Friday, August 6, 2021

A Conversation with Kenneth Kellogg

Bass baritone Kenneth Kellogg returns to sing The Father in Blue.

By Glenn Hare 

This summer, Seattle Opera connected with Kenneth Kellogg to talk about a wide range of topics, among them the state of Black opera, his childhood, and, of course his upcoming performance in Blue where he sings the role of The Father. Praised for his charisma and rich tone, Kenneth has performed throughout the United States and Europe. You might remember Kenneth’s debut in our film adaptation of Don Giovanni as the Commendatore. 

A former Adler Fellow at San Francisco Opera, Kenneth studied at the Academy of Vocal Arts and Wolf Trap Opera. He earned degrees from the University of Michigan and Ohio University. He advocates for artist rights and consults with performing arts organizations on their diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives.

Seattle Opera: Let’s begin by discussing an important question: Do you think Black opera is at pivotal point, especially when considering the new works being produced?

Kenneth Kellogg: I’d like to start by saying that I don’t like using the term “Black opera,” because it insinuates, in some circles, something outside of the genre that we have to come to love. However, when we speak of “Black opera,” in the context of there being Black artists who have thrived and contributed to this field despite obstacles. The push now is to be seen and heard as Black people in a way that is not marginalized, from stage to boardroom, and to tell stories that really matter to BIPOC communities. It is also important that these stories are created—composed and written—by BIPOC artists in an authentic way. As we are no longer a homogenous society, the lifeblood of the future of opera lies in our ability to tell these stories.

Seattle Opera: Some have labeled Blue as “an opera about police violence.” How do you describe it?

Kenneth Kellogg:
Most audiences go to see Blue thinking that. Yes, police violence could be the tag line for Blue. However, Black love, community, and relationships are the real heart and soul of this opera. It opens you up in a way that are, hopefully, life changing. When we first performed it, people came up to me afterwards in tears, thanking me. I believe Blue is a life-changing experience.

Seattle Opera: So is Blue entertainment or education?

Kenneth Kellogg (The Father), Briana Hunter (The Mother) and Aaron Crouch (The Son) at the world premiere of Blue at the 2019 Glimmerglass Festival. Karli Cadel/Courtesy of the festival

Kenneth Kellogg: It’s both. As a patron of the arts, I want to leave the theater feeling something, be it a movies, orchestra, opera, whatever. I want to feel happy or sad or even pissed off. If I don’t have an emotional shift, then I could have just stayed home and played with the kids, you know. To be entertained, I need to be moved. If it widens my perspective and educates me at the same time, that’s a great benefit of artistry and art.

I think Blue does all that. I’ve said that Blue is a tool for empathy. Opera has the power to move an audience. It can change perspective, shift culture, and society. Yet, I do not think it's been used to its fullest potential. As we move forward, I hope opera will be used in a way that allows people to voice things that a conversation doesn’t have the power to do. I hope that new stories are told from more backgrounds and experiences. I hope it challenges ideologies. Blue has the potential to be a powerful tool for change.

Seattle Opera: In this opera, you are the Black father who has a Black son. In life, you are the Black father of a Black son. How do you prepare to perform a role that is your life?

Kenneth Kellogg:
It’s difficult. When singers take on a new role, they do character study to figure out whoever that person is and that person’s place in the community. We study the location, the period, and other aspects of the opera. Blue is very different. My character is my life. My life has prepared me for this role. For that reason, it is difficult to separate my stage character from my life. You know, there were rehearsals when someone would broke down crying, because this is a story that really matters to the cast. It is a story that we get. It is a story we understand on a very deep level. I remember the first time I practiced the funeral scene. We were using stand-in props—a picnic table for the casket. Just a picnic table. Nevertheless, the moment I stood up to sing that excerpt right in front of the “casket,” I broke down crying, falling to my knees and sobbing. It hit me on a level much deeper than anything I had done before in opera.

Jeanine Tesori, the composer, she said something that was really poignant. At the time she said it, I didn't quite understand the depth of what she was saying. She said, ‘A piece like this is going to cost you something as an artist.’ But after my breakdown, I understood what she meant. This is such a special piece about a poignant topic. It speaks directly to the Black community and to the broader community. It's deeply important for me as an artist to be able to express a community's pain in opera, that is often overlooked in real life. We rarely get the opportunity to do that. We are most often tapping into and expressing the pain of another’s and never given space to express that of our own.

Kenneth Kellogg with his son. 

Seattle Opera: Blue isn’t all heartbreak…there are many scenes of joy. What are your joyful moments?

Kenneth Kellogg: Oh, there are many. A lot of them occur when I'm not even on stage, actually. The opera’s first scene where The Mother talks about her love for The Father is so touching. I mean, hearing a Black woman express her love for a Black man on the opera stage is absolutely stunning to me. Moreover, Jeanine Tesori’s musical setting is absolutely beautiful. It makes me proud to be a show husband. The hospital scene is another joyful scene. When I'm introduced to my son for the first time, I literally get flashbacks of when my actual son was born. Even though the baby is a prop—a doll baby—when I look in its eyes I see my son. I relive all those emotions and feelings each time we perform the scene. One other scene is in the sport bar where I meet my police buddies to tell them that I’m a father. I ask for their advice. That was my real life. I was terrified of being a dad. However, I was able to go to my friends who were parents and talk to them. Similarly, the police buddies share their advice in the opera. That is funny and serious scene. Those are all moments of Black love that really speak to me in this piece.

Seattle Opera: Did you grow up in a musical family?

Kenneth Kellogg: My mom raised me. On that side of the family, there were no musicians. Of course, they appreciated music. Music was played all the time, but no musicians. No one took lessons until I started in elementary school. Then I went to Duke Ellington School of the Arts in my hometown of Washington, D.C.

But on my father's side of the family, from what I understand, they were all musicians. I’m told that my grandfather was a pianist and had a piano in the home. Family legend says that my aunt on that side of the family also attended the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. She was a singer as well. I also have cousins who went to the Duke Ellington School. They are fabulous musicians. One in particular plays seven different instruments. Therefore, music is in my DNA, at least from my father’s side of the family tree.

Briana Hunter (mother), with Mia Athey, Brea Renetta Marshall, and Ariana Wehr (girlfriends) in Blue. Credit: Karli Cadel / The Glimmerglass Festival

Seattle Opera: You said your family had an appreciation for music. What types of music did you hear in the house and car?

Kenneth Kellogg:
Motown was really big in my family. I had a deep appreciation for Michael Jackson. My mom, for the longest time, proclaimed that I was going to be the next Luther Vandross. She didn’t distinguish the singing styles of pop and opera. It was always funny to hear talk and brag. She always said, ‘My baby is going to be the next," fill in the blank—Luther Vandross or other pop star. I would say, ‘Yeah, not quite, mom.'

Seattle Opera: Did you always have a James Earl Jones-type voice? I mean as an eight-year-old, were walking around the house saying “hello mom” with that deep bass voice?

Kenneth Kellogg: It seems that way. No. When I first started singing, I was a boy soprano, as most boys are. In high school, I was a first tenor my freshman and sophomore years. By the time of my junior year, my voice had dropped. Most voices drop gradually, mine didn’t. When I came back for my junior year, my teacher tried to get me to sing first tenor rep. But I knew it wasn’t going to work. We struggled for months trying to figure it out and eventually changed to lower parts.

Seattle Opera: That’s funny, because I also started out as boy soprano in third grade. However, my voice never really dropped.

Kenneth Kellogg: I admire the tenor repertoire. There are some days when I hear that rep, that I wish I had that voice again.

Seattle Opera: In high school, you also studied visual arts. How did that happen?

Kenneth Kellogg: I did. At the Duke Ellington School, each student takes core academic class—English, math and the like. Students also have an arts concentration. I was a vocal student. I've always been a good student and I finished my requirements early. My senior year I had empty time in schedule and hung out with many visual artists. We'd play sports, often basketball. One day, I moseyed into one of the art studios and I asked a teacher if I could take some classes. He explained that I would have to audition. I asked, “How do you audition for an art class?” He had me sit down and draw a portrait. Based on that portrait he took me under his wing.

Art work by Kenneth Kellogg. 

Technically, I double majored. Because, I finished all of my music requirements as well as my academic classes, I spent most of my senior year in visual arts studios than in the choir room. I was the first music student to have a senior exhibition in the visual arts department who wasn't a visual art major, per se.

Seattle Opera: What was your medium?

Kenneth Kellogg: I dabbled in everything. I was so curious about all of it. The teacher who took me under his wings experimented with pastels, pencils, and charcoal, so that was most of what I did.

Seattle Opera: Do you still dabble in with pastels, pencils, and charcoal?

Kenneth Kellogg: Oddly enough, when COVID hit all singers and musicians were out of work and trying to find stuff to do. I asked myself, ‘What do I really love to do since I can't do what I do?" The visual arts was that thing I rediscovered. I actually started an art business, doing portraits and commissions for people. It helped me get me through the pandemic and the potential depression of COVID.

Seattle Opera: Do you recall an instance or a series of moments when you realized that opera was you true calling.

Kenneth Kellogg: Yes, there is a very specific event. I was an Adler Fellow at San Francisco Opera at the time. I'd done a couple young artist programs, I'd been to Wolf Trap, I'd sang roles on stages, but I still didn’t considered myself a singer. I didn't really consider it a career. It was just fun. Then, one morning, I was in a coffee shop with a colleague, wearing our sleep clothes. I had on my sweats, flip-flops, and a T-shirt. We looked around at the rat race—the men, women, students in day clothes with their backpacks and briefcases running to the offices and classes. At that point realized that I was doing the same thing—supporting myself by working, singing in my case. That’s when I started calling myself an opera singer.

Kenneth Kellogg (Commendatore) and Jared Bybee (Don Giovanni). Ken Christensen photo

Seattle Opera: You came to realize that you were a professional on your own.

Kenneth Kellogg: As an artist, up until that point singing was a form of expressing my talent. I didn’t think of it as my career. It was literally just fun and I took these opportunities to enjoy myself as a person and as an artist.

Seattle Opera: And there was no family pressure to get “a real job.”

Kenneth Kellogg:
My family has always been supportive of whatever anyone decides to do. In the eyes of my family, I was successful. I had earned two degrees by that point. I was traveling, seeing the world. I was able to manage my life, paying my bills. My family was very supportive, especially my mom. She said, ‘If I have to work at McDonald’s, I will support you doing what you love to do.’ She never had to work at McDonald, thank God. That level of support and belief in what I wanted to do was invaluable.

Seattle Opera:
On a similar line of questioning, what do you consider is your breakthrough role or performance?

Kenneth Kellogg:
There are roles that I love doing. I love Leporello and Don Giovanni. Mephistopheles in Faust is another. Being able to explore those characters is fulfilling as an artist. However, the role of The Father in Blue has touched me on many personal levels and expanded my belief in the art that it is impossible not to include on the list.

Seattle Opera:
Is there a character that you desire to perform but have not had the opportunity at this point in your career?

Kenneth Kellogg: That is great question. Had you asked me that a few years ago, I would have said King Philip in Don Carlos. I still have a few years before I’m ready for that one. But after doing a piece like Blue, my perspectives have widened and I don’t think the opera that I’m dying to perform has been written yet.

Seattle Opera: Please explain.

Kenneth Kellogg and family. 

Kenneth Kellogg: Often when we take on roles, we have to look outside of ourselves and “imagine” what it would be like to be this person. If I’m doing research on a character who was of noble blood, nothing in the history we are taught, reflects what that would be like for me as a Black man. There are very few roles specifically written for characters that are Black and those that are often marred by their struggle to exist in the white world and lens from which they are told. I want to do a piece that allows me to explore all that I am as a person and all that my culture offers. The Father in Blue gets close.

Seattle Opera: Lastly, is there anything else you’d like to share with the Seattle Opera community to close this conversation?

Kenneth Kellogg: I can’t wait to come back. Blue is a special piece. It’s unlike any piece that they’ll experience on the opera stage. It’s intimate. It’s universal. I think we often get confused with the Black opera label, but the stories are universal. We all have family. We all have challenges and adversity some way or the other, despite the faces. The hearts are all the same. Blue is a universal story despite all of the perception. Moreover, let’s get rid of the term 'Black opera.'

Seattle Opera: Thank you.

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