Hitting the highest Notes

Houston-trained rising star makes history in Broadway's longest-running show

Houston-trained star makes history in Broadway's longest-running show

Kanisha Feliciano Broadway
Feliciano as Christine in Phantom of the Opera Photo by Greg Mills

Rice student Kanisha Feliciano made history this week in one of Broadway's biggest hits. In New York City for the summer as an understudy, Feliciano was called on Monday, June 27 to sing the role of Christine Daaé in Phantom of the Opera, making her the first Latina to sing the iconic role on Broadway.

Feliciano, who identifies as Latina and Black, shared the milestone on Instagram, noting that she's also only the second Black performer to sing the role on the Great White Way. Bonus fact: Kanisha's understudying for Emilie Kouatchou, who is the first.

"I mean, I know it's a cliche, but it was a dream come true," the 26-year-old tells CultureMap. "A dream come true-slash-fever dream. There was a moment where I thought, surely this isn't happening? That I was on stage in these iconic costumes, with these amazing performers. And the audience was sold out, and they were so incredibly kind and generous and electric."

Phantom fans will recall that the character of Christine finds herself in similar circumstances in the show. Plucked from the ballet chorus after the opera's star soprano walks out, Christine steps on stage in the starring role and completely wows the audience, becoming the toast of Paris, and the center of a love triangle between a wealthy vicomte and the obsessive, mysterious Phantom.

"I remember seeing Phantom in the sixth grade," Feliciano recalls. "That was right when I was starting to get into music and I remember learning all the songs and singing along to to them, knowing this is what I wanted to do. And [Monday night] there was a moment in 'Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again' that I thought about that little girl in the sixth grade seeing the show for the first time and thinking, I hope I made her proud." She takes a breath. "I'm emotional right now, just saying that."

So, how did this Houston student from Quakertown, Pennsylvania find her way into the longest-running show on Broadway?

"I first auditioned for Phantom last summer," she explains. "They put out an open casting call online."

The show was casting someone for the Christine alternate, who would sing two shows each week of Phantom's eight-show schedule. Feliciano found out later that more than 4,000 women auditioned for the role. Feliciano was called back twice, then flown to New York for an in-person audition.

In the end, she was one of two women considered for the role; the role would go to Kouatchou, who is now the show's principal Christine.

"But the team said to me, 'Please audition again,' and I told them, 'I completely understand. This is a dream job. This is a dream role. If you call, I'll be there."

Disappointment aside, Feliciano took it in stride, and picked up where she left off in her studies at Rice, where she worked with Nova Thomas. She earned a bachelor of music from Westminster Choir College and her master of music in vocal performance from the University of Houston Moores School of Music, after which she enrolled in Rice's Shepherd School of Music, pursuing an artist diploma. The post-masters degree program is designed for artists focusing on performance careers at the highest levels.

"There is an over-saturation in the industry of sopranos," she notes. "There are so many talented women who are incredibly qualified and incredible musicians. I enrolled in Rice to work out some things I had noticed in my technique and to get a competitive edge."

The program at Rice not only offered solid music training, it also gave her flexibility.

"While they're training you for that next step in your career, and how to make the transition from a student to a working musician, they encourage you to get gigs," she said in an interview for Rice News last year.

One of those gigs was auditioning for the role of Ann in Flying Over Sunset. The musical, with a book by Broadway legend James Lapine (who also directed), music by Pulitzer, Tomy, Emmy and Grammy winner Tom Kitt, and lyrics by Tony nominee Michael Korie, is set in Hollywood in the 1950s, where Clare Boothe Luce, Cary Grant, and Aldous Huxley are hanging out at beach house, on an acid. trip. Feliciano's character, Luce's daughter, forces them to face things about themselves they'd prefer to forget. The Wall Street Journal called the show "an irresistible trip worth taking."

Her agent told her about the project, following Feliciano's failed Phantom audition. After her first audition for Flying Over Sunset, she immediately received a callback with the music director.

"Two days later, I had a callback with James Lapine," she says. "And he hired me on the spot! It was a Zoom interview. What a weird thing," she paused. "What a weird thing."

The musical marked Feliciano's Broadway and Lincoln Center debuts.

"I was like a cartoon character," she says. "I was just so happy to be doing this."

She was doing it with some of Broadway's heaviest hitters, too, onstage alongside Carmen Cusack, Tony Yazbek, and Harry Hadden-Paton. Flying Over Sunset opened last October and closed back in January, and Feliciano once again came back to Houston to continue her program at Rice. 

Feliciano, a trained opera singer, is not stranger to musical theatre. She performed in Carousel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and Hair with Westminster Players. With Phantom, however, the role called for an artist who'd been classically trained. As she's understudying the role of Christine, she also has a role in the show, as Page in Don Juan Triumphant, the opera written by the Phantom that occurs in the Phantom's second act. Performing in the show has been tremendous for the young artist.

"When I tell you the JOY I felt this Monday night. What an honor and privilege to accomplish one of my dreams with so m any people I adore alongside me," she wrote on her Instagram on Wednesday, June 29. 

While she may have made history in Phantom, she's already a seasoned performer with a string of awards, including a 2019 Metropolitan Opera National Council Encouragement Award and a 2018-2019 Gilbert & Sullivan Society Vocal Excellence Award. At the Moores Opera Center, she sang the role of Baby Doe in The Ballard of Baby Doe, Elvira in L'italiana in Algeri, and Norina in Don Pasquale. She also sang the roles of Amy in Little Women and Blonde in Die Entführung, and the role of Polly in Operativo's world premiere of Measure of Love

She chose Houston for her advanced studies because the Moores school offered multiple opportunities for performing each year, and because "all of the major competitions come to Houston for auditions." Audiences may not realize it, but singers are responsible financially for much more than just their education and vocal lessons. If they want to audition or they want to be part of big vocal competitions like the ones offered by the Metropolitan Opera, they're responsible for flying themselves to audition and often hiring their own pianists. Feliciano admitted that she never had a typical college experience, working retail and odd jobs to save money to be able to do all of that. It's part of what makes her experience now so sweet.

Following her debut as Christine, Feliciano is back in the Phantom ensemble, loving every minute of it. Later this month, she heads to Sacramento, California for three weeks to play the role of Lily in the Marsha Norman-Lucy Simon musical The Secret Garden

"There's nothing more fun than learning a new role," she says. "What am I going to find out next about my voice, about my acting abilities?"

And when she's finished there, she'll be back on Broadway with her Phantom castmates. She won't however, be returning to Rice. The artist diploma is designed to be completed in three years, so singers may only take two semesters off, before having to withdraw.

Feliciano knows withdrawing from the program is bittersweet, but she knows she's been well prepared and says her instruction there has "inspired" her as she steps into her future as a professional artist.

"I just feel so very fortunate," she says. "And so incredibly lucky."