Aspen’s Nikki Boxer: The woman behind the ‘Man’ |

Aspen’s Nikki Boxer: The woman behind the ‘Man’

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado

Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen TimesNikki Boxer, left, stars in the role of the prim librarian, Marian Paroo, in the Aspen Community Theatre production of "The Music Man," alongside leading man Mike Monroney.

ASPEN – When Nikki Boxer was a high school freshman, at St. Johnsbury Academy in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, she had a spot in the choir for a production of the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, “Patience.” The role Boxer really wanted, of Lady Jane – “the contralto character, the funny old lady who has some great songs,” Boxer noted – went to a senior. But the girl playing Lady Jane was struggling in class, and her parents were threatening to pull her out of the show. The nervous director enlisted Boxer to be the understudy, and while the older student eventually handled the role, Boxer was allowed to take a turn as Lady Jane in one performance.”It was a thrill ride,” she said. “The senior boy who had the lead role, who I got to do a big duet with and some big comedic numbers – I guess I had a crush on him. And he said, ‘You were better.’ When you’re 14 … it made my life.”The next year Boxer began classical voice lessons. She eventually studied voice at Tulane University in New Orleans and, at the uncommonly young age of 22, was accepted to the apprenticeship program at the prestigious Santa Fe Opera. After years of traveling to New York – and around the world – to train and audition for parts, last year Boxer earned a big break-through. She landed the prized lead role in Puccini’s “Tosca” at Houston’s Opera in the Heights.But Boxer ended up canceling her “Tosca” engagement. Much of that decision had to do with her voice – or how she saw her voice. The role of Tosca is a soprano, and Boxer, who is 30, had only switched from mezzo-soprano to soprano at the age of 22. While contemplating the “Tosca” appearance, she wavered on which vocal type best suited her. She has since moved back to considering herself a mezzo-soprano.”I went very sideways with my vocal training,” Boxer said. “I wanted my debut in ‘Tosca’ to be a good one.”The two experiences seem to stand as opposite poles in Boxer’s performing life: one a wonderful memory from high school, the other, an inauspicious misfire on the professional stage. After years of keeping her eye on perhaps the most demanding prize in the arts realm – the role of opera diva – Boxer seems to have readjusted her focus. Just as she reassessed her voice, she has freshly contemplated her goals, and her self.”Opera has to be one hundred percent about you. You can’t have anything else – a life, a husband,” Boxer said. “And that goes against the grain. It’s hard to make it about you all the time.”••••Boxer has a husband – Jonathan Boxer, whom she met at the Santa Fe Opera, and who now serves as Nikki’s vocal coach, as well a local real estate agent. She has a day job, as creative director at Aspen Public Radio, a position which includes programming the station’s classical music, as well as handling website development and graphic design.And she still has an active onstage life. Boxer is currently co-starring as the prim librarian Marian Paroo in Aspen Community Theatre’s production of “The Music Man.” Meredith Wilson’s 1957 musical, about a con man who sweeps into early-20th century River City, Iowa, opened Thursday and runs through Nov. 15 at the Aspen District Theatre. ACT’s version is directed and choreographed by John Goss, with Mike Monroney co-starring as the swindling musical-instrument salesman Harold Hill.The part of Marian is Boxer’s third starring role for ACT in five years. In 2004 she played the wayward nun Maria in “The Sound of Music.” Two years ago she played the romantic lead – opposite her husband – in “She Loves Me.””The Music Man,” though, holds a special place in her heart. First off, she loves the role of Marian, and sees in the character something more than the proper, 1912 librarian.”I’ve always wanted to play Marian,” Boxer, who has lived in the Roaring Fork Valley nearly six years, and now lives in Willits. “She’s not quite as boring in my mind as other leading female roles from that era: Laurie in ‘Oklahoma,’ Julie in ‘Carousel.’ Those are wonderful roles, but Marian’s very interesting. She’s very human. She’s very 1912 proper, a librarian. But she’s a romantic. She reads these novels and would love to live the life in those books. She’d love to be swept off her feet. She’s very grounded, very practical.”There’s a lot there.”Likewise, there is a lot of personal history there. When Boxer was a third-grader, in Hebron, Conn., she and her sister Michelle made it nearly a daily routine to watch the 1962 film version of “The Music Man.” The girls became obsessed, watching comic bits like “Ya Got Trouble,” the irresistible march “Seventy-Six Trombones,” and adorable characters like the shy, lisping boy Winthrop.But it wasn’t the songs, or the show’s atmosphere of pure, Broadway-in-the-’50s-style innocence, that ultimately changed Boxer’s life. It was witnessing Michelle playing the young piano student Amaryllis in a community theater production of “The Music Man” that made a big clicking sound in her head.”I thought, ‘Ohmigod! This is the coolest thing I’d ever seen,'” Boxer recalled. “I never knew that real people got to do this – and there’s my sister, doing it!”Boxer set her mind on becoming one of those ordinary people who gets to do the extraordinary thing of donning a costume, getting onstage before audiences, belting out songs and stepping into the skin of another character. In high school, she was in the choir, in every play and musical; she spent every summer at a children’s theater in Vermont. And she showed promise: At 17, she won the Vermont All-State voice competition – “a big deal in Vermont. Not a big deal in the real world,” she acknowledges.At Tulane, Boxer initially chose the practical route, and entered the university’s highly regarded engineering program. That lasted all of a semester before her heart won out over practicality, and she moved into the music department. In school she focused on opera, while performing in musical theater around New Orleans. Opera, however, was increasingly seductive.”The beauty of the music, the depth of the music can continue to captivate, no matter how long you listen to a certain opera,” Boxer said. “There was an aspect that appealed to my intellectual side – the foreign languages, the history of European classical music. The music is challenging in terms of theory. There’s so much there. It appealed to the nerdy, math side of me.”And the stories – they’re the most fantastic, over-the-top romantic stories out there.”Boxer planned to attend graduate school at McGill University in Montreal when, to her surprise, she was accepted as an apprentice at the Santa Fe Opera. It was a choice she doesn’t regret – she doesn’t believe her personality was well-suited for a grad program in a school setting – but she’s not sure if she got much out of the apprenticeship.”I was the youngest by far,” she said. “I wasn’t ready to be there. Even if they thought I was vocally ready, I wasn’t ready emotionally. I was 21.”From Santa Fe, she and Jonathan drove to New York City to look for jobs. But they arrived on Sept. 11, 2001, and chose to get back in the car and head to Boston. Boxer was hired at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Her position was office manager, but a supportive boss let her develop her skills with web and graphic design.Boxer also made frequent trips to New York – as much to familiarize herself with the auditioning process for musicals as to actually land a role in a production. And while the New York theater world could be daunting, she found artistic satisfaction on stage in Boston – especially in the lead role of the temperamental movie star Lily Garland in the farcical “On the Twentieth Century.””It was great people, a really cute little theater in the suburbs west of Boston,” Boxer said. “And that’s a role I would do any place, any time. It’s a riot. Nothing deep or heavy, but comedy for the sake of comedy. Which is sometimes just what you need.”Life in Boston was fine; both Nikki and Jonathan had good jobs. But they found the atmosphere less than inspiring. So they moved to Aspen, where they had honeymooned in the spring of 2003. Far removed from the world’s great opera stages, Boxer’s enthusiasm was reborn.”You live in this place and you feel you can take on the world,” she said. “It’s strange, but I am inspired here. Six months here and I told Johnny, ‘I want to sing.'”From Aspen, Boxer continued traveling – to Italy, Oslo, Florida, New York – for auditions and vocal coaching. But with last year’s decision to pull out of “Tosca,” she seems to have adjusted the path ahead of her. She calls the last few years “a good soul-searching time,” with the eventual conclusion that the hyper-real persona of the opera diva was not the best role for her. A better fit might be the regular person who still gets plenty of opportunity to sing and act.Boxer still practices her opera voice every day. Since dropping other vocal coaches, and using her husband and herself to coach, “I’m singing better than I ever have. My voice is getting into a very good place,” she said. Boxer sings in churches and at various recitals; part of her radio job was to implement a program for live broadcasting of the Aspen Music Festival’s opera productions. It is a supporting role that she loves.”It’s very exciting for the opera students,” she said. “Their parents get to hear them perform.”Boxer keeps looking for projects that will allow her to use her talents. She is hoping to create some chamber opera opportunities for herself in Aspen, drawing on the local talent and singers from Denver. She would love to see Aspen Community Theatre stage “On the Twentieth Century,” so she would get a crack at playing Lily again.When Boxer came back from Houston last year, she says she “dropped that noise” – that constant criticism and self-criticism and self-obsession – that came with being an aspiring opera diva.”I realized I could do all the other things I wanted to do. And still perform,” she said. “As long as I’m able to act and sing, that works for me.”

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