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By: Nicholas Ducassi (A'10)
Surrounded by wildflower fields near the edge of a rocky cliff on the island of Belle-Île -en-Mer, France, Jamie Nicole Burrows stares out to sea. All summer, she has been taking these hikes. They’ve helped the Carnegie Mellon voice major decompress after training at the Lyrique-en-Mer opera festival with some of the world’s greatest singers. The hikes have also given her an interlude before her upcoming senior year. What’s in store for her might intimidate a burly bari-tenor, let alone this 98-pound, five-foot-one soprano.
Before her May 2012 graduation, she and 190 of her classmates will perform on April 2 at what many consider the mecca for musicians: New York City’s Carnegie Hall. The concert is a celebration of the School of Music’s Centennial Anniversary and will reprise a March 31 celebratory concert at Pittsburgh’s Benedum Center. In addition to the students performing, alumni young and old, with more than a few Grammy and Tony winners among them, will take the stage. Burrows has this to look forward to while trying to maintain her 3.9 GPA and fulfill her senior recital. And figure out what to do after graduation. Gulp.
No matter how stressful the upcoming school year becomes, Burrows reassures herself during her ocean-side walks that she can handle whatever happens because of her best friend, Lauren Nicole Eshbaugh.
It’s a warm afternoon during the first day of Carnegie Mellon’s August 2008 freshmen orientation week. In between the scheduled activities, Burrows, a doe-eyed freshman, watches from a campus bench as hoards of classmates she has yet to meet pass by. Her parents are traveling back home to Tucson, Ariz., about 2,000 miles away. Although Burrows doesn’t know anyone, she already feels at home. Suddenly, her thoughts of tranquility are interrupted.
Burrows looks up. A modelesque blonde, wearing a flowing dress and perhaps too much blush, towers above her. “I’m Lauren.” Burrows recognizes her from orientation activities. They get acquainted, and when they realize they have more in common than they can share from a campus bench, they head to Eshbaugh’s dorm room.
In addition to their identical middle names, they both have an insatiable appetite for performance training, a deep love of music, and a shared history in youth choirs. Neither can wait for their next four years of studies at the School of Music, widely praised for its conservatory training, dual emphasis on academics and performance, and tradition of graduating legendary musicians. The school’s vocal alumni roll-call is rife with Metropolitan Opera and Broadway singers. And the list of non-vocal majors is just as notable, including composers of Hollywood films and television shows, professors in the best music schools in the country (including Carnegie Mellon), and principal instrumentalists and conductors in renowned orchestras around the world.
As for Burrows and Eshbaugh, it’s as if they will step into the shoes of past success stories. With her red mane and fair complexion, Burrows could be mistaken for soprano Christiane Noll (A’90), star of several award-winning Broadway musicals, including Jekyll & Hyde, Urinetown, and the most recent revival of Ragtime. Eshbaugh has her own alumna doppelganger in mezzo-soprano Heidi Skok (A’90), whose statuesque presence adorned Metropolitan Opera’s stage for more than a decade.
Right now, though, they’re just incoming freshmen with big lungs and a lot to learn about music, life, and each other. Burrows is soft-spoken—a self-described “music nerd” who mostly keeps to herself; Eshbaugh is gregarious, immune to intimidation, and addicted to adventure. Soon, they’re inseparable.
Although Burrows is a stranger to Pittsburgh, Eshbaugh knows her way around, having been raised in Indiana, Pa., just 60 miles from Pittsburgh. So, for the first few weeks of the semester, Eshbaugh plays tour guide. From the symphony to diners, no Pittsburgh staple is out of their reach. Sometimes, when Burrows is too tired to make the walk to her off-campus dorm, she has a sleepover in Eshbaugh’s Donner House room, where the two philosophize until their eyes close.
In October, they begin working in the costume department for an upcoming music school production. One night, while climbing the stairs to the costume shop, Eshbaugh stops at the second-floor landing.
“Are you OK?” Burrows asks.
Eshbaugh says she feels queasy, but they press forward. At the next floor, Eshbaugh says she has to throw up. Burrows snatches a trash can. It’s not the first time in the past few weeks that Eshbaugh has been ill. First, her back hurt. Then, she had leg spasms. Now, she’s throwing up. They both agree she should go to the student clinic. They walk there, but it’s closed. What to do? Perhaps Eshbaugh should go the hospital and get checked out, just to be safe. Burrows calls campus police from her cell phone, and a few minutes later, they’re on their way to the hospital in the back of a campus squad car.
The hospital staff administers preliminary tests, and Eshbaugh calls her parents, who are concerned enough to get in their car and make the hour drive to Pittsburgh. Through it all, Eshbaugh doesn’t lose her sense of humor. She walks up to the registration nurse and asks if she could ensure her attending physician is male. And cute. Burrows blushes. When Eshbaugh’s parents arrive, they thank Burrows for staying with their daughter, and Eshbaugh’s father gives her a ride to her dorm.(Continued …)