RI opera prodigy takes stage for abused kids

WOONSOCKET, R.I. (WPRI) – Alexis McKinnon’s parents knew she could sing when they heard her angelic voice in the bathtub at the age of two.

Now, her parents say she’s making a name for herself around the county in pop and opera circles, although she might be better known in Italy than her home state.

“I’d say opera is the more difficult one because you have to act it out and you have to pronounce every thing correctly whether you’re doing it in English or a different language,” the petite McKinnon says.

It’s easy to forget she’s a seventh grader when you hear her big voice boom from her tiny frame or consider that she’s already trained at The Julliard School, and has been under the singing guidance of  U R I Professor Rene De La Garza for eight years.

Her advisers include Providence native Jeffrey Osborne and the legendary Smokey Robinson, who sung happy birthday to her in a voice message.

“It’s pretty cool,” she says with a big smile.  “But I don’t think of them as Jeffrey Osborne and Smokey Robinson. They’re my friends.”

Alexis met us with her parents at one of the state’s hidden gems. She’ll perform on the gold leaf framed stage at Stadium Theatre in Woonsocket in front of as many as 1100  people for a benefit concert. The classic setting has hosted Charlie Chaplin, Al Jolson and Will Rogers, and now Alexis Clare McKinnon. She’ll learn about the other stars soon enough, but her performance on May 25 will be half opera and half pop. She shook her head when asked if singing in front of that many people will make her nervous.

“You just know what you’re doing when you step on stage. You know how to ignite the crowd,” she says with a smile and air quotes around the phrase ‘ignite the crowd.’

Half of the concert proceeds will go to North Providence’s Saint Mary’s Home for Children,  which helps victims of abuse. Again Alexis doesn’t sound 13 when she talks about St. Mary’s.

“They do a lot of great things for a lot of kids. And I appreciate that, being a kid. I want to help them, and that’s why I’m doing this.”

There’s little doubt the crowd and this teenaged prodigy will get something out the performance it as well, when she takes the stage.

“Especially when I perform, I like hearing the crowd and everything. It’s just a lot of fun,” she says. “You definitely feel a lot of adrenaline rushing through you because it’s just awesome. It’s what you’ve been preparing for.”

Alexis points out that singing and performing is in her blood. Her grandfather Fred McKinnon beat Pat Boone, Gladys Knight and Harry Belafonte in a singing contest in the 1950’s.

“I know who Gladys Knight is,” Alexis says.

Her dad Brian McKinnon is a concert promoter, a talent manager and also a voting member of the National Recording Academy GRAMMY Foundation. He also knows one of his daughter’s favorite pop singers Mariah Carey who Alexis has met a number of times. Her proud father and others have compared Alexis’ octave range to Carey’s.

And according to McKinnon, after his daughter earned a role in an opera at age nine, she made it into The Guinness Book of World Records as the youngest opera performer in the world.

Send story ideas to Walt at wbuteau@wpri.com and follow us on Twitter: @StreetStories12 and @wbuteau.

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