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Friday, June 9, 2023

Singer who gave up football for opera stepping up to fill big shoes at The Sharon

It’s time for the back-up to take on a starting role in the big show – we’re talking opera, not football.

Ashley Thunder gave up football for opera. On Saturday – the day before the Super Bowl – she will step on The Sharon stage to substitute for one of greatest sopranos in modern times.

Ashley Thunder played pro football before becoming an opera singer
Ashley Thunder

Aprile Millo is to opera what Tom Brady is to football. She was dubbed “a diva who once ruled the Met” by the New York Times. She appeared in television concerts with Plácido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti.

Millo was scheduled for a guest star appearance at the “Three Tenors Plus One” benefit concert, Saturday at 3 and 7 p.m. in The Sharon. It benefits The Opera Club of The Villages.

The starting line-up of tenors: Fernando Varela, Devin Eatmon and John McVeigh. Maestro Bill Doherty will also appear.

Fernando Varela will lead the three tenors
Fernando Varela will lead the three tenors.

Varela is the internationally known singer who works and tours with Grammy Award winner David Foster. Varela started his singing career in The Villages.

So did Devin Eatmon, a former winner of an Opera Club scholarship, who went to high school here and graduated from Florida State University. He has long been a Villages’ favorite.

Devin Eatmon is one of the three tenors
Devin Eatmon is one of the three tenors.

John McVeigh has appeared at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, and stages throughout the world.

Millo was set to sing with the tenors until this weekend. She called Geraldine Piscitelli – president of the Opera Club – to tell her she tested positive for Covid and is in quarantine for the next week.

“This is devastating news for me and opera fans in The Villages,” Piscitelli said. “Dame Aprile had been planning this event since September. She looked forward to seeing her friends and fans who were coming from other parts of Florida to see her.”

Ashley Thunder on stage at Savannah Center will appear here on Saturday in The Three Tenors Plus One concert in The Sharon
Ashley Thunder will appear here on Saturday in The Three Tenors Plus One concert in The Sharon

One of those fans was Ashley Thunder, who will now take her place. “When I started studying opera, I watched Aprile’s DVD performances with the Metropolitan Opera,” Thunder said. “She has such a memorable voice and stage presence.
“When I found out she was coming to The Villages I was floored. I was ecstatic that I would be able to see her sing live.”
Then, suddenly, Thunder found out she would have to take Millo’s place.

“It’s very exciting, but first of all, I want to say how much we all really love Aprile,” Thunder said. “We all want her to get better. I can’t replace Aprile. But I hope I can do her justice.”
This has been a time of change for Thunder, who lives near Tampa and sings with the St. Pete Opera. She and her husband, Barry, in June became parents to a baby girl named Grace.
Change is nothing new for Thunder. Before dedicating herself to opera, she played defensive back in a women’s professional football league. She earned an athletic scholarship to Ohio Dominican University, where she played tennis.

Thunder studied opera in Tampa and Bill Doherty brought her to The Villages a few years ago and worked with her.

“I was nervous and anxious when I sang in The Villages – it was my first big aria — singing live,” she said after her debut here in 2018. “The people in The Villages have been great to me.

“I owe so much to Maestro Bill Doherty for the chances he has given me,”  Thunder added. “He is so passionate about opera.”

Doherty believes in her talent.

He describes her  voice as “lyrico spinto soprano.” It’s a soprano voice that can hit easy high notes but can also be “pushed” to achieve what Doherty calls, “dramatic climaxes without strain.”

“It’s a rare voice type and can be very exciting to hear,” Doherty said. “Moreover, Ashley is such an amazing presence on stage. She is a remarkable talent.”

Last year, it was Thunder who sang in the “Three Tenors” at The Sharon. “I didn’t mind at all not singing this year when they told me Aprile was coming here,” Thunder said. “Now, I will just do my best to honor her.”

And on Sunday, Thunder and her husband will be watching  the Philadelphia Eagles take on the Kansas City Chiefs in the Super Bowl.
“My husband is from the Philadelphia area,” Thunder said. “He loves the Eagles. But I have a hard time rooting against a player as great as Patrick Mahomes. He’s amazing. It should be a great game.”
And a memorable “Three Tenors Plus One” concert.

Tony Violanti covers arts and music for Villages-News.com. He was inducted into the Buffalo NY Music Hall of Fame as a music journalist.

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