Matt Payne, 18, is usually wearing a button-down shirt, Wrangler jeans, a leather belt
and, of course, his steel-toe boots. His accent reeks of a youth from the inner-depths of Indiana’s Floyd County. A country boy at heart, he enjoys fishing, helping his grandparents out on the farm and the most obvious of country pastimes: opera.
Payne knew he was gifted with Pavarotti pipes, he just needed an outlet. It was during his freshman year of high school that he got into theater, he says, and through it was eventually introduced to opera. “Pretty much everyone had that pop kind of voice, and I don’t really have that at all,” he says, explaining one reason he stood out.
His lack of a mainstream voice served as a complication and annoyance in the beginning of his theatrical career. But his choir teacher passed him the name of the previous director (Michael Neeley), who now gives opera lessons, and his newfound niche has brought him only joy. He has served as Floyd Central High’s personal celebrity — often begged by his peers and bribed by his educators to sing in class. While he fronts embarrassment, Payne loves singing. “I want to do recitals in the future. I might do some opera shows. But right now, I’m just interested in singing and putting on concerts,” he says.
He plans to attend the University of Louisville to study opera, and hopes to later transfer to Indiana University, which boasts a top-ranked program.
Payne is well aware of the hardships he’s likely to face. The trick is finding the right person to notice you. “I’d like to go ‘big time,’ but the trouble is finding someone who can take me where I want to go,” he says. A recent “American Idol” tryout was a bust, so he’s enduring the dreaded waiting game all artists must play. Still, the world has not seen the end of Matt Payne, opera extraordinaire. —Jess Mahanes
Jen Pellerin & Samantha Griffith
Thaniel Ion Lee