Interview – Mezzo-Soprano Kelley O’Connor

Mezzo-Soprano Kelley O’Connor has the dramatic, sonorous voice one would expect of a mezzo, but hers commands attention. She has a certain pull, as though you can’t help but wonder from where this unique flower appeared in a garden full of already lush color and texture.

Mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor (photo: Dario Acosta)

The Grammy® Award winner made her debut in 2003 at Tanglewood (Lenox, Mass.) for the world premiere of Osvaldo Golijov’s opera, Ainadamar, under the baton of Robert Spano. She reprised her role of Federico García Lorca in the world premiere revised edition of the opera at the Santa Fe Opera in a new staging by Director Peter Sellars in 2005.

She joined Robert and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in 2006 for further Ainadamar performances, as well as a recording of the production, (the recording includes Sopranos Dawn Upshaw, Anne Carolyn Bird and Jessica Rivera; Bass-Baritone José Eduardo Chama; and Gypsy Flamenco Singer Jésus Montoya), which won Best Opera Recording and Best Contemporary Classical Composition.

The album, says Kelley, changed her life.

“[Jessica Rivera] and I decided to go to the Grammys,” said the singer from her home in Clovis, Calif. by phone in February. “A lot don’t go for the classical [category], though I don’t know why. But we went and we won! We never thought we’d win. So we got to do all the speeches and press and everything because we were the only ones who showed up.”

As well, Kelley has performed Leonard Bernstein’s “Jeremiah” Symphony no. 1 in a recent tour with the Los Angeles Philharmonic; Maurice Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges with Lorin Maazel and the New York Philharmonic; Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with Franz Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra; among many others.

Her performance of Peter Lieberson’s Neruda Songs with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra will be released in May on the Naxos label.

The California native spoke to me from her home in a house, she says, “Beethoven, Golijov and Lieberson built.” The majority of her performing gigs have involved these three composers in the six years she has been working professionally, so she has them to thank for paying for her house.

Kelley has a sweet, bubbly personality, and her energy was contagious as we spoke about her upcoming ASO performance, what she enjoys about being a mezzo-soprano, and what she does during her off time.

Read the interview below, followed by her upcoming concert engagements.

JML—You’ll be performing Benjamin Britten’s “Spring” Symphony with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Tell me about that piece and what draws you to it.
KOC—
I’ve kind of been a champion of newer works in my career. Britten is one of the great composers of the twentieth century. His operas are popular and they’re how people know his music. The Spring Symphony has great elements—tone, coloring—and it’s interesting vocal writing. I don’t think it’s done that often and I think it’s great. It’s a good chance to do something that does not get done all the time, especially with [Robert] Spano in Atlanta. Even though I don’t come from Atlanta, it’s like my hometown band.

JML—You’ve worked with Robert Spano and the ASO in the past, first debuting with them for Golijov’s Ainadamar and you’ve had other engagements with them. What do you enjoy most about working with Robert and the ASO?
KOC—
They were some of my first professional performances and experiences with ASO. I met Robert Spano when I was solo in Tanglewood and did Ainadamar. It was my first experience when I was out of school. I had just finished my masters. I was so lucky to meet him very early in my career. He’s such a collaborator. He’s really about the music and creating something in the music and moment. That doesn’t always happen when you perform. We’re creating the music together and it’s a great process to know he’s always there. Also, working with the Atlanta Symphony was my first professional gig and I did my first ever recording with them! That experience helped [shape] me by working with them. They’re so open to everything and very supportive. I’m lucky I get to go back every year and always look forward to it. I’m friends with them and it’s an enjoyable experience.

JML—You won a Grammy for Ainadamar, and visitors to your Web site can also hear snippets of your role as Federico Garcia Lorca, a male character. What did you enjoy most about that role?
KOC—
The best part is it is a pants role. There’s something liberating about playing a man. Especially in opera roles for women and they’re period pieces and the costumes are restricting. Women today are liberated. To play a man from the ’20s and ’30s is liberating. With Lorca it’s tricky because he was a persecuted gay man. To be gay and live in Spain and not tell his family—there’s a lot of history there. I’m playing a person who actually existed, so I’m not able to just do what I want. I read a lot of books about him, read poetry, and tried to tap into his psyche and tap into these different places. It’s an emotional piece. I fully commit myself to it because of what it demands. It’s easier when I’m fully engaged in the piece. When I did it in Tanglewood it was with a different director. Then Peter Sellars wanted it to change and took out some characters. Nowadays new pieces [are changed]. Ainadamar was given more chances to be what it could it be.

JML—Do you have any particular composers and operas you enjoy singing? Why?
KOC—
I love Golijov. He writes lyrical, and speaks to the heart and other people’s hearts.

Also, John Adams. It’s very challenging, his music. I find it takes a lot more of my musicianship skills, but it’s so rewarding. He achieves the emotion you want—at least, what I want. There’s so much mentally going on, intellectually. It’s not just a creative piece, but it’s very smart, his music. That’s the challenge of singing his music.

I enjoy anything that’s modern. There’s a freedom that comes with singing new music people haven’t done. I also enjoy Bach and baroque. There’s a simplicity to that. It is complex, but it seems simple. There’s a charm with baroque music.

And I enjoy Peter Lieberson and his Neruda Songs (for mezzo-soprano). The music is melody-driven. The words speak to me. They’re such beautiful melodies.

JML—You completed a tour in January with Los Angeles Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel, performing Leonard Bernstein’s “Jeremiah.” What do you enjoy about that piece? What did you appreciate and/or learn during the tour that perhaps shaped you as a singer and in your career?
KOC—
How could you not like Bernstein? I feel as if it’s such a great starting point. He wrote it when he was 24, and you hear the beginning of West Side Story or Candide; you hear what’s to come, what you’d expect of Bernstein. I had the luxury of sitting in the orchestra and singing from behind the violins and in front of the woodwinds, and I had the best seat for performances. Gustavo wanted me to be part of the orchestra. There’s [usually] a distance between a soloist and the orchestra. The way [the program] was presented, it was as if I was one of the orchestra members and I enjoyed the team spirit.

Everything is a learning experience. I’ve never done a tour like that—six cities in 20 days, and performances earlier in LA. A lot of new things happened on this tour. It’s amazing to see someone like Gustavo. He’s so young—he turned 30 on the tour. He’s incredible to see every night. It’s a similar kind of way I feel about Bob [Spano]. You’re creating music in the moment. That’s something I can take away from that tour. I’m in a different city every day, packing and unpacking, but in the end, it’s all about the music and what you do on stage. I have to learn how to make that happen.

It was also great for me to talk with the orchestra members. As a vocalist, you come in and leave. But I got to make friends with the orchestra and that was one of the best things about the tour.

JML—On your blog, you write a lot about resting your voice and your body. What are some routine things you do or don’t do to keep your voice in shape and why is this important?
KOC—
It’s a tricky thing that makes a singer unique. Our body is our instrument. People don’t realize what you put it through that you don’t have to think about if you’re not using it in that way. I have to be aware of how much speaking I do. The orchestra is traveling on performance days, but that’s too much for me with planes and traveling—it’s drying. I have to be aware of things like a sore throat and if I used hand sanitizer on the plane. Performance days are quiet days. I watch movies, relax, take it easy. When I’m not performing, I’m religious about working out. It keeps me in touch with my body. It’s good to be physical and it’s a form of therapy for me. I can take out my aggressions at the gym. I have to stay healthy. If I’m sick I can’t sing. A violinist can play through a cold, but I couldn’t. You have to learn what keeps you healthy.

JML—As a mezzo-soprano, you have the wonderful opportunity to sing in a particular range different from a soprano. What do you enjoy about being a mezzo-soprano?
KOC—
No high notes! I think the alto gets the more interesting parts. I like to sing the harmonies, the part that might not be in the spotlight, but more as a supporting cast member. I’ve been in choir all my life; I’ve always been alto and I have interesting parts. You have to find where you fit in. It’s more tricky, but I enjoy this because it’s a little different.

JML—When did you know you wanted to sing and how did you realize you would sing mezzo-soprano?
KOC—
Mom always said my kindergarten teacher said I could sing. My first vocal teacher was the choral conductor from elementary school, so I’ve been singing for as long as I can remember. I went to USC (University of Southern California) for voice. I was in choir in college. In 2002 I auditioned in Tanglewood. I hadn’t done much opera and had just done choir in college. I love that my first opera experience was a modern opera. It was surreal. Osvoldo said I didn’t know any better and it was a blessing I didn’t have any idea. The choral [training] really shaped me.

JML—When you aren’t singing and touring, what things do you enjoy in your off time?
KOC—
Normally when it’s not winter and freezing, I enjoy walking and seeing the city. If you travel during a great time of the year, go for a walk and take photos. I enjoy doing that when I can be outside. For me, I’m a homebody. When I’m on the road, I miss cooking. I’m a big foodie. When I’m home, my mom has to put up with my cooking excursions. I miss not having my juicer and Dutch oven on the road. I love food and cooking and it makes you feel at home. Since I am traveling, I research restaurants and find the regional food. I do a lot of food research.

For samples of Kelley’s music, click here

Upcoming performances with Kelley O’Connor:
April 30, 2011 (Glasgow, Scotland)

Lieberson: Neruda Songs
Stéphane Denève, conductor
Royal Scottish National Orchestra

May 19, 21 & 22 2011
Britten: Spring Symphony
Robert Spano, conductor
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

June 10 – 12, 2011
Mahler: Symphony No. 2
Edo de Waart, conductor
Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra

June 22 – 25, 2011
Janáček: The Cunning Little Vixen
Alan Gilbert, conductor
New York Philharmonic

July 28 & 29, 2011
Ravel: Shéhérazade
Michael Christie, conductor
Colorado Music Festival

August 23, 2011 (Edinburgh, Scotland)
Ravel: Shéhérazade
Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor
Philharmonia Orchestra

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