Tuesday, October 17, 2023

A Conversation with Kenneth Kellogg

© Kenneth Kellogg

Bass Kenneth Kellogg, who recently gave a breakout performance as Fafner in our production of Das Rheingold in August, discusses his upcoming portrayal of Malcolm X in this conversation with Seattle Opera. Kenneth talks about his admiration for the human rights leader, the revival of Anthony Davis’s X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X, and how he’s preparing for the role.

© Philip Newton/Seattle Opera

SEATTLE OPERA: The revival X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X was announced more than two years ago—around the time that you were performing in Blue at Seattle Opera. What compelled you to pursue the title role?

KENNETH KELLOGG: I was aware that work was beginning on the production. I knew the production was being done at Detroit, and, actually, I was supposed to sing the role in the Omaha production. But I had to backout of that performance because I was committed to Blue, which was going to take place at the same time. It just so happened that I was doing a radio interview at Classical KING for Blue, when Quinton Morris asked if there were any roles that I was looking forward to singing. I had just finished rereading The Autobiography of Malcolm X. So, Malcolm X was heavy on my mind because I’d been reflecting on what he stood for. So, I answered, ‘Malcolm X.’

I believe Christina Scheppelmann [Seattle Opera General Director] heard the interview. The next morning, she asked if I wanted to do Malcolm X. At that time, I was not aware of the Seattle production. But I replied, ‘Yes, absolutely.’ I hadn’t seen the score and was only briefly familiar with music. I just knew that I wanted to perform Malcolm X.

SEATTLE OPERA: To you, what does Malcolm X stand for?

KENNETH KELLOGG: Malcolm X is a very divisive figure in American culture, American politics, American ideology. In my eyes, Malcolm is a product of America. The racism that happened during his time, the atrocities that happened to his life, made him. He was a mirror of American society. I think he’s divisive because it’s difficult to look at your reflection. It’s difficult for us [Americans] to admit, ‘Okay, maybe Malcolm’s right.’ I believe we’re seeing the fruits of that denial today. Malcolm, and a lot of what he stood for, is very valid today, in many iterations.

For me, Malcolm is that voice of reason that we didn’t listen to and we’re having to reface a lot of those things today. Had we listened and had we confronted these atrocities then, when he pointed them out to us, I don't think we would be in this situation we have with Black Lives Matter now. I don’t think it would be as drastic.

SEATTLE OPERA: Do you think the rise in stories that reflect BIPOC narratives is sustainable? George Floyd was murdered nearly four years ago.

KENNETH KELLOGG: I think it must be sustained. For opera, and the arts in general, from a purely business, economical, perspective, to sustain ourselves, the arts industry must expand its repertoire and expand its reach to more communities. We must speak to diverse audiences.

After the reckoning of George Floyd, every opera company quickly put out statements supporting diversity. All cultural organizations, every non-profit, every corporation…everyone started thinking about race through the lens of what happened to George Floyd.

In particular, opera companies looked at the stories they were telling. They discovered that among the traditional repertoire, there weren't many diverse stories. The operas that did depict Black life were stereotypical—derogatory and told from perspectives that weren’t our own. We want to tell our own stories. We want to be seen and respected. Black artists became more vocal in calling for diversity. The COVID shutdown and the halt in productions required us to become individually creative and empowered our activism within the field. We raised our voices even louder. Opera companies started to listen. I think, they felt the pressure. I'm not even going to say they listened, but they felt the pressure to tell these stories.

As a result, new commissions were granted, and companies searched for what was already out there. X had a resurgence after not being performed since 1986.

Moving forward, I think we have to be mindful of what we put on stage. I’m more than elated to see Black stories being told, but we have to look at the big picture. The stories that have been green lit, I fear will have an opposite effect of what we truly want. We’ve pulled from African American history, slavery specifically. While these stories give opportunity and tell stories of Black people, it further isolates Black artists who can only tell this story. You can’t hire any other ethnicity to tell those stories. I think that is where companies have misunderstood the call for diversity. For me, setting La bohème in a historically Black neighborhood with Black aesthetics, i.e. costumes, set design, hair, and makeup, does more for the call for diversity than investing in Black trauma.

© Gordon Parks Foundation

SEATTLE OPERA: How are you preparing for the role of Malcolm X. His persona is so well known.

KENNETH KELLOGG: I’m a fan of Malcolm X, I’ll just say that. I’m a fan. Even before the opera was in the works, I would watch YouTube clips, and would rewatch Spike Lee’s, Malcolm X. The film is one of my favorites. I can watch it over and over. And like I said, I’ve read the autobiography several times. So, the preparation was already there.

But how do I prepare to play him? I am not going to try to take on his persona. I can’t. I concentrate on his message and what he stood for. I trust that the meaning of his life is in the score and the libretto. I trust the composer and the librettist.

I also think about how his message resonates in my life and my thinking. I think about what Malcolm’s message means for today’s audiences. I try to carry those ideals into how I prepare for the role. It affects how I sing. It affects how I walk. It affects all those things, just subconsciously.

© Gordon Parks Foundation

After watching the protests of the Black Lives Matter movement, I wrote a post a about our civil rights leaders—Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, specifically. At the time I wrote the post, I was really, really angry. I believe Black people have given the best of our community to America. We’ve given everything. And in response, America has murdered our greatest potential.

I often wonder what Malcolm could have done hadn’t he had to fight for civil rights. He was brilliant. Martin was brilliant. These were brilliant, smart men. I think about what contributions to life and society, they might have made, if they hadn’t exhausted themselves and sacrificed themselves for this country’s inequities. These questions haunt me.

SEATTLE OPERA: It’s something to ponder. Can you imagine Malcolm and Martin as senior citizens?

KENNETH KELLOGG: I would love to see that. Just imagine 75 years of contributing to America, to the world, to life. I think things would be very different.

SEATTLE OPERA: If you had the opportunity to sit down with someone who doesn’t know Malcolm X as well as you, what would you tell them?

KENNETH KELLOGG: I would say, Malcolm was a mirror for us [America]. I would say that he had no problem looking in the mirror. He was a very steadfast, a very faithful person. However, he could admit his wrongdoings. It’s not lost on me that when he found out that the foundation of his faith in Elijah Muhammad was broken, that he started thinking for himself. It was a difficult choice. A change like that takes a very powerful, insightful person—a person of principle, a person of heart.

I think I said it earlier, Malcolm is a product of America. He is as American and as apple pie to me…The good and bad.

I would say to someone who doesn’t know much about Malcolm that the reason he’s vilified is that they only know a snapshot of his life. I would challenge that person look at the entirety of his life. Life is a series of causes and effects. Once Malcolm realized that he needed to change, he had no problem evolving and growing. He grew beyond America and took on the world for the sake of his cause.

X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X runs February 24–March 9, 2024, at McCaw Hall. Tickets and info at seattleopera.org/x.

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