Q & A: Michael Kelly On Performing ‘As One,’ His Career Origins & Carnegie Hall

By David Salazar

Laura Kaminsky, Kimberly Reed, and Mark Campbell’s “As One” is set for a major run in New York this weekend.

Among the performers in the two casts will be baritone Michael Kelly, who will perform the role of Hannah Before. Kelly is an avid performer of contemporary works, having performed in world premieres by Matthew Aucoin, David Del Tredici, Mohammed Fairouz, and Ben Moore, among others. He is also the founder and artistic director of NY’s SongFusion.

Kelly recently spoke with OperaWire about his career, his recent Carnegie Hall debut, and working on “As One.”

OperaWire: How did you know you wanted to be an opera singer?

Michael Kelly: When I was four-years-old, my mother took me to her ballet classes. She expected me to sit quietly in the back, drawing and coloring, but to everyone’s surprise I stood up and started imitating the dancers in the class. My life in the arts had begun. I was hooked. Ballet led to playing the alto saxophone, acting classes soon followed, then poetry and literature after school.

But it wasn’t until I was 16 that my saxophone teacher suggested I join the chorus at school to improve my breathing and musicality. So I auditioned. The chorus teacher was so impressed that she set me on a path of discovery. Things moved quickly and before I knew it I was taking voice lessons and staring in the school musical. I have always been drawn to classical music, perhaps because of my beginnings in ballet. But i didn’t know it would be my focus until I began working for Lawrence Holdridge after school. He ran one of the world’s best antique vocal record auctions out of his home in Amityville, NY, the town next to my own of Massapequa. I would help him with library duties and auction shipments. It was the best possible education in opera, being surrounded by the greatest singers the art form had ever known.  When most people were listening to Britney Spears, I was listening to Caruso and Melba recordings. I grew up on Long Island, so naturally I started going to the Metropolitan Opera.

The first production I saw was Zeffirelli’s “La Traviata.” I was immediately hooked. The grandiose sets and the sound of the pulsing orchestra and beautiful singing set my heart a flutter. It was the combination of everything I had come to love in the arts. It was a hard decision to leave the saxophone behind, especially after being accepted to six conservatories for both saxophone and voice performance. But my passion is for the stage, and the combination of words and music.

OW: What are some of your greatest challenges in your career that you have overcome to this point?

SK: I’ve had a few bumps in the road. I don’t know many who haven’t. But probably the most challenging was when I was in the Opernstudio with the Zürich Opera. I trained as a tenor, singing roles like Ferrando and Don Ottavio. I focused heavily on early music and art song. I spent a year in Zürich after I graduated from Juilliard with my masters degree. It was a difficult year.  I was pushing my voice in directions it just didn’t want to go. By the end of that year I was in serious vocal distress. I looked for answers in multiple cities in Europe. Trying out various teachers to see who could help, but I wasn’t connecting with any of them. Finally, at the suggestion of a dear friend in the Houston Grand Opera Studio, I moved to Houston, Texas.

I began taking lessons with Stephen King, who over the course of two years helped me piece things back together. We discovered through our work that my voice sits in a different fach range than the leggierro tenor repertoire. He likes to say I was “misdiagnosed.” We began working on high baritone repertoire, finding that it fit like a glove and allowed my voice to grown and flourish. It was certainly a set back, as I was being offered fest contracts in various houses in Germany as a tenor. But if I had taken those positions I would have surely injured myself and possibly would have ended my career. It took time to re-establish myself as a baritone and to get back on a successful path, but it was the best decision I could ever have made. When I speak to young singers now, I always tell them to trust their gut and to be bold and brave. Without those attributes you may never find your way through the muck and the mire.

OW: You are set to perform “As One” in New York City. What are the particular challenges of performing this work? 

MK: “As One” is a remarkably emotional story that requires a great amount of both vocal and dramatic expression and versatility. The structure of the piece is essentially that of a song cycle, comprised of 15 moments along Hannah’s journey to realize her gender identity. We first see her as a 12-year-old boy, and by the end she has transformed into an adult woman. Capturing the arc of her transformation and making each scene as poignant and vivid as possible is certainly no easy task.

The result, when you manage to successfully perform Laura Kaminsky’s score, is breathtakingly beautiful. The process of arriving at that success, however, is quite challenging. I spent many hours deciphering its rhythmic complexities with the hope of achieving a natural, speech-like delivery of the text within the vocal line. Arriving at the point of comfort with it turned out to be a huge relief, not only because of the achievement of it, but the reward it provided of freedom to be more expressive with this gorgeous score.

OW: Why is this work, in your opinion, an essential part of the repertory?

MK: The challenge in creating a hit new opera is in managing a few important breaks. The first, of course is content. “As One” is a story that is both topical and needed.  We are in the middle of the transgender movement’s moment, when equality and protections are being discussed and fought both for and against at every level of government. Medical breakthroughs in the approach to gender affirmation have never been more available and successful as they are now. So the need for meaningful stories about the trans community and their experiences is both controversial and in the zeitgeist.

But none of this matters if the creative team that chooses/creates such an inspiring story is the wrong match to tell the story through the medium of opera. Here, we happen to have a collection of highly successful individuals, all part of the LGBTQ+ community each contributing an aspect of their personal experiences as marginalized people. This is a perfect case of right people, right idea, right time. It also helps that it makes me cry every time I hear it, perform it, or think about it. But more than that, it connects with audiences at such a base level.

“As One” has a message that is so universal. Hannah is in search of her true self, more than just her gender identity. She is looking for her truth, and she bravely goes after it. It’s both touching and inspirational in the kind of way that anyone can relate to. But going back to the elements that make up a successful piece. This story is best told in the intimate way it is set to music. Laura Kaminsky was brilliant to bring Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed’s libretto to life with a simple string quartet and two singers portraying the same person.  Raw theater meets opera meets chamber music, all of which portrays the beautiful message of acceptance.

OW: How much of yourself do you bring to a role such as this one? 

MK: I bring as much of myself as possible to any role. I believe in using your own experiences and past to connect to who a character is at their base level. Some roles require more of me than others. This one happens to be a story that I can relate to as a gay man. My experiences growing up with questions about myself and feeling like I was on the outside looking in are very usable in As One. The feeling of being “other” drove my character study of Hannah. Her fears, her confusion and ultimately her triumph despite those feelings are all things that I have experienced myself.

OW: What will New York audiences take away from this production of the opera?

MK: The power of this opera for audiences outside New York is usually in exposure to a trans person’s experience that they may never otherwise have. But I do think that many New York audience members will feel this power as well. But more than that, it has the power to open hearts and eventually even minds to the challenges of the trans community. One of the scenes in the opera depicts a verbal attack on Hannah that almost turns violent. She rushes home to research online how many trans people have been murdered and a list of some of those names is read.

In this production posters with these names and many others are left in the aisles for the audience to walk on as they exit. The trans community need our protection and our love more than ever. There are great challenges to their safety in the world, and particularly in the thinking of the current administration and our overall political climate. The fight for their rights and equality are bigger than ever because of the more recent visibility of the community at large. As One can be a light to help guide us all through these challenges, and to personalize the very real threats they face.

OW: You recently made your Carnegie Hall debut. What was that experience like? What is the most memorable thing that you remember about singing at that famed hall?

MK: This will probably be the same answer you would get from everyone who has ever sung in that amazing place. It’s honestly such an exhilarating experience. To know its history before you walk on the stage, you would think it would be intimidating. But somehow, it’s as though that history is there to support you and celebrate your efforts. The hall also has an incredibly generous acoustic. It feels like it holds your voice up on a cloud. I was also lucky enough to be making my debut singing a piece composed for me by composer Mohammed Fairouz. And Zabur’s underlining subject matter is quite similar to that of As One. They both tell a tale of overcoming adversity through discovery of personal purpose. When you believe in the message you are singing about, it makes your job that much more special… especially when you’re doing it in a place like Carnegie Hall.

OW: What do you hope to accomplish with your art?

When I co-founded SongFusion eight years ago, I did so in response to the state of the industry at the time. My passion drew me to tell stories through non-traditional combinations of artistic mediums for a few reasons. Companies at the time were taking less risks and recital presenters around the country were dwindling. I felt that I needed to create opportunities for myself and my talented friends to be visible in the NY scene and in the recital world by building a new and exciting way for art song to thrive. This, I hoped, had the potential to influence a new movement of art song supportive companies, growing a new generation of lovers of the art form.

Often, SongFusion produces concerts that comment on the state of the world, schools of thought, LGBTQ activism and civil equality, art and science, all in collaboration with other artists and their artistic mediums. Art has the power to change minds, underline an important message, inspire thought, and calm the restless human spirit. I always want my art to be in service of something. Even if that thing is just support for the art form to continue and grow and strengthen. I always want to be a vessel for that.

Check out a performance by Michael here.


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