Friday, January 14, 2022

Key'mon W. Murrah on Hope, Heroism, and what a Countertenor can be

Key'mon Murrah as Orpheus in Orpheus and Eurydice. Credit: Philip Newton
Keymon W. Murrah, a countertenor heralded for his wide range and “hot coal core of tone” by, is a native of Louisville, Kentucky. In 2021, he was heard on the stage of The Houston Grand Opera as the 1st Place Winner of the 33rd Annual Concert of Arias, as the Grand Prize winner of the Premiere Opera Foundation + NYIOP International Vocal Competition, and Finalist and Encouragement award winner of Operalia. He makes his Seattle Opera debut as Orpheus in Orpheus and Eurydice and stays on for an Artist Recital on February 4.

Key’mon recently sat down with Seattle Opera over Zoom for a conversation that covered his journey to becoming an opera singer, the challenges of making a career as a countertenor, his interpretation of Orpheus, and his upcoming recital.

Seattle Opera: I wanted to start by asking you about your background. How did you get started singing and when did you know you wanted to make operatic singing a career?

Key’mon W. Murrah: I guess I started singing through my mother—she's also a singer. But she sings more gospel music, and I believe she used to have a group that did soul and R&B way back when she was growing up. Through that work, my mother found a group called the West Louisville Performing Arts Choir, which at the time was a boys’ choir made up of people from the lower-income area of Louisville, KY. She got me involved with that group, where we did everything from spirituals to [George Frideric] Handel and [Wolfgang Amadeus] Mozart—everything. So that's how I got introduced to classical music. And then I got into the Youth Performing Arts School, which was a similar introduction to a whole bunch of new styles of classical music. But I didn't really take it seriously.

But then I got into this summer program called the Governor’s School for the Arts, which is where I met my “music father,” A.T. Simpson, Jr. And that's when I started to fall in love with opera. The program had great teachers, great faculty, and I enjoyed my time there. That's when I decided to audition for the University of Kentucky, and I got a full ride there for voice. I actually did not graduate with a music degree—I graduated with an arts administration degree. But now I'm back at the University of Kentucky trying to finish the vocal degree that I never got to finish.

Seattle Opera: When did you find that you could sing as a countertenor? Did someone point you towards that voice type, or was it a register that you naturally gravitated towards?

Key’mon W. Murrah: I started singing in my head voice when I was in boys’ choir, and I was a soprano all the way up until I graduated high school. When I came to the University of Kentucky, I switched to being a tenor, and I sang as a tenor for about seven or eight years. But then I decided just to totally switch! I always felt more at home as a countertenor, singing in my head voice; even as a tenor, I would go home and copy Leontyne Price or Maria Callas, or other singers like that. So that kind of singing was always with me and I always found joy with it. I could have had a career as a tenor, but I just felt happier and more at home as a countertenor.

Seattle Opera: Did it take any major shift in your vocal production or training, or was it just a natural fit?

Key’mon W. Murrah: It was both: it was a natural fit, but it was a lot of work. It also took a lot of research, because I was already in my late twenties by that time. I really didn't have time to start over if I wanted to make a career. So I had to put in three times the work to get to where I am today, and I'm still learning.

Seattle Opera: Did you find that people were surprised that being a countertenor was an option that was available to you? Were the people around you unfamiliar with it?

Key’mon W. Murrah: Countertenors weren’t totally unfamiliar to them, but I think that most people never really worked closely with one because the school I went to specializes in bel canto music. Countertenors just aren’t as common in the types of music they normally do at my school. Even my teacher, who I still work with today—at the time she wanted me to stay as a tenor. Which I understand, because it's very hard for a countertenor to find consistent work. There's not a lot of work out there. So if you want to have a lucrative career, maybe the tenor option would've been better. But she saw that I was putting in the work and she was like, ‘okay, I guess we're doing this.’ And then we worked and got to the point where I got the Encouragement Award my first time at the Metropolitan Opera competition.

Seattle Opera: What has it been like trying to find those sparser opportunities, as opposed to working as a tenor?

Key’mon W. Murrah: I knew that normal audition training for other singers just was not going to work out for me. Even now, if a company is doing Handel or [Claudio] Monteverdi or something like that, they would probably choose a mezzo-soprano. So I had to be proactive. I had to put stuff out on social media. I was the little annoying singer sending emails to everybody, saying, ‘Hi, this is who I am.’ You know? Because no matter how well I sing, I have to change the perception of what roles can be done by a countertenor. But now that I've been networking for as long as I have, things are starting to come to me, which is great. But I still have to keep that network and keep meeting people.”

Seattle Opera: You mentioned people's perceptions of what roles a countertenor can sing. What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions about countertenors?

Key’mon W. Murrah: That countertenors can only sing early music, or only sing music with an orchestra of 12 people. Or that they have a shorter life in music, a shorter singing career. We are put in a box too often, and I'm trying my best to break that box.

Seattle Opera: Let’s talk a little bit now about Orpheus and Eurydice. Orpheus is a character that's been reinterpreted and presented in so many different ways—in opera, in musicals, on film, in all kinds of things. What is it like for you stepping into a role that has like such an extensive performance history? What sets your Orpheus apart?

Key’mon W. Murrah: I feel that mentally, Orpheus and I are very similar. We love hard, and we go to the fullest—even to the underworld—for what we love. Finding that passion through the music and through the body, his mannerisms, and bringing that side of him to life is what draws me to the character.

Key'mon W. Murrah (Orpheus) and Shelly Traverse (Eurydice). Credit: Sunny Martini.
Seattle Opera: How much did [stage director] Chìa Patiño's vision for the story affect how you approached the role?

Key’mon W. Murrah: I think her vision stays true to the character, to all of the characters. She's not changing who the character is or anything like that, it's more like she’s creating the world around them. The only difference between my interpretation of the character and hers was that she sees Orpheus as a warrior, where I'm a little bit more gentle-hearted. So finding that strength in that type of person is something that I had to work toward. She brought that out of me.

Seattle Opera: One of the primary elements of her vision for this production is her stance that she doesn't see Orpheus as a hero—that it's not a heroic act to try to rescue Eurydice from the underworld. I wanted to hear your thoughts on that. Do you see Orpheus as a hero? What do you think of his mission to bring his beloved back from the afterlife?

Key’mon W. Murrah: I think we both agree that it's not a heroic act, but that Orpheus believes it is in his head. It's his chance to show the gods that he can do something as powerful as changing fate. Which in the end, he doesn't! He can't do that. So it's not about the heroic act itself, but the fact that it's all in his mind to do it.

Seattle Opera: Do you have a favorite part of the opera to sing?

Key’mon W. Murrah: I think my favorite part is right after Orpheus meets Amore and has his long recitative where he's like, ‘what the hell did she say? I could go to underworld?’ He's questioning Amore, questioning the gods, questioning himself. And throughout all of that, he finds the courage to say, ‘I can actually do this. I'm going to do this. Watch me do this.’ So defining that change of emotion is my favorite part.

Credit: Sunny Martini.

Seattle Opera: Let’s talk about your upcoming recital. How are you conceptualizing your program?

Key’mon W. Murrah: For this program, we're thinking along the lines of “songs of hope.” It's going to be all the songs that inspired me to become an actual opera singer. They’re songs that I grew up with, that my family has taught me, that my church has taught me, that being in the American Spiritual Ensemble has taught me. They’re songs that I have kept with me throughout my whole career. There will be songs by Moses Hogan, Jacqueline Hairston, Hall Johnson, and a new composer, Shawn Okpebholo, as well as a few other pieces. It's just going to be some spirituals and some African American art songs. I enjoy all these songs and I just hope that the audience will love them as well.

I'm also doing a set of two songs from Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concerts: “Heaven” and “Come Sunday.” They’re more jazzy and they’re going to be something fun. And then there’s “Round ‘bout the Mountain” by Roland Hayes—that's the first spiritual that I ever sang as a countertenor. So I've kept that with me through everything I've done. 

Seattle Opera: Can you tell me more about what “hope” means to you in this context?

Key’mon W. Murrah: When I decided to become an opera singer, I kind of made like a pact with God. I was like, if I want to do this, I want to bring hope. I want to encourage people to do whatever they want to do, to do it with love, and do it their best—just keep going and never give up, because you never know what will happen. Because my career has not been a straight line—it's been a lot of zigzags. If I had given up, I wouldn't be where I am.

Seattle Opera: Let’s zoom out now and talk more generally about opera and the arts. Why you think opera matters? What can people get out of opera as an art form in 2022?

Key’mon W. Murrah: I believe you can get a lot of feeling out of opera and classical music. You can experience emotions that you're not going to be able to experience listening to popular music. You see a full range of art, so that you can walk out of opera feeling changed. And I think that's why I love it so much.

Credit: Sunny Martini.
Seattle Opera: What has been the most challenging moment of your career? How do you find the kind of hope we were talking about earlier that helps you persevere?

Key’mon W. Murrah: One of the biggest challenges that I think a lot of performers have been dealing with is COVID. As a musician, you already have the highs and lows of your career—you already have times when you know you're just not going to be working. But with COVID, it really stopped my career entirely. I felt like was just about to start moving and then it was like, ‘nope, go sit down somewhere.’ But even through COVID, I felt like I had to keep going. I had to push through, I had to keep learning new music. I had to keep talking to people, keep learning, taking lessons. And it showed me that I really love this and I'm really willing to do the work to do this.

As for what got me through it, it was the people that supported me. It was my peers. It was my teachers. It was my mentors. It was my family. It was those people that said: ‘Keep going! Do you need a lesson? I'll give you a discount!’ All those people that said, ‘you can do this, we don't want you to go.’ So that gave me a lot of the strength.

Seattle Opera: And what would you say has been the proudest moment of your career?

Key’mon W. Murrah: I think right now! This is my debut at a major opera company. I'm extremely excited for a lot of the experiences that I'm having right now and I'm living my greatest time.

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