World-renowned opera singer Karen Slack talks about the intersection of performing arts, the coronavirus and race. Slack also talks about the importance of using her own voice as a Black woman.
Slack, a soprano, has recently performed in Verdi’s AIDA with Austin Opera, the West Coast premiere of Terence Blanchard’s Champion and more.
Karen Slack: I want everybody to feel like they have a place. I know I have a place even though someone may have made me feel like I didn’t have a place, I know I had a place you just laid your coat on it and your bag on it. And I say just move your bag so that I can sit in my seat and we can do this. We can do this as a collective, you know, not as a replacement. But as you know, this full body, this gumbo, you know, of all of us together moving forward.
Jonathan Weiler: This is another episode of COVID conversations. I’m Jonathan Weiler. I’m a professor in the curriculum of Global Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Matthew Andrews: I am Matt Andrews. I’m a professor in the Department of History here at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Jonathan Weiler: Today we spoke with Karen Slack, a internationally renowned opera singer.
MA: Just a few of the highlights and I’m going to have to keep this brief because as I was reading over the highlights, I could go on for the entire 30 minutes, but Karen has performed in Verdi’s Aida with the Austin Opera in Falstaff with Arizona opera. The West Coast premiere of Terence Blanchard’s champion, which we hope to talk about a little bit, with the San Francisco Opera Porgy and Bess at the MET. In addition, Karen portrayed a featured role as one of the opera divas in Tyler Perry’s movie and soundtrack for colored girls that may be a film that some of the students who are listening are familiar with. Karen is also the host of the Facebook Live Show “Kiki Conversations” where she engages in weekly discussions with artists in the opera and the classical and the Broadway fields.
JW: We spoke to Karen about her art, how she just hones her craft as a performer and also about the context in which we’re living, the context of COVID. And of course, the context of the post George Floyd world in which really this unprecedented reckoning with racism is taking place. A reckoning which has very much suffused the world of opera and performing arts. And that’s something that Karen had a lot of interesting things to say about.
MA: Yeah, Jonathan, I was so interested in this notion of one’s voice. And she talked about using her voice as an opera singer in this particular moment. She talked about using her voice as a black woman in the United States. And she just talked about the importance of using one’s voice during these, you know, twin pandemics of COVID and racism. We talk generally about the effects of COVID on the fine arts, the performing arts, arts like opera, we even talked about the links between opera and boxing. So if you think that’s something you might be interested in, actually, I think you should be interested in these links. We talk about those things as well.
JW: But it was all just a joy to speak with her.
MA: Jonathan, you and I have been talking to Karen and we’ve got a sense of her voice over zoom. But now let’s take a moment and get a sense of Karen performing her craft. Karen, thank you so much for joining and speaking with us today.
KS: Thank you for having me. I’m happy to be here and happy to be invited.
MA: Karen, we usually begin our podcasts by just getting a sense of the general biography of our guests. You’re joining us from Philadelphia, but you’re from Philadelphia. We’ve read in your biography. So how does a girl from Philly go to performing on opera stages all around the world? Can you give us sort of a thumbnail sketch of of that evolution?
KS: Sure. Philadelphia is a thriving rich music city. It’s always been. You know, we have the oldest Opera House in the world, the Academy of Music and of course Philly Orchestra, opera, Philly Curtis Institute of Music. So music is in the air here, along with our rich history of hip hop culture and soul music and all these things. So growing up, I didn’t aspire to be an opera singer. I wanted to be a veterinarian pretty much my whole life until I discovered that I had this big sound, this big voice. You know, I always sang growing up just you know, casually at home and when I was in middle school, my teacher encouraged me to join the choir. And so I joined choir and then she pushed me to audition for the high school for Performing Arts in Philly. And I got in on the spot after the audition, singing “The Greatest Love of All” Whitney Houston’s version. And my high school teacher introduced me to opera. I was 14 years old. Hearing Maria Kahless, Jesse Norman, of course. And I for the first time recognized a voice that sounded like mine, you know, I didn’t have a gospel big heavy, kind of like soulful voice It was very high and loud and you know, head voice that kids have but very strong. And at 16 years old, I went to see Denise Graves, seeing Carmen with opera Philadelphia. And I knew then that I wanted to do that for the rest of my life. It was just tremendous to see a beautiful black woman on the stage. And to know that it was possible that I could do that someday. And so I took voice lessons and piano lessons and went to the University of Hartford for one year. And then I won this major competition in New York City called The Rosa Ponselle international competition Rosa Ponselle was a great American dramatic soprano. And I won $50,000, I was 18 years old, and I moved to New York City, studied privately. And that’s really where it started to take off for me in a way of really believing that I could actually have a career in opera.
MA: Could I just follow up on one of those? I think that moment where you go to the opera, and you see, as you described her a beautiful black woman on the stage performing, when did that become possible for, you know, when you were a girl? When did that become possible for people to actually see, do you have a sense of the general story of desegregation in the American opera world?
KS: Well, I mean, I think we’re still having these conversations about representation and access to classical music and to the highest levels of the career. You know, the higher you go up, the less diversity there is, particularly with black artists. I think, you know, when you’re thinking about black people, when Marian Anderson was at her peak, black people weren’t even able to sing in opera houses in America. You know, you’re talking about 1950s I think she made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1955. And she had already been singing for 20 years in Europe. You know, black people integrated opera houses in Europe much sooner than in America. You know, I think Leontyne Price made her debut in ’57 or ’58, ’61 at the Metropolitan Opera, you know, but she had already been singing in Vienna, in Berlin, you know. There are many unsung artists Robert McFerrin, Bobby McFerrin his father, you know, should have had the career that his voice lent itself to but again, black people could not sing in opera houses.
MA: Names like Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson are the exceptions. The names that we know, but this is not the norm for African American artists.
KS: Not in America, not in America. In Germany? Yes, yes, but not in America and still to this day. They’re not enough.
JW: And Karen, just to follow up on that, I know we’ll talk more about, for lack of a better way of saying at this post George Floyd moment and how it impacts your world. But I’m wondering over the past, say 10 years, prior to May of 2020, has there been more of a change or an evolution or has it mostly just been a handful of black stars like yourself, in another wise very overwhelmingly white worlds?
KS: Well, I have to say in many of the, as I call them the gatekeepers, the people that are the decision makers, I am not a star by any stretch of the imagination, you know, my talent lends itself to having, I think, a major international career but there have been barriers there for various reasons. I mean, you know, there is a long stretch between a Leontyne Price and a Grace Bumbry. To a Jesse Norman, 80s 90s 2000s, to a Denyce Graves to Larry Brownlee, now, Eric Owens who are considered the big international superstars. There’s a big gap. You know, and we’re just talking about singers on stage. We’re not even talking about administrators, general directors, artistic administrators, like there is such a lack of representation for the people who get to make these decisions about who gets to be on the stage, that just don’t exist. There hasn’t been a black, there is one black general director, Wayne Brown in Michigan Opera Theatre. And it’s been 27 years since we had a black woman to be artistic director in an American Opera House. 27 years for a woman.
MA: One of the articles that Elias sent us talked about how the the Met has presented, I’ve got the numbers here, 306 operas in it’s 137 year history. And none of them by a black composer, although it sounds like that’s about to be hopefully rectified maybe when we come out of COVID and this may get us to your next project so we can we can get to that toward the end.
JW: Matt, let me just add here. That first black composer we know is Karen’s dear friend Terence Blanchard, who she’s worked with previously so it sounds like that will be a monumental event when it when it finally happens.
KS: Yes, I mean, I spoke about this on a panel at I think University of Michigan and Mr. Shirley, Joe Shirley, tremendous, very, very famous African American tenor who broke a lot of barriers in his career spoke about Terrence’s opera not being the first black opera I think at the Met but there was another opera that the Met presented but again, not produced by a black composer. They were brought in as a tour. So the Met has not, no, this would be the first time that Terence Blanchard will be the first African American composer to have a opera produced by the Metropolitan Opera, which is “Fire Shut Up in My Bones.” It’s based on the story of the wonderful author and columnist, a New York Times columnist Charles Blow, which was premiered last summer at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis.
MA: And you were in that production, correct?
KS: I was, I created the role of Billy, which is Charles’s mom and I created that role from the ground up from the first note to the last note. I was doing “Champion”, his first opera, in San Francisco, and he approached me and said you know I’m writing this new opera and I want you to be in it. I want you to play Billy. And the people in St. Louis didn’t know who I was, which is strange. I’ve been around for a while. And so he really pushed for me to be a part of that premiere, literally, from the beginning. And I owe Terrence, I mean I’m so thankful for our relationship, our friendship, our musical relationship, you know, he built he wrote that role for me, and I’m forever indebted to him for the opportunity. Someone who’s not in this world and not in the classical world, someone who’s from the outside, you know, saw me and heard me and said, I want you. Where people in this industry, don’t always see and hear in a way, it’s very interesting. That’s a conversation for a whole other podcast.
MA: Well and then for our student listeners who don’t know Terence Blanchard, a famous jazz musician, and then of course maybe most famous for being known as the person who does the music for the films for Spike Lee’s films.
JW: Yeah. Just a quick comment actually about what you just said, Karen, about Terrence identifying you and then giving you that opportunity. And Nikole Hannah Jones, the great journalist and mastermind of the 1619 project is a UNC alum. She graduated from the Journalism school, got her master’s here in 2003. She was on a panel at UNC last fall, because she’s helped initiate this Ida B. Wells project to bring more black journalists into, you know, positions of significance in the field. And she said, you know, this is not a diversity project. You know, this isn’t about sort of just having more black or non white faces for the sake of it, the industry needs that, because otherwise it won’t have the stories or the experience or the perspective that will make journalism better. And so I just, you know, just in terms of your connection to Terrence is, you know, it’s not about just checking a box, it’s about lifting up the entire field by opening it to talent that previously had been foreclosed.
KS: Absolutely. You must have it, you know, not diversity for diversity sake, but diversity because someone that has always had a seat at the table will not have the same ideas as someone who’s never been invited to the table. They don’t see the world the same way. They don’t have the same experiences. And if we are, who we say we are, which are the truth tellers, the storytellers, you know, then we must let everybody come in and tell the stories. Because it’s not about oh, you’re a white guy and I’m a black woman and I’m just telling stories for my community. No, if my heart is broken and you’ve had your heart broken then that means that we have a connection, we have a story, you know we have a similarity. We must look beyond, I always say, you know, when you drink a cappuccino, what’s the good part? It’s not the foam, it’s past the foam. We need to stop drinking the damn foam and get to the good part get to the meat and potatoes the middle. You know, we have to stop that.
JW: We don’t want meat and potatoes in our cappuccino per se. No, we don’t need that. But the point is well taken.
KS: I know when I said it, I was like, Oh my God. That’s crazy. I meant to say we must get to the espresso.
MA: Karen so we want to address a few topics today. But one of them is the effects of COVID on our society. As you know this podcast is called COVID Conversations. And it’s part of the Carolina Away Program where Carolina students, undergraduate and graduate level, are exploring the effects of COVID in different ways on our society. And so I was hoping we could talk a little bit about the effects of COVID on the field of the performing arts, maybe opera specifically. I would imagine this is a bleak story. But can you step back and assess the state of the performing arts in the United States, generally, at this time, in this moment of COVID?
KS: Well, it’s bleak, but we’re not defeated. You know, art must go on art must continue. It will continue. It’ll just look different on the other side. It’ll be different, which, you know, honestly, I think is a good thing. It’s good. It’s good for everyone. Personally, yes, I’ve lost the work. I’ve lost a lot of money. I lost a lot of opportunities. As my career was actually really having another life, you know, with these new works and these things, and then everything just stopped. You know, I had just been a part of the extended performances at the Metropolitan Opera of their very successful production of Porgy and Bess. Shortly after that I performed for recitals literally in a week and a half after leaving New York. And then COVID happened I had sung a big concert up in Massachusetts with orchestra and flying home the next day, though, everything shut down. So that’s Sunday, I’m going home, and Monday we all went on lockdown, right? And so you know, Europe is closed. Asia is closed, America is closed. And all of a sudden all of these opera singers and all these theaters are black. And no money is flowing and companies are refusing to pay. Some companies are only paying percentages of contracts. Broadway is shut down and everyone’s crippled. You know. And interestingly enough, what I’ve found five months on the other side is that those of us who have always had to hustle and grind, and come up with interesting ways to make art are the ones that are thriving the most, versus some of the most successful artists who have sort of had it. I don’t want to say easy, because that’s not the right word to say, but he has, you know, has had the path. They’re booked out three to five years in advance, and they’re singing the same roles over and over again. They’ve not had to be as creative in ways to make money — have suffered the most, you know. If you had 90 to $150,000 of contracts, and you don’t have them anymore, and it’s all gone.
JW: Karen, just a follow up to Matt’s question about the impact of this on your business, specifically in your world, are there recording opportunities? Do folks make albums? Is there a way to sell your music without, or is live performance really most of the ballgame for you?
KS: Yeah, just like I want to say pop artists in a way — live music is the bread and butter. That’s where you make most of your money. I mean, listen, there’s such a small percentage of the 1% of classical artists, particularly vocalists, that get to make… that have recording contracts you know that was very much in a different century in that way. You know what I mean? Like that’s very 20th century, like most people do not have recording contracts and they are not lucrative. They don’t make money. But what we found in this time period, is that we have had to fast track, as an art form, into learning this whole… all of this stuff, how to record, what microphone to use, how to use Zoom and how to use… you know, how do you say… do voices lessons on FaceTime and all of these things. How do we do virtual offerings like this? These last several months have been a crash course in how to move the art form of classical music into the 21st century, particularly opera.
MA: Karen, I was really interested — just now you were saying that you thought that the world of the fine arts, the world of opera will be different on the other side of COVID, and not just different, but you hinted that maybe it’s going to be better. Can I ask what types of changes you have in mind when you think that?
KS: Well, first off the idea that these massive productions and these big you know… the concert halls are the only way opera can be produced is now false, you know? It can be done smaller scale, it can be done with smaller audiences and still have the impact. Out of necessity, we are learning that it’s going to be the only way for probably at least a year and a half to two years. I think this filling up these 3000 seat houses to the brim, which wasn’t really happening anyway, at this point because of the economy. You know, we understand that we’re going to have to go back to chamber music, go back to, you know, recital series and all of these things, but it’s good because you will have more of an intimate relationship with your audience, and we will be able by — virtually — to reach a bigger audience to reach an audience that expands past the classical audience or people who like listen to it in behind… as you know, mood music in the back or, you know, the Tik Tok. Singers are on Tik Tok and Instagram and we can reach the entire world now, virtually and it’s going to change our industry. It’s going to make people want to come into our world, which we desperately need. Again, about diversity but there’s diversity of thought, diversity of taste. We need that we need people in theater and Hollywood and sports. Like I would love to have a sporting… that kind of sporting element into the classical music world. Like it used to be in the old school where people would like scream out loud for things that they loved and cheered for the for the good guy and booed the bad guy, you know, like, and not that we need to totally get away from our very beautiful culture kind of art form, but it needs to relax a little bit! You know what I mean?
MA: We are speaking with the opera star Karen Slack and talking to her about the role of the performing arts in the age of COVID and the links between the performing arts and activism in contemporary America.
JW: You were involved in a panel discussion, I guess it was in July?
KS: That feels like last year yeah.
JW: Yeah, COVID time is disorienting. With several other well-known people in the opera world, Black people in the opera world, just talking about how COVID and George Floyd, the aftermath of the George Floyd killing, is prompting this rethinking — I guess, correct me if I’m wrong. Originally, the LA Opera House had asked that a performance take place and instead the counter proposal was, why don’t we have a conversation about how these sort of major forces in society are affecting people of color? So I guess first, can you talk about just maybe a little bit how that came together? And then second, kind of your perspective on just that experience and the reaction to it.
KS: Yes. Well, my wonderful sister friend and colleague J’Nai Bridges, beautiful mezzo-soprano, was asked to give, I think virtual concert recital, you know, like many companies are asking artists to do and she thought because of the magnitude of the moment that that was not appropriate for her. And so she… I think there had already been talks prior to this, but she offered LA the option to do a panel, to bring in artists and so she called all of her friends. She texts me — and it literally happened in like two days — and said, you know, ‘can you do this? Are you interested?’ And so she asked Larry Brownlee, myself, Morris Robinson, Julia Bullock, Russell Thomas, you know, all of us are in the same age group and very impactful in our careers where we are, you know, very outspoken on issues. And so, the panel was brilliant, and I just had no idea that it was going to morph into this action, this change action, this thing of like people from all over the world, finally, listening to the conversations that we all have with each other privately. And I’m so thankful for J’Nai for inviting me to that table, because the world needed to hear that although all of us have some semblance of success, that we had.. that there’s another side to it: that no, when you’re out in the world no one cares that you’re an international opera singer, no one cares that you have five degrees, whatever that is, or that you speak languages — all they see is your color. You know, and or your gender. All of us are very accomplished in our own way and to to hear us speak so openly and so raw, you know, listen, we were all texting each other literally hours before the night before just checking in, like, are you as nervous as I am? Because again, we were having our private conversations out in the open but it was necessary.
MA: One of the things that the massive slowdown brought on by COVID and then with the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and then the shooting of Jacob Blake and it just goes on — one of the things that has prompted in me and so many people that I know, is this moment of self-reflection, where we are asking ourselves, what good am I doing in the world right now. And Karen, please believe me when I say I am not challenging you and your craft when I ask you this this question, but I’m just really interested in your answer here. What do you see as the value of the Fine Arts in this particular moment? In the value of your voice at this particular moment?
KS: I feel like my voice is so incredibly important at this moment. And so incredibly strong in this moment. Not just my voice, my singing voice. Yes. Which is beautiful. Yes, which is moving, but my voice my mind, my soul, it’s all attached. You know, I mean, during this COVID time, I created my show “Kiki Conversations” where I sit and talk to people and having these hard conversations and I cannot tell you how impactful those conversations have been for the industry because people in the industry tell me and how thankful they are that I had the courage to get up and to talk to people about the hard things to talk to important people about the hard things, you know, and that’s just, that’s just an extension of my singing of my craft. You know, I It is important for people to see me in all of my beauty and all of my blackness and also to stand there and deliver all of the emotions. And that does not, in this time, it’s even more important because people need to be touched, they need to be moved, they need to, you know, we need music. We need people who have the courage to stand up and say, yes, my heart is broken, but I’m gonna still be of service to this art form, service to this industry because we are in service. And that’s how I look at everything that I do. So it’s not about me, it’s about me in being a service to the people. So the fine art is important because we are, you know, it takes a lot of hours and a lot of money to be able to put that bow in that string and make the most beautiful, heartfelt sound. No one can tell me that that’s not important.
JW: Karen, those white gatekeepers who you mentioned earlier, and I know it’s early, and it’s hard to know how things are gonna unfold. Do you have a sense that some of those white gatekeepers are listening and open in ways that were not previously true? Are you having, are you hearing different things? Are you having different kinds of conversations than has previously been the case?
KS: Yes, more than ever. Absolutely. Like I said, I get messages I, you know, my colleagues and I talk about well, who called you today? Who asked you to speak on a panel, who, who asked you for your time? Some people, they just want an hour to speak to you and say, well, I don’t know what to do. And this is the moment this is I don’t think we’ll ever be as open as we are now and I hope it stays that way. I really think that companies are scrambling particularly after the fiasco of the blackout day when all of the company’s put the black you know, the black out there social media, listen, if it doesn’t reflect your back office then it doesn’t mean anything if you’ve not already been doing this work to put a black you know, on your social media, it’s just ridiculous and I understand that they, you know, tried to do what they thought was the right thing and some companies got it right but most did not. And they didn’t understand why they got the backlash again, you have to keep doing your work. You have to understand that people haven’t already been watching you see people don’t realize that, the companies don’t realize that. There are people who have already been watching and seeing the things that you’ve not done. And so um, you know, I I believe that, that a lot of people are wanting to right the wrongs and wanting to do better and wanting to do more than just putting more people of color on their stage. You know, they, you know, I Portland opera Sue Dixon, who’s the general director reached out to me and gave me an artistic advisor –invited me to be one of their artistic advisors for their company. And that’s amazing. She listened to the LA opera panel, she gave me a seat at the table, which is what I asked for, you know, and it’s not the only seat I’ve been invited to at this moment. And so I think people want to do better, but I think that it has to be taught, it has to come from the top. It has to be, you know, Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Metropolitan Opera, the big international opera companies to lead the way. They’ll probably be the hardest to pull along. It’ll be the middle. It’ll be the smaller companies, I think, who want to do the impactful work, but again, the leaders have to step up. The agencies that represent artists have to step up.
JW: Karen since you just referred to a seat at the table, I just want to briefly mention a great quote from you from the LA Opera panel where you said, “I’m not asking for your seat. I’m asking you to move over so I can sit in mine.” I appreciated that framing of what’s at stake right now.
KS: Yeah, I mean, I know this whole thing of and I’m sure, listen, I’m a realist, I keep it real. Anybody who knows me, I understand I’m sure white people are very, very afraid that they are no longer going to have the control. They’re no longer going to be in these positions, you know that everyone’s going to be thrown out and replaced. And that’s just to me personally, that is not the answer. I want everybody to feel like they have a place. I know I have a place even though someone may have made me feel like I didn’t have a place I know I had a place you just was you just laid your coat on it and your bag on it. And I say just move your bag so that I can sit in my seat and we can we can do this. We can do this as a collective. You know, not as a replacement. But as you know, this full body this gumbo, you know, of all of us together moving forward, and then there are some people who don’t want you to be there, well, then I think we all need to get them out. Those are the people that need to be the need to be put out, are the ones who just want business as usual, who don’t want any type of diversity, be a gender, race, culture, whatever we need to work to get those people out and get to the real good work.
MA: So Karen, Jonathan, I would just have to ask you about this. We are both maybe we shouldn’t be boxing fans, but I think we would both admit that we are boxing fans. We are both historians of of boxing. And so I have to ask about the opera champion that you performed in an opera about the boxer Emile Griffith and for those listening to the podcast who probably don’t know who Emile Griffith is, he was a black middleweight also a welterweight I believe, from the US Virgin Islands but grew up in New York City. And I knew about him because he famously defeated another fighter Benny Paret in a nationally televised boxing match in New York City in 1962. And one of the things that is most famous about this fight is that Benny Paret died from the injuries that he sustained in the ring that that night. But there’s more to the story than that. I mean, that may be that story in and of itself is not worthy of an opera. But there’s another side to this story. Could you maybe start by filling in the the details about the Emile Griffith Benny Paret story?
KS: Yes, well, as you guys are fans of boxing, so am I secretly and of course, and of course, Terrence is a huge, huge fan of boxing. And so when OTS or opera theater of St. Louis approached him about writing an opera about Katrina, he turned that opportunity down and decided to write an opera, write “Champion” and the beautiful story about Emile is you know he was the he was a rags to riches story of course and you know he suffered from dementia later on in this life but that he was a homosexual and at the time during that time you were not out in the 50s you know you couldn’t be out you couldn’t love you know someone who was of the same sex and so he always kept that that part hidden but that he was quite the beautiful a beautiful soul. I played Emelda, Emile’s mother, and which was the role was created by the fantastically amazing superstar soprano Denise Graves, mezzo-soprano Denise Graves in St. Louis and they had a very special close relationship. And she really was the reason I think why Emile grows to you know the success and the heights of boxing but there’s a wonderful phrase that Emile sings in “Champion” you know is “I kill a man and the world loves me but I love a man and the world wants to kill me.” And when a when God that just takes me out every time but when Arthur Willie sings that line, it just wrecks me it wrecks me, you know, because of course you know Benny Paret he he’s, he’s injured in the boxing match, you know, and he dies and Emile never got over that. He was deeply affected by that injury of Benny Paret and then him dying. And so it is a tremendous story and I just wish that more opera companies did “Champion.” I know everyone’s into “Fire” and “Fire” is a beautiful story. And but I think “Champion” is such an amazing story and an important story to, to hear about the struggles of black men, and being gay and being, you know, successful. And of course, it’s the sort of the same premise of “Fire” in a way and I keep telling Terrence like, they’re gonna think that that’s your bag, you know that that’s your whole like, you’d love to tell the stories. But again, it’s about telling all of the stories. And “Champion” yeah, “Champion” is really special to me.
JW: We have a joke in teaching that we just basically teach the same course over and over again, even if we call it something different. So, but, Karen, just about the theatrics of that, was there was the fight itself portrayed in any way on stage?
KS: Yes. So at the end of Act One, is like one of the most amazing acts, finales in opera I think. Terence perfects that show time you know with the horns and everybody’s singing line and how the chorus plays the audience you know at the at the ring at the boxing match and it’s brilliant, it is brilliant. You leave wanting to like, run out and cheer you know but of course you know Benny gets knocked out or whatever and and then it goes then the end goes into the finale goes back into the old Emile because the opera is young Emile, you see young Emile’s journey, but old Emile during his dementia is looking from upstage at all of the action that’s happening. And so, you know, he says talks about in his head, it happens so fast, something good turns into something that is so bad. So that’s kind of how the act ends with you know, him getting knocked out and then going back to old Emile and just going back to him as an old man always living with the regret of injuring Benny.
MA: Well, I’m thinking when I read about this this opera and I’ve got to see this now, it made me think of the famous boxing scenes in Martin Scorsese’s film, Raging Bull, where the fights between Jake LaMotta and Sugar Ray Robinson if I remember this, right, they’re set to opera music. I think Scorsese plays opera music in the background. So I’m sort of struck by the potential intersection of these these two arts the the manly art of boxing, as it was called in the 19th century, and then the art of opera singing having been around both, do you see any links between these these two art forms?
KS: Yes, the grandeur, the blood sweat and tears, the fighting in a different way absolutely sometimes I feel like I’ve been to war at the end of some of these operas or auditions or whatever the case may be depending on the situation. But yeah i mean you know Rocky “flying high now” you know they have the operatic voice and of course you know opera is to me the height of all it incorporates all the art forms together of course and it is the height of all emotion.
MA: And people speak of boxing as being the height of all athletic forms, right, it’s the it’s the rawest it’s the most emotional it’s the most naked of all this. That’s super interesting. Yeah, thank you.
KS: There we go. Exactly. I think this might be the only boxing opera I’m not really sure but it might be it’s fine. Yeah, it should it not that it should be but “Champion” knocks it out the park.
JW: Just a quick question about, again, I just don’t know anything about this world. When you perform in “Champion”, does it do a run of several weeks? Is it a one-time event? What’s the just how does that work?
KS: Well, you know, in America since everything is, you know, funded by patrons, we don’t have the luxury of running opera having opera all year round all the time, you know, doing 30 performances, like in Europe of a particular piece. So I think when “Champion” made its debut at St. Louis, I think there might have been eight performances through the summer because they have a summer festival from May to July, first week of July. But when we did it in St. Louis, we did it at SF Jazz, which is the you know, the company for San Francisco jazz and so we were able to use their stage and I think we did seven or eight shows but that’s not normal for opera. You know the Metropolitan Opera can run something of course as they are a repertory house from August to September to May. So they can do 15 to 20 performances of something but in America traditionally in regional companies you get between one and if you’re lucky, five performances of something which is pretty high for most regional companies
JW: And then just to follow up how much time does your voice need to recover from one performance to the to the next?
KS: Um, I could I mean, I’ve sung back to back performances like we could never do what Broadway does, eight shows a week that’s just impossible for opera. And we don’t use microphones so there’s just no, no way we can do that. I would say that one or two performances is or two to three performances back to back with no days off is terrible. And, but I will say two days of rest between shows is about right. Sometimes three is a little bit much, four is definitely a lot. But I try to do scales and warm up between performances. And it really depends on the show. But oftentimes, it’s not your voice, it’s your mind and your body that need the rest. You know, if you’re if you have if you are, if you have technique, a solid technique, you should be able to sing every day, you know, but the vocal cords, of course, the musculature around it needs rest, but mostly your body needs to rest.
JW: That sounds like another parallel with boxing, arguably, you just, you just need more time between performance because of what it takes out of it.
KS: Absolutely. And as you get older, you know, I’ll be 45 on September 22. And I’m finding that I really need to lay down and take that time to rest myself much more than I did in my 20s. Listen, I started getting paid to sing opera in my very early 20s because I started so soon, you know, I started training and I’m 45 I mean, that’s a lot of years. It’s a lot of years and I had to remind myself like Karen you know, when you don’t remember things I used to be able to like pick up a score, memorize and learn it real quickly. And you know, go sing it and now I have to really be more patient with myself but um, yeah, I think I like I’m think I mean, even so blessed to be even speaking to you guys at this moment. About this art form. I feel so lucky. I feel so lucky when I when I step back from it to go, wow. Yeah, you did it. You’re doing it. It’s still happening. People are still wanting to hear you sing and wanting to talk to you and you know, and do all of the things and COVID and all this stuff. Like wow, that’s pretty freaking amazing.
MA: Jonathan and I would like to bring in a PhD student Elias Gross who’s really the the mastermind here of putting all four of us to together. Elias, thank you so much for introducing us to Karen. We’d like to give you the opportunity to have your voice heard and and ask a question of Karen, if you’d like to.
Elias Gross: Sure. And thank you so much. I’m really happy to watch this conversation unfold and, and also just to have the relationship that I do with Karen to know such a fantastic artist for such a long period of time, but five or so years now at least.
KS: Yeah, for sure.
EG: I’ve had the opportunity to see Karen sing with the Philadelphia Orchestra. I’ve had the opportunity to see Karen sing in a classroom to a group of girls to talk about what it means to be an opera singer and and to be this embodied vision of a reality and a future for them and so I’m just always so grateful to pass you the mic whenever I get the chance not that you need it but um, but I guess I do have a question in in thinking about this and thinking about all the roles that each of us play. So my class that I bring to the COVID Investigations series is about artistic futures. Specifically, we’re we’re thinking about this region that we’re in in the American South but that means so many things and especially for you as a singer who’s embodying different roles and you’ve played Southern characters here and there and definitely worked in the south but so thinking about this artistic future so after after all of this, you’ve been doing the work other people are doing in the work, what is what is something that you imagine as an artistic future after COVID-19?
KS: Um, that we definitely work with other art forms, that we open it up, we open the Canon up to be more inclusive. Like I said, more theater more, you know, pop music like that we’re doing more collaborations that we bring opera and classical pieces to the people that we take it out of the big theater consistently, and bring it to the people. I mean, and I’m not just talking about coffee shops and you know, outreach, things like that, you know, but that we remember that this is an art form to be shared and not to be kept in a museum. It’s not precious. It is beautiful. It is amazing, but it’s not precious, it will not break. It will not be diluted if you let other people come and play in your sandbox. Like we need to make that very, very clear moving moving forward. Same with seats at the table. It’s only it only expands when we expand. You know, I hope that artists and singers, performers feel more empowered to speak truth, to call out things that are not right and to help and be of service to their art form and to be encouraged by gatekeepers and by powerful people in this industry to do that thing, because we can do it all day, but if they don’t listen, and they don’t encourage us, you know, and support us, we’re gonna be right back where we are, you know, or there’s always going to be this battle this, you know, back and forth of wills and power and that’s going to do nothing for anybody. People will leave the art form, people will, you know, it just won’t won’t be good. So you know, more empowerment, more support, more encouragement, more expansion. All of those things is what I wish for.
JW: Karen, thank you so much for joining us today. This has just been a fascinating conversation and in a world that I personally really knew nothing about. So we really appreciate your taking the time to be with us.
KS: It’s my joy, thank you, my pleasure.
JW: This has been another episode of COVID Conversations. Thank you to Rudi Colloredo-Mansfeld, Senior Associate Dean for social sciences and global, whose idea this series was. Klaus Myer, our great producer, Kristen Chavez in the College of Arts & Sciences Communications Office for publicizing the podcasts and providing, among other things a transcript on covidconversations.unc.edu. For those for whom it’s better to consume the podcast that way. Elias Gross, who’s a Ph.D. student in musicology here at UNC. It is through his good graces and connections that we were able to speak with Karen today. So Elias a special thank you for this episode and we will look forward to seeing you next time.
Original transcript provided by Otter.ai and edited by College of Arts & Sciences staff. It may contain errors.