Erik Lickiss had his life mapped out. He would attend a big university. He would play football. He would enjoy a long career as a physical therapist.
Then everything changed.
He suffered a serious knee injury during his last football game at Indianola High School. That same year, 2005, his mother, Nancy, learned she had breast cancer, the same disease that would claim the life of her twin sister.
“What do I do now?” Lickiss asked himself.
He enrolled at Simpson, so he could remain close to his mother, who eventually recovered fully. He majored in music with a concentration in voice. “I went to Simpson with the idea that if I didn’t like it, I didn’t like it, and I could try something else,” he says.
Singing? That’s a story in itself. Lickiss only went out for choir in high school because his best friend bet him he wouldn’t make it. Tried out for the a cappella choir for the same reason. His buddy lost both bets. But there was a problem. During Lickiss’s freshman year in college, his weight ballooned to 326 pounds. He saw a family photo and couldn’t believe how he looked. His music teachers warned him that unless something changed, his career options would be limited. As Lickiss puts it, “nobody wants to see somebody who weighs 300 pounds playing the love interest.”
He lost nearly 150 pounds, through hard work and changing his diet. A tenor, he now is cast in romantic roles.
But there was another issue. Lickiss felt himself overwhelmed by the Simpson music program. He didn’t know music theory. His parents listened to oldies, not opera. Although he grew up in Indianola, he didn’t realize it was home to the Des Moines Metro Opera.
Near the end of his sophomore year, Erik was pulled aside by Dr. Robert Larsen ’56, then the department chairman of music, and Bruce Brown, assistant professor of music. “They basically told me to get my butt in gear and really focus on this,” Lickiss says. “They said, ‘You have the talent, don’t waste it. If you don’t love it, get out.’”
The result? “It drove me like crazy.” They had stoked the competitive fire that was part of his athletic DNA. Lickiss’s parents, who graduated from Simpson in 1975, were athletes. Hugh Lickiss was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers and played an entire pre-season with them before being released. Erik’s sister was a collegiate volleyball player.
“Out of nowhere, I sing,” he says. “Makes no sense to me.”
But he devoted himself to getting better. He received a bachelor’s degree in music in vocal performance from Simpson in 2009. He received a Masters of Music in opera performance from the University of Tennessee two years later. He was invited two summers in a row to participate in the Des Moines Metro Opera’s young artists program.
Lickiss, now 25, left Indianola this fall for Germany, where his voice coach will help him find auditions. “I just want to sing,” he says. “I want to sing all over the world. I just want that chance to express the art, to really give it my best shot.”
Whatever happens, he knows his life changed at Simpson. “It was the best growing years of my life,” Lickiss says. “Simpson doesn’t just teach you to be a musician, it teaches you to be a man. And to really look at what you have, and learn to respect it, and learn to grow up.
“If I make it, great. If not, I’ll know I gave it a helluva shot.”