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Opera singer returns to his Sunburg roots

Lee and Carol Roisum have moved back to the farm homesteaded by his great-grandparents near Sunburg. The two enjoyed musical careers which allowed them to travel the world. Photo by Arlene Quam

Lee and Carol Roisum have moved back to the farm homesteaded by his great-grandparents near Sunburg. The two enjoyed musical careers which allowed them to travel the world. Photo by Arlene Quam

The old saying goes, “You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy.”

For Lee Roisum, the saying rings true. After living in New York City for many years and traveling the world with his opera singing career, he has returned home to the country life he grew up with in rural Sunburg. Lee and his wife, Carol, also a career vocalist, live south of Sunburg on a farm originally homesteaded by his great-grandparents.

Both Lee and Carol continue to sing, but they now do so in smaller venues. In April they performed at West Zion Lutheran Church near Starbuck and in May, they performed in Afternoon at the Opera with the Willmar Area Symphonic Orchestra.

While growing up, Lee’s talent went unnoticed. His mother and brother sang beautifully, and musical talent wasn’t lost on his sister Marit, who is the drama director at Melrose High School. But no one knew Lee could sing — until his senior year in high school.

“I couldn’t do anything else,” said Lee about his career choice. After high school he ventured to the Twin Cities. His first performing job was at the Edgewater Inn in north Minneapolis.

“That was exciting! Performing in front of people,” he said.

At Scheik’s (4th Avenue and 4th Street) of Minneapolis, he was a member of Scheik’s Sextet. Scheik’s show

Lee Roisum as Count di Luna (Il trovatore) at the Zurich Opera House. Contributed photo

Lee Roisum as Count di Luna (Il trovatore) at the Zurich Opera House. Contributed photo

changed every two weeks, so Lee sang in 143 different shows. Lee worked at several other Minnesota nightclubs, including the St. Paul House, Duluth’s 66 Club, and McGuire’s in Arden Hills. He also sang in Las Vegas and Florida nightclubs during those early years.

“My education was seven years in nightclubs,” he said. “I learned a lot. It was on-the-job training.”

After those years of singing in nightclubs and after hearing a Metropolitan Opera tour of Madam Butterfly, Lee felt the need to further explore and expand his talent. He moved from Clearwater, Fla., to New York City and tasted a good dose culture shock. “Getting situated was not an easy deal!”

He auditioned for Gibner King, a New York operatic coach, and studied with several coaches and conductors. At Julliard, he took voice lessons from Vincent La Selva, a well-known conductor and the founder of the New York Grand Opera.

“If you’re going to do big stuff, you’ve got to pay,” he said, “and you’ve got to work.”

To pay for the lessons and to get by, he drove taxi, ushered in theaters and continued singing in nightclubs. At Sign of the Dove, an exclusive New York City club, he was once heard by Howard Hughes’s secretary, which led to a gig at The Frontier, a Howard Hughes property on the Las Vegas strip. Back in New York City, Lee continued to study, practice, perform and work.

Maestro La Selva coached Lee in his first opera role, Enrico in Lucia di Lammermoor, which was performed in Central Park. Lee also performed for La Selva in other productions at the New York Grand Opera, Lincoln Center, Alice Tully Hall and Central Park.

Allan Kozinn of the New York Times had this to say about Lee’s performance in I Masnadieri, another La Selva summer Central Park performance: “Of the singers, Lee Roisum, the baritone who sang Francesco, brought the most power and polish to his role, both vocally and dramatically.”

Lee Roisum as the title role in William Tell in Lugano, Switzerland. Contributed photo

Lee Roisum as the title role in William Tell in Lugano, Switzerland. Contributed photo

Bill Zakariasen in the New York Daily News: “Easily the audience favorite was Lee Roisum in the role of Francesco. With his robust tones, suave phrasing and impressive stage presence, he did himself and Verdi full credit.”

As the star of Nabucco, Lee earned good ink in the New York Daily News from Bill Zakariasen, “Baritone Lee Roisum was a strong presence and voice of the Assyrian King Nabucco.”

“Bravo! Bravo!” came from the crowd after one of Lee’s performances. Conductor La Selva told Lee Roisum they must have really liked his performance. La Selva didn’t know Lee had asked 40 of his friends to come and BRAVO.

“They all do it,” he said.

Lee was working as an usher at the Metropolitan Opera House when Nello Santi, world -renowned Italian conductor, was conducting. One night Mrs. Nello Santi walked in with Rhett, a friend of Lee’s. Mrs. Santi commented to Rhett that Lee is nice and friendly. Rhett agreed and said, “Oh! You should hear him sing. He just sang the lead role of Nabucco.”

Mrs. Santi said to Lee, “Maybe you can send us a tape of your singing.” Lee told her that he doesn’t send tapes.

“Well, maybe you can sing for us.” At six o’clock the next evening, Lee auditioned for Maestro Santi in the orchestra room of the Metropolitan Opera.

“What you sing first?” asked Santi.

Lee Roisum in quieter times with his horse, Moon on his farm near Sunburg. Photo by Arlene Quam

Lee Roisum in quieter times with his horse, Moon on his farm near Sunburg. Photo by Arlene Quam

“Well, Maestro, I know Cortigiani from Rigoletto or Pagliacci. I’ll sing Rigoletto.” After Lee sang, Maestro Santi, who speaks very little English, went over musical terms with Lee. “He wanted to know if I could understand his coaching.”

“What else do you have?” he said.

Lee sang the Pagliacci prologue. Lee felt the audition went well. Again Maestro Santi went over musical phrases.

Maestro Santi then went upstairs to conduct the night’s performance; Lee went upstairs to usher. In the cafeteria on his break, Lee saw Rhett. “Hey Rhett, what did they think?”

“They said, ‘We couldn’t believe it!’”

A month later Maestro Santi telephoned Lee. “I have a new premier of Il trovatore.” The opera was performed at the Zurich Opera House.

Lee Roisum was on his way.

“Nello Santi brought me into the big time,” he said.

In Tokyo, he played Ford in Falstaff and earned good print once again. Genri Nakagawa in Tokyo Metropolitan Art Space said, “Lee Roisum as Ford was ‘bravissimo.’”

Among the roles Lee played in Rome Amonasro in Adia at the Tunis Roman Theater. It was televised. Along with other cast members, every night he passed the Coliseum as he rode with Maestro Santi in a limousine on his way to work. “But I was the only one from Sunburg.”

The first time in Rome, he was in the second cast, which meant he did not get any rehearsal. “I had to watch the baritone — had to watch what he did — and had to remember every move he made.”

Another first in Rome was his learning the meaning of “claque,” a group of people paid to applaud a performer (and not boo).

“In Italy, it’s a big deal. Maestro Santi told us, ‘You must pay the claque so they don’t boo you.’” Lee paid the group.

According to Lee, all roles are difficult. Preparing for a role takes about two months. “You study every note, every word, every meaning, the background of character, staging, every mood, every move, thought and look.”

In La Boheme, Lee played Marcello. He also met his wife, Carol Welker, who starred in the show.

Lee describes Carol’s talent. They were living in New York. “They called Carol from the Roanoke, Virginia, opera. ‘Could you sing Desdemona in Otello? The soprano is sick, and we’re singing tonight. Could we fly you to Roanoke this morning, you sing in the pit, and the other soprano could mouth the words?’ The conductor met her at the airport. It was a tremendous success.”

On the flight home the next day, Carol happened to see a fellow passenger’s newspaper headline saying a stand-in saved the performance. Seth Williamson’s review in the Roanoke Times & World News said: “Stand-in a champion in Otello premiere…but it was Desdemona’s ‘Willow Song’ and ‘Ava Maria’ in Act IV that were the high points of this production. Welker’s tender and delicate reading had a rich poignance.”

During a performance of La Traviata in Tokyo, the unexpected happened… Lee forgot the script.

“I made up the words for the whole second act! You can’t stop. There’s 110 people in the orchestra, and they were taping it for TV.” The conductor knew what Lee was doing. “And they’re still playing it on TV!”

Besides stage performances, Lee starred in a movie of Rossini’s opera William Tell. Maestro Santi and Lee attended the premier in Zurich.

Lee has performed on concert and operatic stages in Cairo, Hong Kong, Korea, Bangkok, Dubai, Japan, France, Rome and Istanbul to name a few. In Kazakhstan he performed in concert with the Bolshevik Ballet.

Lee Roisum went far from the farm south of Sunburg, Minn., where he sang while driving a “B” John Deere during haying; far from where he said he was “overworked” because he both picked and packed the eggs; far from Kandiyohi Country School District #54, where he could never rank lower than third in his class; and far from Kerkhoven High School, where he was once kicked out of choir for mischief. “It was nothing bad,” said Lee.

He also went far from the Norway Lake Lakers baseball team, who lost the Corn Belt League Championship to the Benson Chiefs. Willard Rigstad, for whom Sunburg’s baseball field is named, once told Lee, “If you could hit as well as you can field, you’d be in the major leagues, but you have a hole in your bat.” He admitted his shortcomings at the plate, but did mention he got four hits in the championship game. Lee showed the team photo.

Lee may have met and dined with some of the rich and famous. However, given the choice to invite anyone living or dead, it is his friends and neighbors who he’d invite for dinner.

Lee is an excellent cook, but, as with most, that wasn’t always true. When working as a waitress, Carol received a call from Lee in which he asked how to prepare a certain dish. Carol handed the phone to the chef, who gave Lee instructions. Back on the phone, Carol asked if he understood it all. Lee replied, “Yes, but what does sauté mean?”

Lee went far, but returned to the farm and Minnesota. It was always in the plan. Restoration of the 1886 house built by his great-grandparents has given Lee and Carol a charming place on the farm they call home, which they share with Moon, Lee’s recently acquired thoroughbred, as well as Frisky and BooBoo, their two rescue cats.

They love their time on the farm, and they love to perform. Lee and Carol will continue to perform for opera, operetta, sacred and musical theater concerts as well as offer vocal coachings and master classes.

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