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thedrifter
07-20-07, 12:15 PM
Voice carries Marine from sand to stage
By Lee Hill Kavanaugh - The Associated Press
Posted : Friday Jul 20, 2007 7:49:59 EDT

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Just weeks after he graduated in 1999 from Lee’s Summit High School, Richard Gibson became a Marine.

Sent to Bahrain as an anti-terrorism specialist protecting Defense Department personnel, the young Marine soon found himself fighting a depression common to the newly deployed. All around him was sand and ugliness, heat that took his breath away, and sameness. Lots of sameness.

Older Marines advised him to tap into memories of good times.

And that’s when the thoughts began saturating his mind. In high school, he sang in nine choirs. He sang in musicals. Once he even sang in Carnegie Hall in New York City. He loved standing on a stage and entertaining an audience. He listened to operas with his dad, Hugo, who sang three seasons with a professional opera company in South Africa.

He always really liked to sing. The insight hit him hard. He had not entertained the idea before; he always thought he’d probably become a chiropractor like his father.

But the dream gained strength.

Days later, a group of guys in his Bahrain barracks — all Notre Dame fans — were bummed because they wanted to hear “Danny Boy” but didn’t have a recording. Gibson nervously offered them a free performance.

It was a moment he still remembers. Standing there in the barracks among the cots and duffle bags were dozens of his fellow Marines, waiting. Some grinning. Some skeptical. Some mildly curious that this corporal might dare to sing.

Gibson sang it the best he could, trying to bring life into the song that touched so many.

“I put my heart into it,” he says.

And there in the desert, Gibson earned a new nickname: The Voice.

He sang a lot at the base and once performed the national anthem on a Navy ship. He sang at retirement ceremonies, medal ceremonies, visiting-dignitary ceremonies while in the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines.

When Gibson opened his mouth, people listened. Sometimes they even grew teary-eyed. No one teased him about it. Instead, they asked him to sing more, even waking him at his cot to sing. Some peers forgot his last name, knowing him only as The Voice.

In 2003, The Voice was deployed to Iraq despite a knee injury that could have kept him stateside. He wanted to go. He endured a mustard gas attack and another one with a blood agent. He drove an unarmored Humvee through sand and manmade barriers and ate exhaust in convoys while driving hard to get into Baghdad.

Four months later, he came home. Memories of horrific sights had scarred him but not his dreams of singing professionally. He began making plans. The Marines’ lesson: You make your own destiny.

Gibson, now 26, stands before his voice teacher, Gustavo Halley, a professor retired from the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music. Halley plays a triad on the piano keys and waits for his student to match the pitches.

Gibson’s voice begins its climb through the arpeggios, but falls short on the octave notes.

“Don’t bite it with your throat!” Halley instructs in his deep Cuban-American voice. “It is the spin of breath that makes it.”

Halley demonstrates for his student, filling the music room with a booming, thunderous cascade of notes. Although he seems rough with his student, his eyes show kindness. Halley, whose family lost their son-in-law in Iraq last year, embraced this student from the beginning. He can imagine the world Gibson lived through.

Gibson grins at his teacher and nods. He will try it again.

He uses his entire body as his instrument, filling his chest cavity from abdomen to shoulders.

And the music that sounds is a rich bass, sung in Italian with rolled “rrr’s” and lyrical syllables. Behind each phrase stands the life experience of a veteran of war, not a young music student trying to find himself.

“Excellent! Beautiful!” exclaims Halley, and smiles at his student. “You have come a long way in two years.”

Gibson smiles, too.

But he knows the difficult path he must navigate. Few opera singers make it to the professional level. Fewer still make a living at it.

Undaunted, he clings to his dream. And he’s planning the steps to his goal as precisely as any Marine unit would plan an operation, acknowledging all possible conflicts and last-minute changes that a strong warrior must be nimble enough to overcome.

To begin his life plan, he needed to pass the first hurdle: the conservatory’s audition. He had a lot of work to do to get his voice ready. For that, he decided to tap into his roots.

Gibson and his family had emigrated from South Africa in 1985, first to Minnesota, then to Lee’s Summit. His father, Hugo V. Gibson, is a chiropractor who taught at Cleveland Chiropractic College. He now practices privately in Lee’s Summit.

Richard Gibson wanted to sing like his father. He traveled to his family’s old hometown, Grahamstown, South Africa, and found his father’s old teacher.

“In four months, I took 62 lessons,” he said. “He worked me over good. ... Got the gears oiled up.”

After two years at the conservatory, he’s earned the beginnings of a reputation. He’s studying for six weeks at the American Institute of Musical Studies in Graz, Austria, on a scholarship. The day after he returns to Kansas City, he will be in rehearsals for a small part in the Lyric Opera of Kansas City’s performance of “Aida.”

“And I’m having so much fun,” he says with a grin. “It’s fulfilling to my soul. Hopefully, it’ll be fulfilling to my pocket.”

His dreams include performing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at a Royals or Chiefs game.

“I would wear full Marine dress, with the jarhead haircut and all. You can’t disrespect the uniform. Ever,” he said.

Life has taught him that dreams are important, he said. “They can focus you and can carry you through the worst of times, if you let them. Even during a war.”

Ellie