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Advocate Butterfly

Outside the office, Madelaine Lane’s high notes come on the opera stage

Published in 2020 Michigan Super Lawyers magazine

Turns out there are quite a few similarities between taking the stage to perform a duet from Mozart’s Don Giovanni and offering a vigorous criminal defense in a courtroom.

“It’s really about how you communicate effectively and tell your story in a way that resonates,” says criminal defense attorney and soprano Madelaine Lane. “You want to look confident, even if inside you have stage fright.”

The singer, seeking to captivate an audience, must master a centuries-old work and present it with conviction. The trial attorney, seeking to convince a judge or jury, must master centuries of legal precedent and argue it with conviction. 

Lane was an attorney before she was an opera singer—she passed the Bar in 2007 and started voice lessons in 2012—but she’s enjoyed a swift rise as a soprano in the opera world, first performing with Opera Grand Rapids as a chorus member, then a soloist. She’s performed throughout the U.S. and internationally, singing at a festival in Germany, a showcase in Savannah, and at the National Opera Center in New York. Then the big time: She made her Carnegie Hall debut with the New York Lyric Opera Theatre in 2017. 

“I just performed a scene, but I was very nervous,” Lane says. “Getting dropped off at the stage door, then walking through a hallway with black-and-white pictures of famous people who have sung there, it was incredibly surreal.

“I’m lucky I’m at a firm that understands the importance of being a well-rounded individual,” she says. “When you’re a well-rounded individual, you’re a better lawyer.”

She’s next set to star in the West Michigan Opera Project and Kalamazoo Philharmonia’s productions of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. It’s the role she’s always wanted—appropriate for someone for whom metamorphosis has become routine.

“Madelaine is one of the few people in our office who could give up her day job,” says fan and WNJ partner Brian Lennon. “I have appreciation for the arts, and for great performers and for great litigators. Madelaine is both.”

Growing up in Grand Rapids, Lane performed in school choirs and productions, but wasn’t into opera until she borrowed Madama Butterfly from the music library while studying at Holy Cross. “I was blown away by not just the artistry and the presentation, but the sweeping orchestra music,” she says. 

Lane performed a few times in college and got the bug. “I’m never as happy as I am when I’m singing,” she says. Law was the safer career choice, and one she enjoyed, but there was something missing. In 2012, she decided—no, needed—to sing again. A friend referred her to vocal teacher Nicholas Loren, a retired professional opera singer. As their first meeting drew to a close, Lane asked Loren if she would one day sing the lead in Madama Butterfly

His answer: Maybe.

“I thought Butterfly was a bit of a stretch,” Loren says. But he also remembers being so taken by Lane’s voice that he played the recording for his husband. “I said, ‘Listen to these five fantastic notes. If the whole voice could sound like those, she could have a career.’ When I realized she was serious, I said, ‘You’re nowhere close to being professionally viable right now. You’ve got to break this down … every single word, every single pronunciation, every single inflection. That’s what’s required.’ She said, ‘Sign me up.’ It’s been an incredible journey.”

Lane began taking lessons from Loren at least three times a week, the 30-mile drive to his Holland studio making her usual workday even longer. “Like a lot of lawyers, I have a perfectionist streak in me, whether I’m reviewing a brief or studying a score,” she says. “I bring the same discipline to both.”

Each arena has helped in the other: On stage, she’s had aha moments relevant to her legal work. Sometimes she’ll even hear Loren’s voice in her head as she prepares to give an opening argument. He’s saying, “It’s not about you. It’s about the client and the jury. You are only one piece of this entire presentation, so if you stumble over a word or your PowerPoint fails you, it’s OK,” Lane says. 

“That’s one of the major lessons he’s taught me about opera and life: You are playing your part in a broader storyline.” 

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