Saturday, May 4, 2013

Audience Voices: An Interview with Sister Kathleen Ross

Puccini placed the drama of Suor Angelica behind the walls of a cloistered convent in the 1600s, though most nuns these days are out and about in the world and many religious orders have shed the traditional habit worn by cloistered nuns. While preparing the “Audience Voices” column for our upcoming Seattle Opera program, I had the good fortune to speak with a nun who has dedicated her career to education and providing access to education for a rural population. Dr. Kathleen Ross, who is a member of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, was the founding president of Heritage University in Toppenish, WA. She was named a MacArthur Fellow (the one popularly known as the “genius award”), and also happens to be a violinist and a lover of classical music and opera. You’ll see part of our conversation in the program when you come to La Voix Humaine and Suor Angelica; here is the full interview.

How were you first introduced to opera?
My mother loved the opera. She had lived in San Francisco and Washington, DC, while she was serving as a physical therapist in the army in the 1930s, and she had the opportunity to go to an opera or two. She became devoted to the Saturday morning Metropolitan Opera broadcasts. My mother was sick a lot and so even as very young children my sister and I cleaned the house on Saturdays, and we had to be finished running the vacuum cleaner by 10 o’clock in the morning because we had to have the opera on. We could hurry real fast and get the work done, which positioned us especially to enjoy the music.

Do you have a favorite opera?
I have a favorite opera and a favorite piece of opera music. My favorite opera is Turandot. I got to hear that opera live with Beverly Sills in the lead role. It was performed at the Pasadena Community Center, not at an opera house, but they did a good job. I love the music and I think the story has a symbolic meaning on a spiritual level about love that I really like a lot. And the music matches it perfectly.

Turandot, Seattle Opera, 2012 (Elise Bakketun photo)

My favorite piece of opera music is the intermezzo from Cavalleria rusticana by Mascagni. The day I was leaving for the convent—this was 1960 with the old rules and regulations where I didn’t know the next time I would be able to come back and visit my family—I said the last thing I wanted to do before we went out to the car was to put on that record and play it. That was my goodbye to my home. To this day it carries such spiritual depth for me.

That’s such a beautiful moment.
It was. Every time I can picture myself saying goodbye.

It’s amazing how music can bring you right back to a moment.
That’s true.

How do you explain what you love about opera to people who haven’t seen it?
I think I usually just say, “Try it, you’ll like it. It’s an experience.” For several years someone gave money so we could take one or two students from Heritage University to the opera in Seattle. I remember students saying, “Oh, I wouldn’t have missed that for anything. It’s not at all my kind of music, but it was such an engaging experience. Everyone should experience it.”

What do you love about the art form?
What I enjoy the most is that it combines several art forms: the visual art of the costumes and the scenery and the musical artistry. Of course all art has some appeal to your emotions, but because opera combines all of those things, it can be very emotionally involving, which makes me feel like the whole person is involved in participating. It’s interesting that one of the core mission statements of the Sisters of the Holy Names is to work for the full development of the human person. That phrase—the full development of the human person—is a theme we choose for ministries and maybe that’s what makes me especially sensitive to and delighted with that involvement of the whole person in that art form.

Suor Angelica, Seattle Opera, 2013 (Elise Bakketun photo)

Suor Angelica opens with a depiction of a typical—maybe even stereotypical—day in the life of the convent. I wonder how you react to stereotypes of convent life.
I have two reactions. The scholar in me says, well, there was an era in history when there was some truth to that stereotype. Many aspects of life 200 or 300 years ago had a great deal of regimentation. You can’t exactly impose our insights and viewpoint from the 21st century on what that was then. But convent scenes from that time tend to be oversimplified. There was a lot more human interaction going on than comes across but still, it’s a different era with different values.

On the other hand, I think many people don’t know any nuns now and so they don’t know that sisters’ lives have evolved as lives in the 19th and 20th centuries have evolved. Now we dress like ordinary people around us.

I understand you play the violin. When did you start playing?
I studied music from the time that I was about seven, starting on the piano. I attended Holy Names Academy in Seattle, which still has a wonderful music department. There was a sister who had been raised in San Francisco and was kind of a child prodigy, and she came around to our classrooms in the third grade and played the instruments. I loved the violin, so I went home and I said, “Daddy, I don’t want to take piano anymore, I want to take violin.” Well there must have been some experience in his past with someone who started violin lessons because he said, “Oh, honey, you cannot play the violin at home. I’m not going to pay for that.” So I begged and begged, and finally he said, “OK, I’ll make a deal with you. I will pay for the lessons if you never play at home. I’ll come to your recitals, but you can’t play at home.” So I went early to school for the next eight years. I was practicing 2- 2 ½ hours a day and became fairly proficient. I played in the school orchestra, and also in the Thalia Community Orchestra, and a chamber group that played around town. People used to ask us to play for weddings and receptions. I had some great experiences and certainly enjoyed it a great deal.

And your dad kept up his end of the bargain?
Absolutely, he came to all of the recitals. By the time I got to be pretty good I don’t know that he would have minded so I did play sometimes before he got home from work.

You were the founding president of Heritage University in Toppenish. Is your love of the arts reflected in the university?
To the extent that our resources and our location have made it possible, yes. For instance, as we have been able to move from portables in a very old elementary school building to new buildings, one of my criteria was that the new building needed to incorporate some art elements from the native culture. We’re located on the Yakama Indian reservation, and we needed beautiful spaces that would inspire our students. An interesting consequence is that, although there’s lots of graffiti in town nearby, we have never had a problem with graffiti here. I think it’s because the space is artistically designed and elicits a sense of beauty and peacefulness and contemplation.

I have tried from the beginning to expose people to the beauties of classical music. We don’t have a music department here, but Central Washington University, which is about an hour and a half north of us, has a wonderful music department. We’ve had people from there come down and perform here as well. We got the Philadelphia String Quartet to perform on campus during several of our early years.

We do offer courses in literature and music appreciation, and we actually have a visual art major. Fifty-five percent of our undergraduates are Hispanic, mostly Mexican immigrant families, and there’s a really strong tradition of visual arts from the Mexican and the Native American heritage. So students have to take two classes in the arts as a part of their core. We’re looking to provide local people who had no opportunity for higher education the overall experience of a higher education with liberal arts that would help them find their meaning in life and also find their career so they might help their families get out of poverty.

What do you do for Heritage University now that you have stepped down as president?
I am running a new institute here at Heritage, called the Institute for Student Identity and Success. I love the acronym, ISIS. The purpose of it is to turn research into materials and ideas that will help first generation low-income students succeed in college. Nationally they’re dropping out at 2 or 3 times the rate of non-first generation students. So we have a couple of different projects going. One is providing opportunities for students to build their sense of meaning and spirituality in a nondenominational way. We have a labyrinth on campus and various activities that let people think about their meaning in life without the activities being connected to a particular religious heritage. We have Native American students, students from many different Christian religions, some Hindu and a few Muslims and a few Jewish students. The second project is preparing materials for faculty at colleges and universities that would give them strategies to help these first generation students be successful.

One of the last things I did in the presidency was to negotiate the first comprehensive dictionary of the Sahaptin [Ichiskiin Sinwit] language in collaboration with the University of Washington Press. I feel so good about that book. We had a faculty member who had been teaching for us for a number of years who was a native speaker. She had been collecting words for 40 years and then a UW linguist started working with her, so they put together a major publication.

Our Earth, 2013 (Alan Alabastro photo)

One of our new Our Earth operas features some of the Ichiskiin Sinwit (formerly known as Sahaptin) language.
That’s neat. Maybe we could even bring a couple kids over from here to hear it.


  1. Tremendous work they are doing at Heritage for first generation students to succeed and appreciate art, music, literature! Pat Norton

  2. Great interview with Sr.Kathleen. Here is a scholar educator whose talents have been shared widely, especially to the multicultural students attending Heritage University who are beneficiaries of her vision !
    Sr. Michel Keenan, ihm
    Aug. 3, 2013 7 p.m.