BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Lyric Soprano Lisa Rogers Lee began her musical career at three, creating songs about Cinderella when she couldn’t read the hymn books in church, singing them loudly in a delightful voice. My Fair Lady’s Eliza Doolittle replaced Cinderella as a favorite character, one Lisa would perform as an adult, during a prodigious career that would see her soloing across the country from the Milwaukee Symphony and The Bach Babes in Milwaukee to Walla Walla Baroque, The Seattle Choral Company, and The Pacific Northwest Ballet.
Since moving to Chicago, she has delighted audiences here at The William Ferris Chorale to frequent solo performances. But it is not only the Chorale audiences who are appreciative of Lisa’s talents, but the Episcopalians and their friends who have heard her sing in the choirs of their churches – and events benefitting social service organizations across the city – who adore her.
As wife of Jeffrey Lee, Bishop of the Diocese of Chicago, Lisa felt that a gift she could share would be singing in the choir of the churches that the Bishop visits across the large Diocese each Sunday.
“The Episcopal Diocese of Chicago stretches from the Wisconsin border to Warsaw in the south, and from the Mississippi to Lake Michigan. It takes three years to visit each of the 125 churches. Everyone was so gracious and hospitable, I loved singing in all those choirs and being a part of so many worshiping communities. I now am a part of the Choir at St. James Cathedral.”
Bishop Lee is one of Lisa’s many fans:
“Lisa has such a clear and lyrical voice that really makes you want to listen. She steps lightly on top of every note. She has tried to teach me to chant but we can’t keep straight faces.”
Lisa describes how she can vary her voice for the wide range of music she is asked to perform:
“I like to play with the colors of my voice. I enjoy singing in French and making the colors warmer for that. I love giving recitals, sometimes two classical a year. I enjoy cabaret and musical theater as well. Renee Fleming is my role model. She has such authenticity and makes opera accessible to the public.”
In addition to her musical performances, Lisa has been deeply involved in sustainability. She chaired the Bishop’s Task force on the subject for four years. The Lees moved to Chicago, where composting and recycling were priorities.
“Each church in the Diocese learned to be more energy-oriented. Most have limited budgets. By reducing energy costs through sustainable alternatives, they were able to save money while caring for Creation. We talked about not spending money to do things, but to instead develop resources for funding critical changes in their communities. We also talked about food justice and how churches can create their own gardens. We got the attention of the White House and spoke there about our programs.”
Another Diocesan initiative is planning programs for Clergy spouses:
“When we came, there were no programs for spouses. We have now had three retreats for our spouses. They are young and old, male and female, gay, straight – a wonderful diversity. We pray for everyone on each other’s prayer lists.”
When the Lees lived in Seattle prior to moving to Chicago, Lisa worked as a special education teacher for 13 years.
“I worked with high-risk students of all ages, many with autism. I also worked with high school students, many of whom had seen the inside of the criminal justice system. I remember a child with autism and significant developmental delays, who could not speak, but for whom music, be it opera or ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ would always be calming.”
The Lees have two children, Katherine, an interior architect, and Jonathan, a photographer.
Her work in Seattle was close – and remains close – to heart:
“Jonathan is on the autism spectrum. His photographs have appeared in several art shows. He volunteers at PAWS and often drives vans of pets that have been saved.”
Lisa currently teaches singing to twelve students, ages 34-72.
“I am teaching the whole body, not just the larynx. In my studio, I draw from the disciplines of yoga, Feldenkrais, and the Alexander Technique. The psyche also plays a major role. If you have a bad week, it can definitely become a voice issue as well. For people who think that they can’t match pitch, I ask if their mother sang to them as a baby. Often I hear that they didn’t. Or they may have been told in school to just mouth the words. People really can learn to sing.”
We saw on her Facebook page, “Voice for the Whole Singer,” the following advice:
“If you practice, you get better.
If you get better, you sing with better singers.
If you sing with better singers, you sing better music.
If you sing better music, you have more fun.
If you have more fun, you practice more.
If you practice more, you get better…..”
Just speaking with Lisa and hearing her encouraging advice, we felt ready to carry a tune. We were so lucky to catch her before she left for a retreat of Bishops’ spouses in Oklahoma.
“Through my singing and my life as the Bishop’s wife, I have had so many wonderful opportunities, meeting such diverse people with a common faith. I have traveled to meetings of the Houses of Bishops, to Israel, Ecuador, and to our companion diocese of Southeast Mexico.”
One of Lisa’s favorite memories from the more distant past was closer to home, however: falling asleep at night, listening to her mother practice Debussy and Ravel on the family piano:
“As an adult my mother accompanied me and it was as if we were one. I now have her Bosendorfer piano from Austria, which is made entirely of spruce. Concert venues used to provide Bosendorfers to Franz Liszt, chosen because he was so hard on them. They wouldn’t break because they were spruce.”
Just as formidable as this Chicagoan’s talent and capacity for care, we believe.