Unknown Upstate: For the Love of Music

Adrian Smith has had many identities.

At USC Upstate, he’s the clinical placement coordinator for the Mary Black School of Nursing, ensuring students get their practical experience at Upstate hospitals.

But he’s also been a lonely bird-catcher in search of a wife; a wronged father whose angry curse has tragic consequences; and a wily quack peddling potions to the lovelorn.

Those latter personas are just a few of the roles Smith has portrayed in a singing career that has taken him across the country. The baritone has sung with Asheville Lyric Opera, the Santa Fe Opera, and North Carolina Opera, among others, and has appeared as a soloist with groups such as South Carolina Bach and the Symphony of the Mountains in Tennessee.

Adrian Smith as Colline in a GLOW Lyric Theatre production of La Boheme.
Music has always been part of Smith’s life. His mother taught music at an elementary school in Hickory, North Carolina, and his father, a church organist, was a professor of music at Lenoir-Rhyne University. Smith himself began playing violin at 3 and singing in junior choir when he was 5. “It was just all music, all the time,” Smith says.

While he says he was “never really passionate” about violin, Smith loved to sing. For middle school, he attended the now defunct American Boychoir School in New Jersey. But when he returned to North Carolina for high school, he discovered a new passion: shop class. He enjoyed it so much, in fact, that he fully intended to attend North Carolina State University and become a shop teacher.

But on the way home from singing at an American Choral Directors Association conference as a senior, Smith had a revelation. “I just randomly decided that maybe I would see about going to college as a music major,” he says.

Smith enrolled at Lenoir-Rhyne, where he majored in vocal performance, then went on to graduate school at Boston University for his master’s in vocal performance and a certificate in opera. After graduation, he participated in young artist programs and landed small roles in summer festivals, while also picking up soloist work with vocal and symphonic groups.

Each experience led to new connections, which in turn led to recurring appearances with the Santa Fe Opera, the Asheville Lyric Opera and North Carolina Opera. Though Smith found enough performance and soloist work to keep busy, he was constantly looking for the next opportunity. “You audition for four dozen jobs, you get two of them, they last a month each, then you’re in the market again,” he says. “It’s just a whole different way to live.”

While Smith has taken a break from opera auditions, he continues to perform in recitals and concerts.
By 2018, Smith decided he was ready to step back from the exhausting cycle of travel and auditions. “I was getting a little older, my wife and I wanted to start a family and have a house,” he says. “I made the conscious decision to find something else to do full time to get a little stability in my life.”

That led him to the Mary Black School of Nursing, where he began as an administrative assistant in Greenville, then moved into the new role of clinical placement coordinator. Smith says the work is a welcome change of pace, allowing him to now “sing for fun” and accept performance requests he used to have to turn down if an opera role came up.

At the start of 2020, Smith was preparing for some upcoming concerts. He had just sung a Beethoven’s Ninth in Florida at the end of February 2020 when theaters everywhere went dark due to the pandemic.

The break was rough, he says, but he’s starting to look toward performing again. He’s working on the Franz Schubert song cycle “Winterreise,” a piece he’s always wanted to sing and hopes to do this fall.

“What I love most about music and singing is the music and singing,” he says. “The fact that there’s an audience there is great, but it’s just a joy to get to make the music.”

One regular attendee at Smith’s performances has yet to be fully won over. Smith’s young daughter, Charlotte, born last April, likes hearing him sing, he says, just not loudly. When Smith, accompanied by his mom on piano, recently recorded a video of “The Lord’s Prayer” to send his aunt while she was ill, Charlotte made her opinion known halfway through the session.

“She did fine for the first couple of pages, and then when it started getting a little louder, she started not liking it,” Smith says, laughing.

But, in a sign Smith may have a budding singer on his hands, “Charlotte was crying in B flat” – the same key her dad was singing.