thought she’d give the former a go. Instantly, others saw something within her that she had not — the talents of one with a natural born gift. When she first auditioned for the choral director at Dutch Fork, Marjorie Turner, she was told she was good enough for Honors Chamber Choir, Dutch Fork High School’s premier choral ensemble. “I liked it well enough, so I did it for two years,” remembers Jacquelyn, clearly underestimating her God-given talent. 

From the first time Jacquelyn ever sang, her tone was classical. Her voice has a natural vibrato that adds a strength and richness to her singing, and she has a natural proclivity and inclination for opera. Jacquelyn attributes much of her success to her music teachers at Dutch Fork — Marjorie Turner and Amos Goldie, her vocal coach. 

“They steered me toward classical music,” says Jacquelyn. “My first big solo was Mozart’s Requiem. Marjorie gave me a soprano solo, and I sang it without thinking much of it at the time. Marjorie recorded it and listened back and said, ‘That sounds professional.’”

It wasn’t long before Jacquelyn found herself drawn to opera. While she was never interested in musical theater, the first opera she attended was Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca. “I thought it was so beautiful,” says Jacquelyn. “I bought a box set of Renata Tebaldi, an Italian opera singer, singing every Puccini opera as the heroine, and I would play it over and over. I couldn’t get enough of it. I think Puccini is the way a lot of people find their way into opera.”

After high school, Jacquelyn applied for early decision to Furman University where she received the John D. Hollingsworth academic scholarship, a special scholarship given only to South Carolina residents, and based on a student’s ability and desire to change the world, take risks and be a leader in his or her chosen field. While the scholarship provided almost a full ride to the esteemed university, Jacquelyn learned she could get other scholarships if she sang in the choir. But first, she had to audition for the university choir — the prestigious Furman Singers. For the audition, she was required to sing two songs — one in English and one in Italian. Proving beyond doubt that she was certainly willing to take a risk, Jacquelyn called on a voice teacher, Christi Owens Pirkle, for help in learning Italian. “I knew how to sing,” says Jacquelyn, “but if I was going to sing solo, I needed to take a few lessons. Voice lessons are just as much about learning how to sing as they are about building confidence.”

Jacquelyn planned to go to college to study poetry and literature, but her love for music continued to grow. She soon recognized that, in essence, songs are really poetry set to music. She wasn’t quick to jump to music though and took two years to declare as a music major. She then went to Bard College in upstate New York to receive her Master’s Degree. 

Dawn Upshaw is the artistic director of the Graduate Vocal Arts program at Bard. Highly respected in the discipline of classical music, Dawn has sung in the Metropolitan Opera and is highly regarded for her artistry and creative integrity in the opera world. 

“That experience was weird in all the right ways for me,” says Jacquelyn. “It wasn’t really focused on opera, and it encouraged me to be unique. I decided at that time that I didn’t want to perform, because I was experiencing a great deal of performance anxiety at the time.”

But something changed when Jacquelyn began looking for teaching jobs after her first year of working toward her Doctorate of Musical Arts at New England Conservatory as she again found the desire to begin performing. Jacquelyn was thrilled when she was accepted to the apprentice artist program at the Santa Fe Opera in New Mexico, a world-renowned summer opera festival. “They believed in me and really started my career,” she says. “They gave me musical assignments that were interesting and played to my strengths.” Being a part of the Santa Fe Opera has been the highlight of her career — thus far. Not only is it a beautiful location, but the caliber and quality of the work is extremely high, and everyone brings their best work to both rehearsals and performances. “While it’s a bit exhausting because it’s all summer, the fantastic experience of working there makes it feel like a vacation in and of itself,” adds Jacquelyn.

Jacquelyn is also in the process of translating an opera from German to English and has advanced to the semifinals of the Metropolitan Opera’s National Council Audition, an annual search for young talent. As a semifinalist, she will sing on the main stage in front of the most influential people in the opera community. 

While Santa Fe has been her most memorable experience yet, the best is likely yet to come. In May, Jacquelyn will graduate with her Doctorate, then she, her husband Matthew Drye — also from Columbia — and their cat will move from Boston to London, where Jacquelyn will begin working at the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden. Surprisingly, this opportunity will provide the most normalcy to Jacquelyn’s life that she has had in quite some time. She will work an eight-hour day when she isn’t performing. 

“In the classical music world, you gig,” says Jacquelyn. “Maybe you spend three months in Barcelona, then you head to Cleveland for a week, then you’re off to someplace else. In London, I will be in the same place for two years. I will go to work like most people do, rehearsing during the day. I’m very excited to have a more normal daily routine in a place that is anything but normal!”

She is also excited for the immense opportunities being a part of the Royal Opera House will provide for her career. Jacquelyn will have the opportunity to sing on the main stage, not from the pit or from the side. In many cases, she will be singing comprimario roles or the supporting roles; in other cases, she will cover the lead roles and will sing on the main stage if a principal artist is indisposed.

And it all started right in Columbia. Jacquelyn believes the University of South Carolina is a hotbed for classical music and music culture. There are many talented classical musicians in Columbia who continue to share their talents with the Columbia community. 

Without question, Jacquelyn’s ardor for music and her strive for success have both led her to what will certainly be an accomplished career. It’s not without challenges, but she is blessed by tenacity and driven by a fierce desire to be the best and to fully embrace her talents. 

“Being successful is a combination of good guidance, having a good mentor who will encourage you and be supportive, having an awareness of what you like and how to cultivate it, and understanding that your voice may change over time,” says Jacquelyn. A small bit of that success could also be attributed to fate many years ago in that Dutch Fork classroom.