Q & A: Baritone Kenneth Overton on Returning to Live Performance & Spotlighting the Lives of the Black Opera GreatsBy Chris Ruel
Baritone Kenneth Overton recently performed for the first time in front of a live audience at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York. The performance, entitled “To America,” celebrated the poetry of the civil rights activist, James Weldon Johnson, an early leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and who is buried at Green-Wood.
“To America” was part of the “Death of Classical” series billed as wildly unique classical music experiences taking place in crypts and catacombs. While it sounds foreboding, Green-Wood, founded in 1838, is one of America’s most stunning cemeteries. Known for its stunning beauty, famous residents, and architectural wonders, Green-Wood attracts 500,000 visitors per year. That’s second to Niagara Falls in terms of United States tourist attractions.
The pandemic hasn’t spared Overton’s family, and in his conversation with OperaWire, the baritone spoke of how the song he performed for “To America,” “Sence You Went Away,” has deep personal meaning, and how he’s choosy about where and when he sings the piece.
Like many of his colleagues in the industry, the sudden turn of events devastated Overton. He felt lost and untethered from all he knew. Soul-searching followed, and now, he’s in a much better place emotionally as he continues his YouTube series, “Black Opera Live,” and works on a film chronicling Black opera pioneers such as Jessye Norman, George Shirley, and Leontyne Price.
OperaWire: Have you ever performed at Green-Wood? It’s such a beautiful place.
Kenneth Overton: This is the third time that I have was asked to do something at Green-Wood and the first time that it actually worked out. I guess the third time is a charm. I didn’t know what to expect, but I loved being around energy like that. And considering the people that were there, people that I love and admire, I was open to whatever the experience was.
OW: How did you become involved in the project?
KO: I became involved through the Harlem Chamber players. I have had a really long relationship with them and they invited me. They first inquired about how I felt about singing outside and in front of people?
I needed to sing in front of people. I’m tired of singing into my phone and into my computer. I just needed that energy. So, my relationship with Harlem Chamber players has been such that we’ve done wonderful collaborations in the past, and world premieres, and stuff like that. When they asked, I said yes immediately.
OW: You kicked off the event with “Sence You Went Away.” Tell me about that work in particular and how it affects you. I listened to you on YouTube and you sing it beautifully. Where does it come from within?
KO: Well, that piece is from one of my favorite song cycles called “Night Songs” by H. Leslie Adams. It’s a cycle that’s been with me in my recital career for the last, I would say 10 to 15 years, maybe.
The words are what drew me to the piece. I think now when I choose music; I pick it with text in mind first and then the melody. Whereas when I was a lot younger, I just wanted to sing pretty melodies, but this piece has both. It takes on a different meaning for me every time I sing it. I had the unfortunate honor to be asked to sing it for memorial services, for a friend even which has been the most difficult. So, I think about people I’ve lost.
And it’s sort of a fine line to walk because you can’t get too emotional, but you do want to let the heart and the natural emotions come through. When they asked for that song in particular — I didn’t offer it, they came to me with the song — it took me a moment because I pick and choose when I sing it because it is such an emotional piece and because I have lost family members during this pandemic because of the pandemic.
OW: I’m sorry to hear about your loss.
KO: Thank you.
OW: I was thinking as you spoke that the song is very appropriate for this time. It has the potential to affect the audience in the emotional way you spoke of, which leads me to the next question. Was there something you wanted the audience to take away from the performances of “Sence You Went Away?”
KO: Yes, I would hope that people are more appreciative of every single day, with every single person in their lives. You can’t take it for granted. You can’t take your family, your friendships, and relationships for granted because you just never know. You just never know. So, I hope that due to the pandemic, and then with this song and those lyrics that people can personalize them for themselves.
OW: When everything started going down in March, and now here it is in October, did you think you’d be back this soon?
KO: Honestly, the way that my schedule was obliterated back in March, I definitely went through at least eight weeks of singer depression because my agent was calling every day with a cancellation or reschedule. And the earliest reschedules happened to be in January 2021. So, I guess October, in front of a live audience, was earlier than expected, considering now that even those January live performances have been pushed back even further.
OW: When you think about the innovations that have come out of the pandemic, and you mentioned this about singing into your phone and doing video type programs or streaming programs, which ones might have staying power?
KO: I think some of it should stick around. One, because we’ve poured so much time and energy and resources into creating these alternate opportunities that to just shelve them when we go back to some normalcy would be a shame.
I think, particularly as educational tools, innovations should stay around with the ability to stream performances into school, and into, I would say, retirement facilities with the elderly. I think it would be fantastic to keep things like this available as alternative options for when we can go back.
OW: And the innovations have the potential to build-audiences.
KO: Absolutely. I think we’re reaching audiences we never have before, which is kind of strange because it’s like bringing the arts to you, bringing it to your home, to your phone, to your computer. And so much of it has been free content or very inexpensive content, which is also a huge plus for many people.
OW: When you consider people of color, do you see opportunities to further expand that audience through the performance innovations that have occurred the past seven months?
KO: I think so. I think access has been one of the biggest obstacles where that’s concerns. And then, because so many more voices of color are being amplified in this time, and we’re able to see the amplification almost immediately and instantly through the touch of a button, I think it’s really, really attractive to lots of people, particularly young people and people of color.
You take the elitism out of it, and it makes it accessible. It makes it sort of normal. Like my friends in Europe who have children, they have classical music and opera all the time. It’s normal. It’s not this “Oh, we have to get dressed up in a tuxedo and arrive in a limousine just to go to the opera and pay $500 a ticket.” That’s not the reality.
Seeing so many artists of color on the screen, and conductors, and directors, and women doing important things, I just think it’s going to open the eyes of so many people who felt like the art form wasn’t for them.
OW: I have a two-part question for you: the industry definitely seems to be at an inflection point. Opera companies have put out a lot of statements about diversity, equity, and inclusion. The first part of my question is: What does actual change look like in the industry, and how is it sustained? And then the second part is this: With so much turmoil and devastation within the opera industry, how can systemic racism remain in the foreground and not get lost as things open up and a new normal takes hold?
KO: I think genuine change begins with equity and diversity. It begins with fairness. I think everybody deserves a seat at the table and deserves their voice to be heard, no matter what color or gender you are.
When we implement that in the most honest of ways, that’s when you’re going to see the change that will be sustainable. Right now, I think people are putting out statements just to put them out to not be shamed in the world of social media, which is an extremely powerful tool as we have seen, but I think also that is going to be one of the things to keep companies accountable.
I hope that companies will be transparent in their decision making. No one’s asking for it to be an overnight magic pill that changes everything, and everything’s hunky-dory. That will not be the case. But I think a very honest, open, and transparent plan for the future is necessary. And accountability is going to be a big part of that.
OW: I’d like to turn our attention to the Black Opera Live YouTube series that you’ve been doing. When did that begin and what’s its mission?
KO: Oh, my gosh. It began in June, and originally, I was only supposed to do it for June and July. And it came out of needing to keep the energy in the film I’m working on, “Black Opera,” at the forefront. We had to stop filming and fundraising has temporarily dried up, I don’t want people to forget about it.
So, my team said, “Well, why don’t you do a talk show with living, active, Black talent?” I agreed. These were my friends, so I’d call them, and everybody was saying yes. Then suddenly, people were calling me, asking to appear on the show. My mind just started racing and creating ideas about what would be interesting topics to talk about.
Now I have guests all the way through the end of the year, every single Monday, and then some special episodes on other days. It’s just been absolutely wonderful and crazy, and not something that I thought I was going to be doing the first week of March.
OW: You have a lot keeping you busy. How did you move forward when the cancellations rolled in?
KO: One, I had to pray, and that’s what I always do, and to figure out the question: Who am I offstage? For the last 20 years, I have almost solely identified myself as a performer, as an opera singer, as a recitalist, and as a concert artist, that’s who Kenneth Overton was. When that was abruptly taken away without notice I was left with, “Who are you? What do you want? How can you be relevant and a contributing member to society off of the stage?” That was the question I had to answer and sit with, and it took two months to figure out what makes me happy outside of just being on stage.
I’m finding those answers all the time. I’m finding that I love talking to artists and chatting with people. I love art administration and seeing how the other side of the industry works; I am turned on by all of that. It has re re-inspired me to practice regularly because there are glimmers of hope of being able to get back on stage.
Seeing one of my favorite scenes from one of my favorite movies of all time, “Moonstruck” helped me get back on my feet. It’s the scene in which Cher slaps him and says, “Snap out of it.” I had to get up off of the couch, turn Netflix off, and stop ordering take out and say, “Snap out of it! Find yourself again. Find the love.” During those two months, I didn’t want to practice. I didn’t want to vocalize. I didn’t want to do anything that had anything to do with what looked like my career because everything was being canceled.
OW: Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to pass along to readers?
KO: Just support as much as you can all the events that are happening. Artists need the community more than ever with Broadway shut down into May and June, and the Met shut down until next fall. A lot of singers are not okay mentally, emotionally, and financially.
If you see something of interest out there and you’ve got the time or you can watch it later, give five or 10 bucks. Please, just do it. Art keeps the world going. People call upon the arts for happy times and for the most terrible of times.
When there are weddings, there’s music. When there is a funeral, there’s music. When there are inaugurations, there’s music. When there’s, a natural disaster, there’s music that heals people. I would love for the community to help heal the people who make the music happen.