Theresa Clare McHugh ’23 has always known that music is their greatest passion. A classical soprano, McHugh has been studying voice since the fifth grade, and redoubled their dedication to the craft at MIT. Singing is more than an extraordinary talent for McHugh, it has also shaped how they navigate the world.
“Music has been a way for me to connect to the human experience,” says McHugh, who has trained in voice through the Emerson/Harris Program for Private Study for four years at MIT. After pursuing studies in ecology, genetics, and evolutionary biology, McHugh ultimately majored in music and plans to pursue graduate studies in vocal performance.
In recognition of their high level of musicianship, McHugh has been awarded the $2,500 Louis Sudler Prize, an honor presented annually to a graduating MIT senior who has demonstrated excellence or the highest standards of proficiency in music, theater, painting, sculpture, design, architecture, or film.
“Theresa is a musician of the highest caliber whose artistry as a singer has grown immeasurably through their creativity, hard work, and curiosity,” says MIT associate professor Emily Richmond Pollock, who has served as McHugh’s academic advisor. The nomination reflects McHugh’s “musical excellence and contributions across the full spectrum of the music curriculum,” Pollock says.
Music as a guiding principle
“My goal was to blend my passions,” says McHugh, who also considered attending New England Conservatory but was drawn to the rigor and breadth of opportunities at MIT. In the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, they worked on a project exploring phenology and how climate change is impacting red oak trees. Meanwhile, during every semester at MIT, they sang with the Chamber Chorus and were invited to perform as a guest vocalist for students in Introduction to Western Music.
McHugh’s studies in MIT’s music program transformed their way of thinking about what would eventually become their major and intended vocation. “I arrived at MIT feeling passionate about music, and joy and exhilaration when I sing,” says the Sudler Prize winner. “But I had never questioned the fundamental ideas as much as I have here. My understanding of what music is, its history, and what it can be are so much stronger now.”
A course on opera with Pollock during McHugh’s first semester at MIT opened them up to new ways of thinking and drove their curiosity to explore further study. “That was my first experience questioning the paradigms for how music works,” says McHugh, who eventually asked Pollock to be their major advisor. “Not only is she an incredible academic, she very obviously cares so deeply about all her students,” McHugh says.
The Sudler Prize winner also credits Kerry Deal, their vocal instructor through the Emerson/Harris Program and associate professor of voice Boston Conservatory, with having a significant impact on their musical achievements. “As an instrument that’s an organ in your own body, singing is unruly to pin down pedagogically, and Kerry is knowledgeable about so many technical aspects and different styles,” McHugh says of Deal. “She demands excellence in a way that is different from a lot of my previous coaches, which was initially a bit intimidating, but ultimately extremely helpful,” McHugh says.
The culmination of a musical journey
The Emerson/Harris Scholar’s senior recital on May 12th will feature a program inspired by deeply personal experience and demonstrates how essential music is to McHugh as an artist and as an individual. McHugh was grieving their brother’s death last year as they were deciding on what to sing, and devised a program that incorporates fantastical creatures, including death himself, and eventually arrives at a place of peace.
“Music is a language through which I can process complicated emotions,” says McHugh, who’s also grateful to Emerson/Harris instructor Mi-Eun Kim for her coaching and collaboration as a piano accompanist. “The program is a journey where we can take on some dark themes and then come out on the other side with a positive outlook,” McHugh says.
Concluding their time at MIT, prior to a planned gap year and continued studies with a Master of Fine Arts in vocal performance, McHugh is feeling a swell of gratitude. “I’ve been exposed to ways of thinking that are so far removed from my own perspective,” McHugh says. “More than anything, I feel privileged that I was able to interact with all of these incredible minds.”
Emerson/Harris Solo Recital: Theresa McHugh ’23, soprano
May 12 / 5:00 PM
MIT Killian Hall (MIT Building 14)
160 Memorial Drive, Cambridge MA
Written by Naveen Kumar
Editorial direction by Leah Talatinian