Larry LaRue

Larry LaRue: Young Tacoma opera singer ‘makes an impression’ with powerful voice

Zoe Mix wasn’t as much a child prodigy as a ham with an incredible voice.

“I’ve always been pretty dramatic, and I loved singing show tunes,” she said. “The year after I started voice lessons, my friend Bailey Coates and I did a small production of ‘Cats.’”

They made their debut in Tacoma – complete with cat costumes – at the Anna Lemon Wheelock Library. They were both 11.

Now 19, Zoe (Zo-ee) has put aside her whiskers but not her voice, and moved from Broadway hits to another medium – opera.

A Wilson High School graduate, she’s on summer break from her freshman year studying at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. She had the chops to land a part-time job at Europa Bistro in Tacoma’s Proctor District, busing tables.

Owner Alfredo Russo said she helps out with dishes and tables, but that’s not what he hired Zoe to do.

“Two or three times a night on Fridays and Saturdays, I’ll introduce her and she’ll sing an aria,” Russo said. “People love it. She’s got a powerful voice, and she makes an impression.”

Zoe landed the gig before she even got home from college, thanks to her unofficial manager – and father – Ben Mix.

“He’s also her stage manager and chauffeur,” said Zoe’s mother, Susan.

It was Ben who urged his daughter to take advantage of singing lessons through the University of Puget Sound’s community music program when she was 10. It was there she met a teacher and mentor, Christina Kowalski.

Kowalski had a serious resume, a German-born singer whose opera career took her to stages across Germany and the Northwest. She not only taught through the community music program, she also joined the UPS faculty in 2005.

“Zoe could have been a child star with Disney or something with her abilities, but that’s not what she wanted,” Kowalski said. “I never had the feeling she didn’t know what she wanted to do. She has great talent – acting ability and a great voice.”

A soprano, Zoe learned early that opera wasn’t just about the voice.

“When you get a part, you have to breathe life into a character that’s already there on the page,” Zoe said. “You have to be physically fit, have a great voice and a stage presence and if helps if you can dance.

“Opera isn’t about standing on the stage and singing. Opera is about people trying to pursue the highest art – a combination of dancing, sculpture, visual arts and music. It’s about trying to make something beautiful.”

After graduating from Wilson, Zoe and her parents looked at the collegiate landscape and, specifically, opera programs. There were schools and conservatories in the United States, but they were hugely expensive.

Zoe had an advantage – her father.

“My dad was born in Manitoba, and I have dual citizenship in the U.S. and Canada,” she said. “The University of British Columbia has a great opera program and with Canadian citizenship, it was affordable. It was the only school I applied to.”

After singing the past nine years, Zoe is looking into a double major of opera and creative writing.

“I love writing and thought it was time to bring in something else,” she said. “I’m not just an opera singer. I might want to write an opera. I’m taking a libretto and lyrics class.”

What would her opera be about?

“The aboriginal people of Canada are a gold mine of storytelling and heartbreak, an example of the human condition,” Zoe said.

For now, she will focus on her summer career as a singing busgirl.

“She has a gift,” mother Susan said. “It certainly didn’t come from me - I can’t sing at all. I’ve grown to appreciate what she does and how determined she is. Only 4 per cent of opera singers make it to sing professionally, but there are other options.

“She could teach opera.”

A former Daffodil princess, Zoe is leaving those options open.

“Opera can be tough,” Kowalski said, “especially here in the United States. One option for her would be Europe. I’ve watched her grow up, and she’s special. Zoe understands hard work and commitment.”

And she has a fallback.

“I think I still have those ‘Cats’ costumes around here some place,” Zoe said.