Wearing black dresses and high heels, 12 Friends School students stood star-struck Jan. 22 as a comedian with thick gray hair and a cheery smile strode up to them and shook their hands in a meet-and-greet room at the Lyric Opera House.
"Are you the opening act?" asked former Tonight Show host Jay Leno. "Hi, guys. How are you?"
After posing for photos with Leno, the students, members of Friends School's all-girls a cappella group, Pleiades, sang for 20 minutes before a full house that included their families and friends. They drew hearty applause for their performance of songs that ranged from The Beatles' "I Will" to Lorde's "Royals."
Then, they got front row seats for Leno's show.
"I felt so famous," said junior Tilly Cornblatt, of Reisterstown.
How the young singers came to open for Leno is a story about serendipity and their own talent. But it's also a story about a student-run, self-taught group, with no faculty adviser and no place to practice, that organizes its own auditions, does its own arrangements and has flourished since its founding in the early 1990s, even as students graduate from school and the group's membership changes from year to year.
And it's a story about how a chance comment by Elizabeth Makris, of Timonium, the group's lone freshman, landed the girls the biggest gig of their lives — and gave them a taste of a bigger spotlight than their upcoming Valentine's Day performance for the school community.
Makris came home one day last fall and told her mother, Chrissey, and her godmother, Nicoletta Macris (no relation) that she had been accepted into an a cappella group. As luck would have it, Nicoletta Macris, who is public relations and marketing director of the Lyric Opera House, had been looking for an a cappella group to open for Leno, whose agent often books high school singing groups as opening acts for the comedian when he performs.
"I told her I'd gotten into the group," said Elizabeth Makris, 14. "She said she was looking for an a cappella group to open for Jay Leno. I was like, 'OK.'"
"That's what he wanted," Nicoletta Macris said. "It was total serendipity."
Now, group members dare to dream of future gigs that could help them make a name for themselves.
Junior Kira Barrett, of Mount Washington, said Leno is the group's hero.
"He's given us our shot," she said.
Formed in the early 1990s, Pleiades, pronounced Plee-ah-dees, took its name from a cluster of stars known as the Seven Sisters.
"There were seven of us" who started the group, said Elizabeth Clifton, who was Elizabeth Leonard when she co-founded Pleiades with classmates Caroline Mallonnee and Elise Pittenger.
All three have chosen careers in music. Clifton, now, 39, of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., teaches music in an independent early childhood development program and last year started her own a cappella group for women. Mallonee is a composer in Buffalo, N.Y., and Pittenger is a cellist for the Orquestra Filarmonica de Minas Gerais, in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.
Clifton said she had no great expectations for Pleiades, other than as a fun pastime.
"I found so much pleasure in it when I was in upper school," she said, adding that she wouldn't have known the group was still in existence if she hadn't heard about them opening for Leno.
"I am so proud of you," she wrote on Facebook.
"Pleiades remains a magnet for many Friends students.
"We all like to sing," said sophomore Allie Burrows, of Guilford.
They also like the autonomy of the group, which is informally led by seniors like Emelia Halvorsen, of Roland Park.
"We don't have a teacher telling us what to do," said junior Connor Hardy, of Baltimore's Otterbein neighborhood.
That means the group is on its honor to practice regularly, usually on Sundays at a member's house, when they still have homework to do for school.
"It can be a little bit stressful," said sophomore Julianne McFarland, of Roland Park.
This year, it has been even more challenging, because Forbush Auditorium, the school's performing arts center, is closed for major renovations.
For Pleiades, "It's a logistical challenge," said school spokeswoman Heidi Blalock. "It's been a year of trying to be resourceful."
The girls practice where they can, even under a staircase at school.
"There's good acoustics there," McFarland said.
"I feel like we can practice anywhere," said Barrett.
Despite the challenges, the girls remain committed and flexible — especially junior Anne Marie Green, of Towson. She doubles as the group's 'beat boxer," cupping her hands around a microphone during some songs and providing rhythmic vocal percussion, making noises that sound like drumbeats. She even took lessons from Burrows' brother, James, 12, a student at the Lab School of Baltimore.
"We're very passionate about the group," said Burrows, who joined as a freshman. "I feel like I'm obsessed."
They jumped at the chance to open for Leno, but not without a few cases of nerves before the show.
"I get nervous when we do convocations in front of the school," Green said.
"I haven't really registered it yet," said sophomore Kayleigh Ford, of Towson.
Even Halvorsen, the senior, was nervous as the girls milled about their dressing room at the Lyric last Thursday night, doing a last-minute run-through of the Amy Winehouse song "Valerie."
Some were already in their high heels; others still in flat shoes and boots.
"It's starting to sink in," Halvorsen said, wringing her hands.
Then they were off to meet Leno and hobnob with big names locally, like Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and his wife, Jill.
"That was crazy," Barrett said as she headed backstage.
Halvorsen managed to take a photo with her cellphone of Leno's back and the side of her own face.
"It's a great selfie," she said, "We're friends."
Twenty minutes later, audience members were settling into their seats, except for Green's mother, Lynn, who regaled a reporter with the story of how her daughter jumped up on a table at age 5 and announced, "I'm going to sing you a song that I wrote."
Her daughter being onstage at the Lyric, she said, "doesn't surprise me at all."
Then, the lights dimmed and an announcer said, "We'd like you to put your hands together for the Pleiades group."
And out they came, poised and lively, snapping their fingers, their voices rising and falling in harmony.
"We're so grateful to be here," Halvorsen told the audience.
At the intermission, one man was overheard saying to another, "Talented group of high school students, don't you think?"
The next day, back at school, they talked excitedly about meeting Leno, their big-time debut, their plans for the future and how the experience toughened them up and brought them closer together.
"I doubt we'll be nervous after this," said McFarland.
They were proud of how they performed their songs.
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"We killed them," Cornblatt declared.
As for the future, they were looking forward to their annual Valentine's Day concert with the Quaker school's male a cappella group, the Quaketones, as well as a scheduled upper school spring choral concert on April 9.
But they were looking to a possibly bigger future. They were already posting concert footage online.
"Now, they need to get an agent," Blalock said.
"We hope something more comes of it," said Barrett. "But in the meantime we're just celebrating."
If nothing else, said Halvorsen, it would be a highlight of her senior year, or at least until graduation.
"It's like the perfect memory to leave with," she said.