Keaton Covillo got his musical ear from his great-grandfather, but the origin of his room-silencing voice is unknown.
Only his grandmother plays piano. Even fewer family members sing, but Covillo's textured baritone is so good that the University of Denver recently offered the Steamboat Springs High School senior a coveted spot in its Lamont School of Music.
Covillo, 18, will train in opera performance. He was one of five men selected from auditions held in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and Denver.
"The Lamont School of Music is nationally known in the world of opera," said Susie Ritter, a DU alumnae and vocal music teacher at the high school and middle school. "This music school wanted him. He is probably the biggest musical recruit I've ever had."
And to think, Covillo never made the All-State choir.
"I have a hard time blending," he said. "I've always had to sing really loud."
Covillo thinks it was his powerful rendition of Josh Groban's "Let Me Fall," from Cirque de Soleil, that wowed the selection committee during his vocal audition on the DU campus in February.
"I didn't think I'd ever performed better in my life," Covillo said. "The acoustics were amazing. It was how music should be."
His audition visit was his first time on the DU campus, and he was unsure whether he was talented enough -- academically and musically -- to be admitted to the school. Before his interview, he phoned family and friends, convinced he was going to be turned down.
"I started making plans about other colleges," he said.
Covillo received his acceptance letter to the Lamont School of Music shortly thereafter, but he had to await word about his admittance to DU.
That letter arrived on St. Patrick's Day, the day of Covillo's senior choir concert.
"I had stolen my mom's mail key because I checked the mail every day," he said. "I opened the letter and started reading."
He saw the word "scholarship" attached to the number $22,000. He saw the words "per year" attached to $22,000. Then, he saw the post office floor.
"I passed out," Covillo said. "Two elderly gentlemen had to help me up. I drove to the school and told Ms. Ritter, and she started screaming and tearing up."
That night at the concert, when Ritter went around the room announcing the future plans of the seniors and the scholarship money awarded, she didn't have to pass over Covillo. He had worried she would.
The student and teacher have been together since sixth grade, but Ritter, who is trained in opera, and Covillo credit Christ-el Houston for enriching the senior's baritone-borderline-tenor voice.
"He's been doing a ton of opera with her," Ritter said. "I can't really do opera in our class because not everyone personally wants to do it or has the ability to do it. ... It's probably the hardest thing to do vocally. You definitely have to go to school for it. You can't just hop on a bus and go to New York and try to make it."
Karen Covillo credits her youngest child for introducing the family to the arts. From the time he was 3, he was interested in dancing and music, she said. Covillo remembers watching and listening to opera when he was a child and making his parents read the subtitles. But it isn't the Italian that hypnotized Covillo.
"It was the sound," he said. "That's what started me singing with lessons. I wanted to be the Phantom of the Opera."
Covillo did his best impression a decade ago when he auditioned for Stars of Tomorrow with his rendition of "Music of the Night." He wore a tiny tuxedo and a mask, but he didn't win.
This year, he did. Covillo will travel to Glenwood Springs this weekend to compete in the regional competition of Stars of Tomorrow. He will sing Groban's "Let Me Fall."
The song once got Covillo a $50 tip at Mambo Italiano, not to mention admittance into one of the nation's most prestigious music schools.
He relives the moment of his audition over again.
"You walk into this five- or six-story lobby to the most amazing theater," Covillo said. "All these people are warming up, cellists are playing. Then they call you into the auditorium with this nine-foot Steinway grand piano and a 50-foot pipe organ. You are just this little person."
With the biggest voice.