When Doc Severinsen and His Big Band take the stage at McCain Auditorium Sunday evening, they will be joined by former K-State student Vanessa (Thompson) Thomas.
Thomas graduated from Clay Center Community High School in 1994 and attended K-State the following year. But finding herself undecided about the direction she was headed, Thomas moved to New York City, where she worked for a year as an au pair for Joseph Volpe, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera.
Thomas was interested in a career in opera and it was an opportunity to attend performances at Lincoln Center and experience the activities that swirled around the Metropolitan Opera.
Thomas returned to Kansas, graduated from KU and began a varied musical career that has included performing in the World Premier of Kirke Mechem’s opera “John Brown” with Lyric Opera Kansas City. Thomas has also sung with Lyric Opera Express of Kansas City.
When she isn’t singing opera, Thomas is an accompanist and assists with choir at Free State High School in Lawrence.
So how did she land on stage in a multi-city tour with Doc Severinsen?
In 2010 a group of musicians from around the country were part of a 99th birthday celebration for Pauline Snodgrass of Clay Center.
Thomas was rehearsing an aria with New York-based pianist Roger Rundle who is also a Clay Center native. Nearby, Severinsen was practicing and had a chance to hear Thomas singing a big band number, “Orange Colored Sky.”
“Doc asked if I could do Christmas songs and I sang maybe 10 songs for him after I did my number. He asked if I would be interested in singing as part of “Jingle Bell Doc,” an annual Christmas event he does with the Minnesota Orchestra in Minneapolis,” said Thomas.
Thomas was part of “Jingle Bell Doc in both 2010 and 2011. Then Severinsen asked her to join the band for the current tour.
Thomas has nothing but praise regarding growing up in a small town in Kansas.
“C. L. Snodgrass and Ken Lang were my high school music teachers and I couldn’t have had a better music program to grow in no matter where I was from,” she said.
Snodgrass and Lang have both retired from public school teaching but Lang is involved with the Little Apple Barbershop Chorus and Snodgrass continues to teach private lessons in Manhattan and Clay Center.
As for working with Severinsen, Thomas said, “ It is totally fun. He’s a great guy with boundless energy. He’s 84, but it’s unbelievable because he’s so musically creative.
“He’s brilliant and yet down to earth.”
Thomas will do vocal solos during the show including “Singing in Rain,” “When You Are Smiling” and an arrangement of “Mood Indigo” done by noted arranger Jay Chattaway with whom Severinsen made it possible for her to work.
As for the whole experience of doing big band numbers, Thomas said,“It has infused both my jazz career and my opera career.”
Thomas said she is looking at the possibility of doing a concert version of “Porgy and Bess” and considering other opportunities that have come up in both genres that she didn’t have previously.