Saundra DeAthos-Meers has been singing for as long as she can remember. But, she didn’t find her true calling as a vocalist until she was a junior at Central Michigan University. DeAthos-Meers was studying to become a music teacher — she now teaches voice and opera at College of Charleston — when she went on a trip with her classmates and professors and made a profound discovery.

“I picked up some CDs in the library for the drive,” said DeAthos-Meers. “I had my little portable CD player with my headphones, and I was laying in the back of the van, and I played this CD of Maria Callas. She was singing ‘Vissi d’Arte’ from ‘Tosca,’ and it was so life-changing. I laid on that seat and just wept, and I had no idea why I was crying. It was a visceral response to the music she was making, the words she was saying, even though I had no idea what they were; she just seemed to be singing from the center of her being.”

DeAthos-Meers was hooked.

“I just had to hear more,” she said. “So when I got home, I bought all of her CDs. I listened to everything I could get my hands on, which led me down the rabbit hole of learning about all these operas … It all happened very fast once I discovered it.”

As a teacher and a performer, DeAthos-Meers has amassed a long and impressive resume, spending 10 years as music coordinator in the theater department at Illinois Wesleyan University and performing in title roles for a handful of well-known operas.

DeAthos-Meers performed Brahms’ “Ein Deutches Requiem” with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra in 2012. That’s when she first met Robert Taylor and professor David Templeton from CofC, a connection that led to her eventual hiring in 2017.

The College already put on children’s operas for elementary schools, but DeAthos-Meers wanted to stage full operatic productions with orchestral backing.

“The students have been doing cut-down versions of opera or one-act operas,” she said. “My predecessor had always done the performances in the recital hall, but we didn’t have any backstage space, and we had to take seats out to fit an orchestra.”

But in 2019, CofC announced the renovation of the large, elegant school-owned Sottile Theatre and the College began looking for large-scale events to celebrate its 250th anniversary. DeAthos-Meers proposed a plan to stage two operas per year, one as a full performance with sets, costumes and an orchestra.

The first production at the College will be Mozart’s 1786 opera “The Marriage of Figaro,” which is scheduled for performances in February 2021. And DeAthos-Meers is going to push ahead with putting it together, even with the cloud of COVID-19.

“The plan is we will be doing a full production with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra alongside our players,” she said. “It will be a big event, and I know I can move it forward, even if it has to be virtual for a while. I’m going to cast the opera, even if it’s a socially distanced performance.”

And DeAthos-Meers has bigger plans in store if the new program goes well, mostly thanks to her students.

“I have to say, these students I’ve worked with for the past two years have exceeded my expectations,” she said. “My long-term goal is to have a full undergrad opera program, with young singers having the ability to play lead roles on the main stage. I want (CofC) to be one of those schools on the list of young aspiring opera singers.”