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New Voice Professor Traveled, Performed for Years

Instead of landing at Stetson University, voice professor Karen Coker Merritt could have landed 80 miles south of campus – as a rocket scientist at Kennedy Space Center.

Karen Coker Merritt

Stetson voice professor Karen Coker Merritt is pictured in Lee Chapel in Elizabeth Hall, where she will perform her debut faculty recital at 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 4.

Merritt’s father was an organist and choir master, so she grew up in North Carolina in “a very musical household” and she often sang in community theater, church and local concerts.

However, when she took those aptitude tests in high school “that tell you what you are good at and what you should be – boy, music was not high on the list,” Merritt said. “I was scoring high in the sciences, so I decided literally that I wanted to be a rocket scientist.”

But in college, Merritt scrapped her aerospace career and turned to music. Her newfound path as a soprano led her to eight years performing opera in England, Italy and New York City before she turned to teaching. Merritt joined the Stetson music faculty in August. She will perform her debut recital at 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 4, in Lee Chapel in Elizabeth Hall, with accompaniment by piano professor Michael Rickman.

Merritt entered Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, as a pre-engineering major, with plans to transfer later to the aerospace engineering program at the University of Colorado.

“I spent one semester in that major and I just knew, ‘These aren’t my people,’” Merritt said. “I liked the subject matter, but it just felt wrong.”

Her older brother had majored in music, but “he had really struggled with the academic part of it, music theory in particular,” Merritt said. “He kind of scared me about it.”

During spring of her freshman year, Merritt inquired with the Appalachian State music faculty to discover “what this music theory is all about.” They informed her the beginning course was not open to non-music majors.

“But they said, ‘Hey, you want to try that out for semester?’” Merritt recalled. “I said, ‘Well, maybe.’”

She auditioned by singing soprano solos from Handel’s “The Messiah” and Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors” – solos she had performed prior to college.

Goodbye, rocket science.

“They said, ‘Congratulations, you’ve been accepted and here’s your curriculum,’” Merritt said. “It was this whirlwind. I was like, ‘I didn’t mean for this to happen!’ But it did. I loved music theory actually and I knew those were my people. I embraced it and never looked back.”

Merritt transferred to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where she also earned her master’s in music in 2000.

She made her professional operatic debut with the Baltimore Opera in 2003, then performed extensively in England and at the Ravenna Festival in Italy. In New York City, she performed in oratorio, recital and concert engagements, and she starred as Rosalinda in Opera New York’s Off-Broadway production of “Tales from the Manhattan Woods.”

But Merritt again found herself at a crossroads.

“I had been performing for about eight years — I loved performing,” she said. “But it dawned on me that I was never going to have a home if I was really successful at this. Relationships were very hard to maintain. I was never going to have a dog.

“I thought ‘I’m the luckiest girl in the world.’ Most of my friends at that point were clawing their way up to be able to do what I was doing. But I still wasn’t happy,” she said. “I wasn’t cut out for hotel living 365 days a year. I didn’t know how big that domestic part of me was that wanted to settle down.”

Merritt contemplated a career in teaching, but she also “was tired of being broke,” she said laughingly.

So, goodbye music.

She considered going for an M.B.A. or a law degree even as she landed a job as a legal secretary at “a big law firm, to see what the lawyer life was like.” Merritt was out of music for a year.

“I saw indeed how wealthy they were and indeed how miserable they were,” she said. “No one had time to spend their money and they kind of lived at the office. I thought ‘That’s not the life I want either. No, it is music.’ It was just a huge absence in my life.”

With teaching her goal, Merritt was accepted into the doctoral program at Florida State University in 2009.

During her doctorate work, Merritt encountered “another twist of fate” – she met her husband-to-be, Gregory, a Tallahassee veterinarian.

They married, had a son and moved to Mount Dora, Gregory’s hometown, so that he could open a clinic there. Then a full-time position opened at Stetson.

Michael Rickman, Stetson University

Michael Rickman, D.M.

Michael Rickman, Stetson professor of piano and Merritt’s accompanist for her debut recital, said he was “smitten upon first hearing her singing during her interview/audition process, demonstrating such clarity in sound and communication, as well as a demeanor of total confidence.

“She has proven herself to be an amiable colleague, empathetic, totally engaged in the mission of Stetson’s School of Music, a true team player. It is a joy and rich artistic endeavor to be collaborating with her — an artist of intelligence, musical intuitiveness and elan.”

“I now have the best of both worlds,” Merritt said. “There are amazing performing opportunities here. And I have the husband, the baby, the house, the dog and a full-time job and a life full of music. I feel very, very lucky.”

Merritt’s recital will include works by Mozart, Ravel, Britten, Debussy and others.

– Rick de Yampert