LINCOLN — When Brian McKinnon received a letter from North Kingstown Postmaster Phil Picott back on Friday, April 1, he first wondered if the contents were some kind of April Fool's Day joke.
After all, McKinnon had known Picott for a couple of decades anyway, so why not?
He re-read the letter, addressed to his 10-year-old daughter, renowned soprano Alexis Clare McKinnon, and still had his doubts.
In it, Picott stated “Dear Miss McKinnon: As the Postmaster of North Kingstown … I am pleased to invite you, your family and fans to a Stamp Presentation in your honor! The United States Postal Service (USPS) would like to recognize your amazing worldwide achievement in being the youngest person ever to star in a professional opera and musical production.
“In addition, I would like to also recognize you as being the youngest college student, (at) age nine, ever to have starred in a leading role in an opera at the University of Rhode Island,” Picott wrote.
Admitted Brian McKinnon: “I had no inkling this was going to happen. I didn't quite understand what it was. I mean, what the heck is a stamp presentation? I was wondering if they were going to put her picture on a stamp. So I called Phil, an old friend, and asked him. He laughed like heck, 'No, Brian, she's not getting her photo on it. We're going to give her one!'”
On Friday, May 13, at 11 a.m. at the North Kingstown Post Office, 7715 Post Road, the USPS not only officially will release its 44-cent “Jazz” forever stamp but also present one to Alexis Clare, who last November 21 starred in the opera “Amahl & the Night Visitors” at the University of Rhode Island's Fine Arts Concert Hall.
The girl, who will collect a plaque for her already amazing singing career, also will perform the song “Music and Me,” one made famous by Michael Jackson, at the ceremony.
The natural question for the Lonsdale Elementary School fourth grader's parents, Brian and Laurie (Cullen), was this: Why this, and why North Kingstown?
“It's crazy, but I think it's because I grew up in North Kingstown with my brother, John, and my parents (John and Phyllis) still live there,” chuckled Laurie, a 1989 NKHS graduate and now a speech pathologist. “You know, I used to work in that building, which is now the post office, when it was an Almac's (grocery store). I was a front-end manager there from (age) 17 until, I guess, about 23.
“It's kind of mind-boggling,” she added. “I never would've thought, or dreamed, at that time that my daughter, as a singer, would be performing at a stamp dedication. That's the same place where I used to cash out food or bring money to the cashiers. It's mind-boggling. I guess this is what they mean by 'full circle.'
“When I called my parents in (Dunedin,) Florida – they're 'snowbirds' for a few months each winter – and they just said, 'You've got to be kidding me!' A lot of their friends go to see Alexis when she's performing, and I know they've told them, 'Go to the post office (on May 13)! That's our granddaughter!'”
Most recently, little Alexis performed in “Opera and Broadway: Tenors vs. Divas” at the Edward King House, a Newport mansion, on Friday, April 15. Two days later, she trekked to URI to sing “When You Wish Upon A Star” and “Belle Nuit” (with URI senior Kelsey Hopkins) in the “Comedy Tonight!” show.
“I woke up that (Friday) morning with a double-ear infection, and my dad called the doctor,” stated the girl, who has an astonishing voice range from low-G to whistle tones. “He prescribed some medicine, and – instantly – my ears were better.
“My ears blocked up again on Sunday morning, and I could barely hear myself sing, but I was going to anyway, because I love it,” she added. “It makes people happy, and I like doing that.”
She also currently is under the tutelage of Prof. Rene de la Garza, the URI Department of Music & Vocal Studies' Director, and has been since age five. And she's the youngest performer ever to represent “Opera Providence,” which is directed by – who else? – de la Garza.
At age seven, Alexis Clare (her stage name) was one of the youngest students ever to be invited to Julliard School in New York to take part in its Pre-College Division Saturday Morning Program. On March 7, 2010, she sang “When You Wish Upon A Star” with fellow soprano and star Diana McVey in “Movies & Musicals” at the Kingston campus.
In May, she provided the opening act for two-time Grammy Award winner and Seekonk native Bill Harley at “The Farewell Party,” a commemoration of the Fairlawn Early Learning Center closing; and, back in October, sang at the Southern New England Women's Expo at the Twin River Event Center, and delivered “Castle on a Cloud” and “When You Wish … “ at the Music Mansion in Providence later that month.
In “Amahl & the Night Visitors,” she became the youngest performer/singer ever to land the lead role in an opera at a college or university worldwide.
“I came home from school (on April Fool's Day), and I sat at the kitchen counter doing my homework; that's when my dad asked me to read that letter,” Alexis grinned. “He said, 'Can you read it outloud to me?' and I did. I was, like, 'Oh, my God! Dad, what is this? Am I going to get my picture on a stamp?' He pointed to it in the top right corner, and told me, 'They're going to give you that.' I said, 'Really? That's really cool!'”
When asked who chose “Music And Me” as the song she'll belt out at the stamp presentation, Brian indicated it was his idea.
“I think it mirrors Alexis and what her life is all about,” he noted. “Like the late Michael Jackson, she adores singing. He was only nine or 10 when he first sang that. He wasn't just a pop singer, but he liked all types of music. He listened to everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to Charlie Chaplin's 'Smile,' which is brother Jermaine sang at his funeral.
“It just mirrors her love of music, her intense feeling for it.”
Picott, also a former professional tennis player, mentioned his selection of Alexis as the honoree was an individual effort, and that postmasters nationwide are putting their own individual flair on their particular “Jazz” forever stamp presentations.
“When I heard about this, I thought about Alexis right away,” he stated. “I've known Alexis and her family for a long time, and it was just a natural. You just must have an opportunity to witness her amazing talent. What comes out of her lungs at age nine (now 10), it gives you goosebumps.
“I was here two years ago, and I did the same thing for (murder victim) Molly Bish's family with the 'Amber Alert' stamp presentation,” he continued. “Of course, this is a much happier occasion. I've seen her sing quite a few times, and I can't wait to hear her again at this event.”
Her family, including her parents and kid brother, first-grader Brendan, will travel to North Kingstown on May 13 for the fete. She also hopes her Lonsdale Elementary Principal Jeanine Magliocco, not to mention her teacher Cheryl LaRiviere and her fourth-grade classmates, will be able to attend.
Alexis admitted she has never before thought about becoming a stamp collector – she's been too busy compiling “American Girl” dolls, all of whom sit on a small couch in her bedroom.
“I'm pretty psyched about the presentation; I don't collect them, but I will now!” she said enthusiastically. “The post office is presenting me their new one. This is wicked awesome!”