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Laughing it Up With Kelley O'Connor

April 21, 2014

Kelley O'ConnorLos Angeles–based mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor is poised to make her third visit to the Bay Area in seven months. On May 1, the Berkeley Symphony presents the Bay Area premiere of Kaija Saariaho’s Adriana Songs, conducted by Joana Carneiro. [On April 18, the Berkeley Symphony announced, "Mezzo-soprano Laura Krumm will step in for Kelley O’Connor as soloist ... due to illness, she was regretfully forced to withdraw from this performance."]

Before this came her joint Cal Performances recital last fall with her best friend, soprano Jessica Rivera, and accompanist Robert Spano. The performance included premieres of two song cycles as well as the Bay Area premiere of music by our own Gabriela Lena Frank. Next came O’Connor’s January performance with the San Francisco Symphony in Beethoven’s Mass in C, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas.

Besides the beauty of her voice, which has opened doors around the world, new music has been O’Connor’s calling card ever since she created the role of Federico Garcia Lorca in Osvaldo Golijov’s opera, Ainadamar, at the Tanglewood Music Festival. She also sang in the premiere of the revised version in Santa Fe in 2005.

More recently came the world premiere of John Adams’ The Gospel According to the Other Mary with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2012. Both works were subsequently recorded and released by Deutsche Grammophon, with O’Connor reprising her leading roles. What’s more, last September saw her perform the world premiere of John Harbison’s Crossroads with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra under former San Francisco Symphony Music Director Edo de Waart, and reprise Peter Lieberson’s Neruda Songs (also recorded), this time with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra in Sweden.

Chatting by phone with O’Connor is like ringing up an old friend. Virtually every response is punctuated by laughter and dispensed with an ease that suggests that hugs are in order. Clearly, O’Connor is someone who feels the world is her friend.

When did Adriana Mater have its world premiere?

In 2006 in Paris, in a production by Peter Sellars. I was in Santa Fe singing Meg in Falstaff when his production arrived there in 2008, so I actually saw the whole opera at that time. It was really good that I saw it.

I was in Santa Fe in 2002 for the premiere of Saariaho’s first opera, L’Amour de loin.

Oh, singing that opera is my dream. Jessica and I were supposed to do it with New York City Opera before it all fell through, and we’re dying to do it. It would have been just amazing.

I do a lot of new music. It’s my favorite thing to do, and something I really love.

Tell us about the three Saariaho songs.

They’re very, very intense. The opera is very dark. It deals with a woman who’s raped, becomes pregnant, and is worried about whether or not her son will inherit the genes of the murderer/rapist. Will he be Cain or Abel? She doesn’t know. In the final part of the piece, he is grown up and has the opportunity to take his father’s life, but he chooses not to. It’s proven that he’s like Abel, and a good person. When I was translating, I was thinking how intense an opera it would be to work on, because the subject matter is very, very dark.

I do a lot of new music. It’s my favorite thing to do, and something I really love.

It’s going to be a challenge, definitely, to sing them. I may do a lot of new music, but Saariaho has her own voice. It’s a new world that I really have to immerse myself in. That’s the only way I can learn music when it has such a distinctive language. It’s like when you hear an Adams piece; you know it’s Adams, for some reason. It’s going to take me some time, because Joana has given me a very big challenge.

Who sang the opera’s premiere?

Patricia Bardon. In Santa Fe, it was Monica Groop. They were both really great. It’s a really low part. They actually had to transpose some parts up for Monica, and she has a low voice!

It’s funny. When I saw Peter Sellars, whom I’d worked with several times, he said I should sing the part. I’m a low mezzo. I just did El Amor Brujo, some early music, and things that are definitely alto range. I’m comfortable down there.

Have you worked with Joana Carneiro before?

No. I had sung at the L.A. Phil when she was an assistant [conductor], and I was supposed to sing with her this past September in Sweden, but she had to cancel. So this is the first time.

Jessica Rivera told me about her initial audition with John Adams. Did you audition for him, as well?

I actually got introduced to John through Peter, because Peter wanted me for The Gospel According to the Other Mary. I basically sent John a CD of excerpts of me singing all these different things, so he could write the piece for me.

It was so funny. When I was singing in San Francisco, I went to his house, and he had written the first graph. We go to his office where he writes all of his music, and the first thing out of his mouth is, “Now, don’t freak out!” I thought, Okay. …

There’s literally a measure at the opening, and then I’m screaming, high, at the extreme of my range. What was funny is that I’m always the lower voice in everything, and I was the higher voice in this part. I sang the mezzo part, and Tamara Mumford played the contralto part. That never happened to me before.

I was challenged to sing much higher than I thought I could. At first, when I heard my music, I thought it sounded a lot like it was written for Dawn Upshaw. I was worried, because it’s hard to sing up there.

I also knew that Peter would have me do very physical things. But, in the end, that helped me forget about how hard the singing was. It was great. But John did have to rewrite. There is a version with the higher notes, but I had to have them lower. I didn’t want to have to sing lots of A's at the beginning of the 2½-hour excursion, and then have nothing left at the end.

It was an amazing journey. To be able to work with the composer rewriting your part is the most amazing creative process one could ask for as a musician. I don’t know why more people don’t want to do it.

To be able to work with the composer rewriting your part is the most amazing creative process one could ask for as a musician.

So you didn’t literally have to scream your voice out at the beginning?

Well, I understand why he did it. I mean, I’m talking about being a heroin addict, and I’m in this “crazy ward,” so I understand. But we had to find a happy medium.

I can call you another time, and we can talk about your problems with drugs! Is that why you’re talking so fast this morning?

Oh, I had some coffee.

I knew it! That’s why you’re moving around so much, and your cell is going in and out. Speaking of things moving around and shifting, are you seeing a lot more young people in your audiences?

I think so. It may be because I’m doing new works. Some of these young composers’ personalities are very intriguing, as well. They blog, they tweet, and they’re involved in all this social media. It’s a really important outreach tool for composers and orchestras. I was just in Milwaukee doing Beethoven’s Ninth with three other singers who have Twitter accounts, and I got re-tweeted twice a day by them. They were really pushing for this social media exposure. That’s a huge difference; it never used to happen.

I try to be more aware of letting people know that I’m performing via the Internet, because that’s how people choose to go to things. It’s a new way of bringing in the audience, but I think it’s the future of how we’re going to have to do it.

Did you imagine or visualize the arc of your career early on? Is it fitting into the pattern? How are you feeling about it?

That’s a very telling question. I’ve actually had a kind of crazy run of it. Because I did the world premiere of Ainadamar at Tanglewood, I had a lot of doors open for me. At Tanglewood that year, I met my agent’s parents, who told me that their son was an agent at IMG, and I’ve been with him ever since. I actually got a lot of my first professional engagements because people saw me sing the role of Lorca. We’ve done it 18 or 19 times, and it has been my gateway.

I’m so lucky to do what I’m passionate about. I will definitely take a concert gig over an opera anytime.

I’m very lucky to mainly do concert music. That’s what I’m really passionate about. At this point, I do 90% concert work, and it’s so great. I get to do things like the Dvořák songs I’m singing at Tanglewood in June. It’s so funny, because they’re written for my voice type. That rarely happens for me, being sort of an alto. The language is perfect for my voice, and so is the range of the pieces.

I’m so lucky to do what I’m passionate about. I will definitely take a concert gig over an opera anytime.

Is it because operas can take so long to rehearse, and the gigs can also be long?

For me, it’s much more centered around the music. You do have a shorter rehearsal time, so you go in and focus on the music and the messages that you’re trying to say.

I prefer not having a character that I’m tapping into. I like the part of orchestra work where I’m just communicating with the audience as myself, and I’m interpreting the story through my own eyes. I know some opera singers who hate the fact that there’s no costumes or direction. You just stand there and face the audience. I guess you can be much more aware that you’re performing in that situation. But for me, I love the fact that I feel like I’m a member of the orchestra and we’re all doing something together. It’s a much more unified feeling for me.

I’ve been so lucky to work with great conductors who give me opportunities to do the works I want. I did a Stravinsky piece with Michael Tilson Thomas, and he had so much to offer because, when he was young, he observed Stravinsky rehearse, conduct, and even sing along to his own music, and they spent time together. It made for one degree of separation between all of us. I had thought my work with MTT would be pretty straightforward, but his insight into what was behind a rather minimalist three-tone row, and the thought he put into each note, was amazing.

I’ve definitely found what I can do well. So I’m not trying to push the opera envelope much.

So you’re not clamoring for a Met audition?

I’d probably be too nervous and pass out. I’ve sung at Carnegie six times, but concert work is a whole different thing for me. I really enjoy it. I’ve been so blessed.

Jason Victor Serinus is a music critic, professional whistler, and lecturer on classical vocal recordings. His credits includes Seattle Times, Listen, Opera News, Opera Now, American Record Guide, Stereophile, Classical Voice North America, Carnegie Hall Playbill, Gramophone, San Francisco Magazine, Stanford Live, Bay Area Reporter, San Francisco Examiner, AudioStream, and California Magazine.