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Power of the Brand: Or, how I stopped worrying & embraced #OperaGeek

It isn’t exactly a state secret – especially if you follow my Twitter or Facebook – that I’m KIND of a nerd. And by kind of, I mean full blown. So, here is an experiment. Close your eyes.

Picture your image of an opera diva.

Maybe you see Maria Callas, Diana Damrau, Joan Sutherland…maybe you just see a lady with horns on.

What I’ll bet you DON’T see in your mind’s eye is someone dolled up to the diva nines….playing a Gameboy. Or wearing a Legend of Zelda necklace, or geeking out over any number of videogame, fantasy, or science fiction topics while rehearsing for Mozart, or Verdi, or Puccini.

Thats ok. For a long time, I thought they had to be two separate things, too. Through school and college, I was always the weird, nerdy kid; the one who would be playing the newest Final Fantasy while everyone else was at a party (we don’t speak about 8, though. Shhh.). Through the first few years of my career, through my first management, I tried to cultivate this ‘only speak about opera/the arts, keep the diva face on’ idea. At my first manager’s request, I even removed some of the backstage pics of me playing gameboy, reading fantasy novels, etc and replaced them with all pictures that more fit the idea of ‘an opera singer’. I don’t blame him; for a long time, that is kind of how a career was built!

But now? Right on my current artist agency’s website, when you click ‘media’ under my link, is the image of me fully kitted out, playing A Link Between Worlds on my Gameboy. My twitter handle?? @TheOperaGeek. You can follow me across Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter with #OperaGeek. I happily post screenshots, discuss (and rage about) current games, show off my Game of Thrones Halloween costume, lament my horrible rolls in Dungeons & Dragons, and interact with sci-fi and fantasy groups on the same accounts I announce new roles, concerts, and appearances.

What was the change? For me, it was about meeting the right people, who opened my eyes to the shift in humanizing artists; my manager, Kathleen Berger; my teacher/artistic advisor to management Susan Eichhorn Young; and the wonderful James Mowdy of b|spoke Branding, who specializes in helping artists – especially in opera – find their own unique ‘brand’. I hadn’t really thought about it until this wonderfully supportive triad came into my life, but we singers ARE more than just performers – each of us constitutes our own unique brand, and can bring an individuality to everything we do. Where is the fun in cookie cutter renditions of roles? How do the notes speak for you, and not just for every other person who has sung them?

One of the things Susan blogs about and constantly sends home with those of us who work with her is the idea of finding your ‘authentic voice’. For me, the glamorized, always-on opera diva personality was certainly a part of – but definitely not my entire – authentic artist self. When I asked her about how she feels me embracing the power of the personal branding helped me land several more auditions as well as bookings, she said, “Nothing speaks louder than authenticity! You’ve embraced yours and don’t have to ask if it is okay to do it! Knowing and claiming it gives you power and possibility and a focus that says you are enough! You are more than enough! When you realize that, as an artist, more possibilities present themselves!” When I sat and thought about this, I realized how right she was; much of my worry and issues around auditioning came from my concern that I be exactly what THEY wanted, instead of being myself and letting them see how that could work for what I was auditioning for.

I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to be able to be yourself when you are in an art form that so often requires you to become someone else. That is a blog in and of itself!

…but first, I gotta go finish Breath of the Wild. Hard mode, of course. What, you think this is a GAME?

Til There Was You : A Tribute to Barbara Cook

Today, the music world lost a legend. That term is often tossed around rather lightly, but in the case of Barbara Cook, it is supremely fitting. No one who has the claim of originating Cunegonde in Candide, Marian in The Music Man, & Amalia in She Loves Me; who has given fantastic, award-winning performances as Julie in Carousel, Anna in The King & I, as well as untold amazing concert appearances and recordings including a stellar turn in Follies with the NY Philharmonic…well, you get the idea – no one who has done all she did is anything less than legend. She gave us joy and wonder in every performance, with her final appearance at age 88, just last year.

The first time I heard the name Barbara Cook, I was 16 years old. I’d just completed a run of Meet Me in St Louis at my arts high school, and a man named RC Thor came up to me and said, “There is a singer I think you need to hear.” He gave me a folder with the sheet music for Vanilla Ice Cream and the original Broadway cast recording of
I was hooked. With the help of my director Todd James I took that piece – with a heavy dose of Barbara – to the Texas statewide meeting of the International Thespian Society, and won their musical theatre division. It was the first time I’d won anything for singing, and that was me set on my way. (I did, however, have to promise Todd very solemnly that I wouldn’t touch Glitter and be Gay til I was older. And I didn’t. Mostly.)

I came to New York to go to college not long after, attending the opera conservatory at SUNY Purchase. One day, halfway through my freshman year, I got a call from RC – Barbara was going to be performing AT my college. He flew up, bought me the first of six (!) tickets to a Barbara Cook concert, and I was introduced to the magic that was Barbara Cook and Wally Harper. For anyone who didn’t have the great joy to see her live, the best way I can describe it is magical; she had a way of making everything she said and sang so personal that you may as well have been sitting in a room, just the two of you and Wally. She had a gift that all performers strive for and not many achieve – the ability to completely and utterly make herself vulnerable and emotionally open in her singing.

After the performance, my starstruck self was taken backstage with RC and some of the other members of Barbara’s fan society to actually meet her. I’m fairly sure I stammered like an idiot when RC introduced me and told her I was covering the Queen of the Night in the conservatory’s production of The Magic Flute I’ll never forget this; she smiled, looked right at me and said “Oh honey, I don’t think you’ll be just covering that for long.” (I ended up taking over the role, and have sung Queen many times since, including next year in Florida.)

I saw her five more times in performace; once more at Purchase, once at Cafe Carlyle, TWICE at Carnegie Hall, and in the phenomenal revue Sondheim on Sondheim. Three of those times, RC was with with me again, the final two also including his husband Gary. Once as a junior I saw her sitting five rows ahead of me at the Metropolitan Opera at a performance of Madama Butterfly; against all my better judgement, I approached her at the interval and (stammering again), asked her if I could have a hug (come on, you would too). Not only did she say of course and give me a huge hug, she then looked at me and said, “Aren’t you that girl from Purchase? Did you get to sing the Queen?” I’m fairly sure I became a puddle on the floor at that point.

Her final Carnegie Hall concert, RC & Gary – newly married – and myself were in the very front row. It was her 85th birthday concert, and it felt even more personal than anything I’d seen prior. She never shied away from speaking about her history of depression, alcoholism, and eating issues; rather, she celebrated the life that led her to where she was. AT one point, the bane of every singer – dust – caught her out with a coughing fit. She looked at us all, said “Can you believe this s—?”, called for some water, and started over. She laughed it off, we laughed it off, and it was a lesson in handling the unexpected. For any singer who was privileged enough to see her perform live, you received a true masterclass in wit, emotional involvement, and very importantly, doing all that without compromising the sound you made. Very famously, she never used a microphone for encores, and she didn’t need one; that classically trained sound could be heard at the back of the hall. Don’t ask her to sing Candide though; as one person found out, she would pull out a kazoo and play the overture.

Today, there have been many obituaries, I’m sure some pre-written, listing her amazing and storied achievements. Some even talk about her personal life, and how she overcame her divorce, alcoholism, depression, and so many other struggles to shine again when she was never expected to. For many of us – I’d say all of us – who loved her, it is a loss that feels so very personal, because she always brought so much of herself to every performance.

When the Kennedy Center honored her (in my personal opinion, far overdue!) in 2011, she was greeted by a star studded cast to sing hits from many of her shows such as  Music Man, She Loves Me, Follies, & Plain and Fancy; though no one touched Glitter and be Gay, they ended with a stirring, joyous chorus of Make Our Garden Grow from Candide. Barbara mouthed the words to all of the performances, tears in her eyes. A career spanning six decades, countless lives touched; what artist could ask for anything more?

For those of us who love you, I can honestly say this loss feels deeply personal; for 17 years, she has been an integral role model and part of my life as a singer. For her close friends and family, I can’t even imagine; for the music world as a whole, the loss is incalculable – we can only be grateful we had her as long as we did.

Farewell, Barbara. The sun comes up…we’ll think about you.

(This blog first appeared on On Stage Blog on August 8, 2017.)

 

Exciting News!

I’m thrilled to announce that I will be making my house debut with St. Petersburg Opera Company in one of my favorite roles, singing #QueenoftheNight in their 2018 production of #Mozart‘s #TheMagicFlute! Queen was my first-ever #opera role, when I sang it at Purchase Opera, Conservatory of Music at Purchase College.
Since then, I’ve returned as a guest artist to recreate the role for Purchase Opera, as well as performing her at numerous #concert appearances. She is near and very dear to my heart, and I’m full of excitement to renew our acquaintance under the baton of Maestro #MarkSforzini in February 2018. Please visit http://stpeteopera.org/the-magic-flute/ for more information.

 
👑Individual ticket sales for this show will be available after August 15, 2017.

Living Lieder

Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan, der aber traf.

I owe a much belated debt of gratitude to my college vocal coach, Oksana.

When I was preparing for my senior year recital, I remember mentioning to my vocal coach  that I wanted to do Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben (A Woman’s Love and Life) song cycle. It begins with the protagonist meeting the man she falls in love with; continues through their courtship, marriage, and children; and ends with her experiencing his death. I was devastated by her reply. “Absolutely not,” she said. “You don’t understand it enough yet.” Of course, I objected. I was dating Justin, who I would marry a few years later; I certainly understood love! I argued that point. “No,” she said. “You don’t understand the final song yet. You don’t know loss like that. You haven’t experienced anything like it.” I was miffed, of course; isn’t that what acting was about? In the end, I didn’t do the cycle.

All these years later, I understand her point.

Du schläfst, du harter, unbarmherz’ger Mann, den Todesschlaf.

Justin and I celebrated our eleventh wedding anniversary on October 1, 2016. The next day, my mom was flying up for a long-postponed mother-daughter trip to Lake George. We would only be gone for four days. Tuesday came and went; Wednesday evening, after a day of horseback riding and exploring small cafes, I texted Justin to see how his day was. His answer came back, “Left work with a terrible headache. Just got up to eat dinner. Going back to bed now.” We both figured it was just a seasonal migraine. The next day, as mom and I got on the boat for the lake tour, I texted again. “Worse today,” he wrote. “Called out of work. Going to stay home and rest. Seeing double, really weird.

Es blicket die Verlass’ne vor sich hin, Die Welt ist leer.

By Friday morning,  I was racing home at 90 miles an hour to take him to the ER, where after 7 hours of waiting and tests, they admitted him when they confirmed an abnormality on his brain MRI. He was in the hospital for five days, getting what felt like endless amounts of tests. On Saturday, we were told it was probably Multiple Sclerosis, but a spinal tap would confirm. Sunday morning, I got up and got glamorous – I had a concert upstate later that day – and went to spend as much time as possible with him before I had to drive up. Thankfully, his mom had also arrived by then, and stayed with him. I got through the concert on a wing and a prayer – and I can tell you, have never sung a more heartfelt ‘Ah, non credea mirarti’ and ‘Ah fors’è lui’ – and rushed back. We were told two weeks later that the tests showed no MS – but months of pain followed, with no diagnosis and little to no improvement, in his sight or the pain.

Geliebet hab’ ich und gelebt, ich bin nicht lebend mehr.

Finally, we managed to get into the neuro-opthalmology clinic at Weill Cornell hospital; of course, this meant more tests. On April 20th, the confirmation came back that my husband had Multiple Sclerosis; the tests showed multiple new abnormalities in the brain scan.

Ich zieh’ mich in mein Inn’res still zurück, der Schleier fällt

Throughout this entire journey, I’ve found solace in music. For the first time in a long time, I’ve pulled out my lieder book; I’ve looked at arias in a new way. I opened my Schumann book not too long ago, and happened to turn to the Frauenliebe und Leben. I happily sang through the whole cycle, and then came that final piece, the one I didn’t have the space to sing before. I looked at it with fresh eyes, remembering the terror I felt as I watched Justin sleep in that hospital, not knowing what was wrong but knowing it was something very serious. I am not one given to bouts of tears; and yet, listening to this piece now, with the experience of knowing that fear and possible loss, I found myself choked up.

Da hab’ ich dich und mein verlornes Glück, Du meine Welt!

How powerful, then, is music! At the same time as it can cause us to cry with pain we try to suppress, it can heal. By making the singer – and through them, the audience – confront these deeper, usually hidden emotions, we come to terms with how to get through them. The part of me that always wants to present a strong face to the world didn’t want to admit I was scared of losing Justin all through those hours watching him in his hospital bed; the part of me that creates music demanded I accept the emotion. The road ahead may be long (and not always easy), but easy was never promised; and at least it is a road we will be on together.

Now you have caused me my first pain,
But it struck hard,
You sleep, you harsh and pitiless man,
The sleep of death.
The deserted one stares ahead,
The world is void.
I have loved and I have lived,
And now my life is done.
Silently I withdraw into myself,
The veil falls,
There I have you and my lost happiness,
You, my world!

(Translations by Richard Stokes, author of The Book of Lieder (Faber, 2005)

 

To my dear friend Brian Asawa (Oct. 1, 1966- April 18,2016)

It has been a whole year since we lost you (far too soon). Your wit, smile, friendship, and talent are missed every day. Your late-night phone calls to inform me what role I MUST learn next always made me feel special, and how much you believed in me. You had an ability to make whoever you were talking to, whoever you were singing with, feel like the most important person to in the universe at that moment in time.

Beyond this, you had a talent that was beyond compare. My mother said that when she listened to us singing ‘Più amabile beltà’ from Giulio Cesare, she couldn’t tell where one of us stopped singing and the other began.

You were the first Japanese-American to win the Met Competition; headlining revivals of Handel and baroque pieces across the world; song cycles for you by Jake Heggie and Juliana Hall. Your accomplishments are too many to list.

I miss you. The entire opera world misses you.

Love, Kelli

 

For those of you reading this who may not have experienced Brian’s gift, please listen to this aria from Handel’s Rodelinda; Brian singing Handel was a wonder to behold.

THE #OPERAGEEK ON THE NEA ELIMINATION PROPOSAL

Hello again, and happy Saturday!
I wrote the following essay/post waaaaaay back in January, when it was merely rumoured that the current administration would attempt to eliminate the NEA and the NEH. However, now that the budget has been officially proposed, I feel it is worth a share here as well; please feel free to share it on, as I believe this impacts both artists AND their audiences.

Today, the incoming administration released their budget proposal to cut the deficit and reduce spending. included in this proposal, almost as if it was a throwaway line onstage, is casually stated, “The Corporation for Public Broadcasting would be privatized, and the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities will be eliminated entirely.”
I’d like to have an honest discussion about what that means for performers such as myself.
Very few people in the world of classical music or opera are working as solo artists in the ‘name-recognition’ houses. By this, I mean houses such as The Met, La Scala, Covent Garden, et al. For the purpose of this explanation, I would like everyone to know that even the artists who are internationally famous/recognized are freelancers, working on a 1099 basis, which is a situation fraught with disaster unto itself.
For those of us who have not yet broken that beautiful crystal ceiling into the ‘big houses’, we rely on small local or regional opera companies, symphonies, and orchestras to keep ourselves afloat in the industry. Even singers who do perform at these houses can often be found working in between the ‘big house’ gigs at wonderful small companies nationwide and internationally.
Do you know what those small companies rely on to pay us?
Grants from the NEA. Even with grants from the NEA, the burden of fundraising from private donors to pay the artists is a huge task – without the NEA, it is nigh insurmountable. Without the NEA, many of these small companies will vanish, and the work they provided us along with them; that is even before you consider the loss of PBS, which in many cases is the first exposure young children get to the world of art and music, now that theatre and music programs are cut across the country to make way for sports.
When they vanish, so will the work. When the work vanishes, taking away our means of supporting ourselves as singers, so too vanishes the network of people that rely on performers and artists – coaches, stage directors, repetiteurs, voice teachers – because we simply cannot pay them.
All to save approximately .002% of the budget.
Music and the arts does a very important job; it teaches young minds to dream, to imagine, and to believe there is something better to work towards. In this modern world, I don’t think we can possibly afford to cut that from humanity’s collective budget.

All you ever wanted to know about opera….

Hi there! Most of you may know I’m the opera columnist at On Stage Blog, but I thought I’d give a little introduction and refresher for people who may be newer!

 

In May of 2016, On Stage editor-in-chief Chris Peterson asked if I’d like to write a column about the opera world for the site. On Stage has grown from a small review blog to a massively successful theatre blog; after only a few years of operation, they are already being asked to cover the Tony Awards from the red carpet! I loved the idea of introducing the world of opera to people who may not know as much about it, so the All You Ever Wanted to Know About Opera (But Were Too Afraid to Ask) column was born.

 

I continue to take questions, but thought it may be good to catch up anyone who hasn’t read them! So, without further ado, here are volumes 1 & 2!

 

All You Ever Wanted to Know About Opera (But Were Too Afraid to Ask) Part the First!

 

All You Ever Wanted to Know About Opera (But Were Too Afraid to Ask) Part the Second

 

Feel free to ask any questions you may have over at my Twitter page!