Catherine McNeela, Head of Elon’s Music Theatre Program, Shares Her Passion In and Out of the Classroom

By Carolyn VanBrocklin

Walk into the Center for the Arts and say only the name. People will know exactly who you’re referring to. As coordinator of the music theater program, professor and voice coach Catherine McNeela stays in the spotlight.

Catherine McNeela as legendary opera diva Maria Callas, in the Heritage Theatre Festival’s presentation of "Master Class." Photo courtesy of University of Virginia Heritage Theatre Festival.

Catherine McNeela as legendary opera diva Maria Callas, in the Heritage Theatre Festival’s presentation of "Master Class." Photo courtesy of University of Virginia Heritage Theatre Festival.

McNeela has been a member of Elon’s music theater department since its beginning, playing a significant role in its development. In addition to her directing roles, which include the recent “Phantom of the Opera” and “Sweeney Todd,” McNeela also performed in Elon’s production of “The Glass Menagerie.”

Performance has been part of McNeela’s life since her childhood, when she would produce plays in her back yard. One summer, when she was nine years old, she produced “Peter Pan” and “South Pacific” with her neighbors and sister as performers. McNeela served multiple roles as director, lead, choreographer and costume designer.

“It’s funny to me that here I am (at Elon) doing the same thing I always did,” McNeela said. “Only this time I don’t have to be all of those people.”

‘Something fun that we did’

McNeela attended the College of Wooster in Ohio, where she studied classical music and theater. In her free time, McNeela was part of a folk-rock band Catamirapè S.K.  As lead singer and occasional tambourine player, she toured the country playing the college circuit.

Her time in the band taught her a lot about performing.

“It was a great experience and I still keep in touch with everybody in the band,” McNeela said.

After graduating from Wooster, McNeela entered graduate school at the University of Michigan. Here she enhanced her vocal performance and theater skills before joining the world of professional performing.

Wonderful opportunities

Performing awarded McNeela many opportunities to travel. For two summers she performed in the chorus of the “International Opera Festival,” in the Canary Islands. Singing also led her to Russia, Finland, Denmark, Germany, Poland and Hungary. While in New York, McNeela performed as an actress, singer and dancer in shows such as “Kiss Me Kate,” “The Rainmaker” and “Carnival.”

McNeela looks on as students describe their experiences in the music theatre program.

McNeela looks on as students describe their experiences in the music theatre program.

Before coming to Elon, McNeela also worked in Illinois Wesleyan University’s music theater program. A former colleague working at Elon continually asked McNeela to join the faculty, and he approached her in early August, just weeks before the semester started.

At the time, she was performing in a play in upstate New York and was hesitant about taking the job.  Her fellow performers encouraged her to take a chance. Thinking back on one of her influential college classes helped McNeela decide.

“I thought, ‘If you can affect one person the way (the professor) affected my life, you will have made the right choice,’” McNeela said. “I still think about it to this day.”

Blooming where you’re planted

One of McNeela’s favorite phrases is “Bloom where you’re planted.” She believes she has certainly blossomed in North Carolina.

McNeela considers herself incredibly blessed to be doing what she loves so much and she considers the musical theater program her “baby.”

“I’ve gotten to see it grow and to really be thought of in the industry as one of the top music programs in the country,” she said. “This is my home now and my program. I’m going to see it through until I go off to the old ladies’ home. It really gives me so much joy every day.”

One of McNeela’s proudest moments was when she was the recipient of the Daniels-Danieley Teaching Award for Excellence in Teaching.

“It was a total surprise that day,” McNeela said. “My acceptance speech was filled with tears, but I was proud because I made a big radical change in my career. One day I was on the Upper West Side and the next day I was here to start the musical theater program.”

‘Incredible shining light’

Sophomore John Yi has served as McNeela’s assistant.  He sees her as an exemplary leader and his “mom away from home.”

“She encourages you to follow your passions, because it will ultimately bring you to the success you were meant to have,” Yi said.

“From the baby steps they take in class voice lessons and rehearsals, to the giant leaps when they are free and willing to risk and try.  It is so rewarding as a teacher to get to see it every single day,” McNeela said.

Junior Christopher Wood has worked with McNeela on productions such as the “Phantom of the Opera” and “Sweeney Todd.”

McNeela addresses high school students looking to enter Elon's musical theatre program.

McNeela addresses high school students looking to enter Elon's musical theatre program.

“My favorite thing about Cathy is that she gets so excitable when she is watching people perform,” Wood said. “It’s almost like another smaller show is going on in the audience because she makes the best faces and takes the journey of the song with the actor, unless it isn’t right. Then she makes a different kind of face.”

Alumna Allison Spratt is currently working in an off-Broadway production.

“Elon, and any other program for that matter, does not prepare you exactly for what you face in the real world of music theater,” Spratt said. “And that is what life is about. Not just auditioning or who you work with, or performing or getting rejected or getting hired. It’s about the steps that get you through and to each one. And incredible shining lights like Cathy McNeela make it a beautiful ride.”

Watch Catherine McNeela share her best life advice, and advice she gives to her students:

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One Response

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