Click photo to enlarge
Los Altos High teacher Mark Schaull, left, and former student Talise Trevigne laugh as they reminisce about her time at the school in the choir room at Los Altos High School in Los Altos, Calif. on Monday, Sept. 24, 2012. They were remembering how Schaull would ask Trevigne not to yell too loudly when leading cheers so she wouldn't damage her voice. Trevigne grew up in Mountain View and graduated in 1992 from Los Altos High School, where she was class president and a varsity cheerleader. Los Altos High teacher and choir coach Schaull kind of launched her into a singing career 20 years ago when she joined the choir. Trevigne, a soprano, is making her debut at San Francisco Opera next month in a new opera based on "Moby-Dick." (Dan Honda/Staff)

To say that Talise Trevigne, the former cheerleader from Los Altos High School, is reaching the heights of the opera world is, well, an understatement. Starting Oct. 10, the soprano literally will fly as she sings, balanced on a wire 30 feet above the stage in San Francisco Opera's production of "Moby-Dick."

The acrobatics say something about where her career is headed: up.

"I pinch myself every morning," says Trevigne, a former singer with Opera San Jose, whose career now takes her to some of the nation's biggest stages. San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House is the most prestigious yet. And the aerial aria is one of athletic Trevigne's main numbers in the role of Pip, the 14-year-old cabin boy, in the high-tech adaptation of Herman Melville's novel of Captain Ahab and life on the whaling ship Pequod.

With music by Jake Heggie and libretto by Gene Scheer, the new "Moby-Dick" -- described by one blogging critic as "the 'Avatar' of opera" -- propelled Trevigne into the limelight two years ago when it debuted at the Dallas Opera. The New York Times called her performance "riveting." Since then, the soprano's career has been sailing -- not unlike those flying creatures in James Cameron's movie.

Smitten with her shimmery voice and knack for exposing the emotion inside a lyric, several major American composers have singled her out as a collaborator. "Somehow I've become a go-to girl for contemporary opera -- and I'm going with it," says Trevigne, who starred in more traditional roles at San Jose's California Theatre during the 2006-07 season: Verdi's "La Traviata" and Gounod's "Romeo et Juliette."


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"Listen, 'Traviata' is still my favorite opera," she says. "But there's something to be said for creating something new. You're setting the standard, instead of filling another girl's shoes."

She is signed up as Pip through 2015, as "Moby-Dick" travels to major companies in Washington, D.C., and Seattle. It's not that she has abandoned tradition: Last year, she sang the eponymous title role in Massenet's lush "Manon" at Knoxville Opera, and she heads next spring to Washington National Opera in Washington, D.C., for a leading role in Jerome Kern's "Showboat," staged by acclaimed director Francesca Zambello.

But ever since a chance audition in Dallas three years ago led to her meeting Heggie -- she refers to him as "my muse" -- contemporary works have led the way.

Pulitzer Prize winners Christopher Rouse and Aaron Jay Kernis have championed Trevigne (pronounced: Tre-VEEN), as the soprano juggles recording sessions. Last month at Skywalker Ranch in Marin, she collaborated with Heggie on two song cycles, "Pieces of 9/11: Memories From Houston" and "Rise and Fall."

"She's an artist I want to work with again and again through my life," says San Francisco-based Heggie, best known for his opera "Dead Man Walking." He describes her voice as "soaring, lyric, a very plush sound, and it always feels connected to her heart. Talise is just a very, very special artist."

Heggie tailored the role of Pip for Trevigne. And without giving details away, he says he soon will begin work on another opera for another major company, and that Trevigne will have another leading role.

Based in New York, where she lives with 7-year-old son Sam -- a fledgling southpaw pitcher and, just lately, a singer -- Trevigne is staying with her mother in Milpitas for the duration of "Moby." Just the other night, the singer says, "I found my old cheerleading uniform in the closet, and I thought, 'I wonder if it still fits.' I'm going to try it on. I'm curious."

She grew up in Mountain View and Los Altos with mother Gloria Donaldson (a Silicon Valley tech manager), father Mitchell Trevigne (since retired as a real estate broker) and sister Candace (a horse trainer in San Jose).

The family was into sports: football and especially the 49ers, whose star wide receiver John Taylor is Trevigne's uncle. She attended her share of barbecues with Taylor, Ronnie Lott, Roger Craig and Joe Montana. "My friends were like, 'Can I come?' " Trevigne says.

She was sophomore class president, varsity cheerleader, member of the Homecoming Court. And she trained to be a dancer, but an injury dashed that dream. By chance, she joined the Main Street Singers, the Los Altos High School choral group. Sensing her talent, music director Mark Shaull pushed her to take private voice lessons.

After graduating at age 17, Trevigne moved cross-country to attend the Manhattan School of Music as a voice major. It took years of plugging away -- for a while she worked as a bank secretary -- but the roles began arriving, with small opera companies in or near New York City and in the Midwest.

Today, again living in New York -- "11 minutes by train" from Yankee Stadium, where she and Sam go to plenty of games -- Trevigne finds that the higher she moves up the career ladder, the more her colleagues feel like "family." The "Moby" cast -- which hasn't changed much through productions in Dallas, San Diego and San Francisco -- hangs out in its off-hours. Children of cast members are known as "the little pod of whales."

And son Sam is flying to San Francisco to celebrate his eighth birthday at the production's Oct. 13 performance.

Trevigne takes out her smartphone and starts flipping through photos of Sam. There he is singing. "We think he has perfect pitch," she says. There he is pitching at a baseball clinic: "His coach said, 'Oh my god, his mechanics are amazing.' "

Over the summer, she took off six weeks to drive Sam to ballgames, clinics, coaching sessions. "I basically spent 80 percent of my vacation on a baseball field," the soprano says.

"Hey, you know what?" she asks. "I'm a cheerleader again!"

Contact Richard Scheinin at 408-920-5069, read his stories and reviews at www.mercurynews.com/richard-scheinin and follow him at Twitter.com/richardscheinin.

If you go

What: San Francisco Opera presenting "Moby-Dick"
When: Oct. 10 to Nov. 2
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
Tickets: $22 to $340, 415-864-3330, www.sfopera.com