Special Op-ed by Kenneth Kellogg -
the importance of new works in ensuring diversity, equity, and inclusion in classical music
From the moment I began to officially study “classical music” in high school, it came with an awareness that this world isn’t mine. We used three books as the basis for our repertoire learning: the famous 24 Italian Arias and Art Songs, a similar one in German, and Harry T. Burleigh’s Book of Negro Spirituals. As a young person learning about the art of singing, there weren’t many questions asked. However, I could feel that while we looked up meanings -word-by-word to decipher the richness of the Italian, German and occasional French poetry -the Spirituals seemed ancillary in comparison.
As I progressed as a singer that feeling didn’t change. Music sits at the core of a person's being. It’s fed by community tradition. I grew up listening to and singing R&B, Soul, Hip-hop, Motown, Jazz, and Gospel music. As I begin to get more serious about studying singing, these styles were systematically trained out of my being. You see, these styles of expression weren’t deemed worthy of formal training to a student of singing. As a vocal performance major in college, I was told I would “ruin” my instrument by doing something that I felt was so natural to my soul.
I’ve spent a good deal of money and time to train in order to arrive at the the point of calling myself a professional opera singer. And yet, despite that investment, I struggled for years to find my home in classical music. Even as I have traveled the world singing on opera stages where I never imagined I’d be, I’ve struggled to find my voice. Singing itself wasn’t the issue. Character embodiment wasn’t the issue either (I could write a dissertation on any character in any opera I’ve presented!). So what was the issue? It stems from that belief of music sitting at the core of a person’s being. There was no R&B in my classical, no Soul in my classical, and no Hip-Hop in my classical. There were none of my community’s traditions in my classical.
As a Black opera singer, when I research roles and do historical analysis of characters, I hit a wall. Most operas were written during a time when people who look like me weren’t privy to the roles I am to portray. History doesn’t celebrate the tales of Black kings. History frowns on interracial love relationships. These realities have found their way into opera in a number of ways. Casting considerations can result in not casting a Black singer as a love interest or, as once happened to me, reviewers may comment that it is hard to believe the familial relationships of the characters on stage due to the diversity of race and ethnicity among the actors playing them.
So where does this leave us? How do we ensure classical music is an art form in which everybody can truly see themselves? I was asked once, “What is my dream role?” Without hesitation, my answer was, “New opera must be written. More importantly, new operas that focus on the diverse human-experience.” I had the chance of creating the role of the Father in Jeanine Tesori and Tazwell Thompson’s award-winning opera, Blue, which tells the story of a Black family and community grappling with the reality of raising a Black boy in America. This was the first time I walked into a rehearsal not having to guess who this character was and it was the first time I felt like I was telling the story of a Black person that wasn’t built on stereotypical trauma. This was the opera in which I found my voice. The libretto for Blue was written by a Black man, Tazewell Thompson, and with that comes an intimate awareness of context and subtleties of “knowing.” He wasn’t writing from the outside looking in, as is the case with many operas that explore the Black experience such as Porgy and Bess and Aida. Thompson wrote about things in a way that a listener with a similar cultural experience could understand on a soul-level. We could see ourselves in the characters and story he created. And the audience heard a story that has not been told in opera houses.
Blue came to me at a time when I felt my voice as an opera singer didn’t matter. Travelling the world singing repertoire that explored histories that didn’t speak to the most important things that were actually happening in my life brought on feelings of emptiness. My soul wasn’t in the music. Then I heard Jeanine Tesori’s score for Blue. I heard jazz, in the evocative prelude, hip-hop in the defiant melodies of the teenage son, gospel in the church scene and soul in dialogue of the Mother and Father’s duet as they coo over their newborn son. The subject matter of drama was something we were grappling with as a society. The combination of these styles set to dialogue akin to my friends and family gatherings, along with the collective awareness of plot is where I found my voice. It’s where I feel classical music finds the voice it needs to speak to everyone.
We are in a new era of awareness and creativity and when what we produce reflects the souls of the people on-stage and in the audience - all of them portrayed through different characters, different stories, different genres of music recombined and reimagined in different productions - we harness the power of music in our multicultural society to bring people together and unify them in exploration of the human condition.
Watch the video below to hear Kenneth discuss his role in the opera Blue.
Kenneth will also be featured by the Ridgefield Symphony Orchestra as soloist in a concert on October 2, 2021. For more information about that appearance and the piece he will premiere, click here.