Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Q&A with Kenneth Kellogg,
Seattle Opera’s new Artistic Ambassador

Seattle Opera:
You were just named Seattle Opera’s Artistic Ambassador for the 2024/25 season. How are you envisioning this role as you prepare to step into it?

Kenneth Kellogg:
The first thing this new role makes me think of is my elementary school teacher. As a young person, I could always see how much she loved music—it was infectious. It impacted me as a kid, which led me on a path first to enjoying music, and then to music taking over my life.

I think of my role as Artistic Ambassador as an extension of that. Music has been a blessing to my life in so many ways: it’s what I think of day and night, it helps me provide for my family, it’s taken me to worlds that I never thought possible. I just hope I can exude the same infectious spirit for music and art that my teacher did for me. Seattle Opera:
What do you hope to accomplish in your time as Artistic Ambassador? What are your dreams for the role?

Kenneth Kellogg:
I always joke that opera, as an art form, needs a PR person. Every company has their own idea about what opera is, and everyone’s spread across the world doing their own thing. So the idea of what opera is is diluted, and we miss the big picture of what opera means and what it can be for our lives.

So I kind of want to be that PR person. Ultimately, it’s our job to show people what makes opera special, to introduce them to the joys it can bring. This is one of the things I hope to be able to share with audiences in Seattle and around the world.

Kenneth Kellogg as Malcolm X in X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X. © Sunny Martini.

Seattle Opera:
What are some ways that opera can reach people who have not experienced the art form before? Is there a way into this tradition, which some might find daunting?

Kenneth Kellogg:
It begins with how we talk about opera and what stories are being told. Most people who haven’t been to the opera before come for the first time either because of a personal invitation from someone who’s inside of opera or because they’re attracted to a particular story that hasn’t been on the opera stage before. And oftentimes the reaction I hear from these audience members is “Wow, I didn’t know that that was what opera is like.” Getting over that hurdle is the toughest part. But I find once people are there and they’ve experienced something they can relate to, they often want to come back.

Seattle Opera:
What are some steps that opera companies can take to help remove that hurdle?

Kenneth Kellogg:
For me, it all comes down to the storytelling. You have to let people know that opera is relevant to them, and show them why it’s relevant. Many of the responses I heard to X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X had to do with how meaningful it was for audience members to see themselves or their culture represented on stage. That speaks to the power we have as artists to portray things that really matter to people. Maybe that means expanding the repertoire, maybe it means talking about the current repertoire in different ways. Either way, we have to make opera matter to people rather than expecting people to do that work themselves. We have to be imaginative. We have to create things that matter.

Kenneth Kellogg as The Father along with Briana Hunter as The Mother in Blue. © Philip Newton.

Seattle Opera:
In what ways do you think Seattle Opera could be doing those things better?

Kenneth Kellogg:
The times that I’ve been here, I think Seattle has done a great job at it. But one thing I see at every company is that when they choose to do a show that’s outside of their norm—and typically it’s a Black show—you’ll notice the extra effort the company puts in to reach a broader audience. That effort needs to be made for every show, not just the ones that are outside of our comfort zone.

Seattle Opera:
What do you envision for the future for opera as an art form? Where would you like to see opera ten years from now?

Kenneth Kellogg:
Opera has the power to be a truly community-based art form—a place where people can see themselves represented in a larger-than-life space, feel comfortable, and feel welcomed. When I visited with some of the incarcerated people at the Monroe Correctional Complex in February, and sang some excerpts from X, the overwhelming response I heard was “I’ve never seen a Black opera singer in here before.” One man told me he wished I had spoken more about Malcolm X’s journey through Islam, because he himself is a Sunni Muslim and wanted to learn more about Malcolm X’s experience.

Making opera matter on that level, with every production we mount, will connect us to the humanity of our community. And it’s possible even with the most traditional productions.

Kenneth Kellogg as Fafner in Das Rheingold. © Philip Newton.

Seattle Opera:
Speaking of more traditional repertoire, what balance do you think opera companies should strike between presenting older, canonical works and works that are being written now? And is there a way for those two things not to be seen as in opposition to one another?

Kenneth Kellogg:
I think it’s too easy to put new works on a pedestal as the new thing that’s going to save the industry. A new piece is a clean slate that you can talk about in many ways because it doesn’t have the expectation that comes with hundreds of years of history. So, it can be easier to get the creative juices flowing when talking about something new. But I think we need to find a way to achieve that same fresh approach to the canon. We need to think about existing works in new ways and see them as fresh and new.

That means talking about stories in relatable ways, with current terminology. It means talking about current singers, not just the great ones who lived in the past. That’s how we bridge the gap between the existing repertoire and new works: talk about the canonic operas in new ways and don’t leave them stuck in history.

Seattle Opera:
Does that also mean presenting these works in new ways on stage?

Kenneth Kellogg:
Perhaps, but I don’t think there needs to be a radical change of context. When I say a production should be updated, I mean we need to pay attention to the singers we cast, what the wigs look like, what the costuming looks like, what the sets looks like. La bohème doesn’t have to be in space to be updated. But there are ways you can bring the sets, costumes, and the look of an opera in line with what we might wear today on the street, in a way that makes the story more recognizable to a modern audience.

Ultimately, one of the most important questions an opera company can ask itself is “why does this piece matter to my audience? What’s going on in our community that this opera can speak to?” Answering that question means being active in your community so that you know what is going on in people’s lives and how to speak to those issues.

Kenneth Kellogg as Malcolm X in X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X. © Philip Newton.

Seattle Opera:
I have one last question for you: our audiences have seen you now in multiple roles, including as Malcolm X, Fafner in Das Rheingold, and The Father in Blue. What do you want our audiences to know about you beyond the stage?

Kenneth Kellogg:
I love life and I love connecting dots. I am a very empathetic person. I’m quiet, but observant, and I am really interested in connecting the dots of our lives. I’m a big believer that everything has a purpose and everything serves everything else. There’s nothing in life that exists unto itself.

For me, art is the connective tissue of that all. Art has the power to connect the unseeable, and I try to bring that passion and belief in life to what I do as an artist.

Seattle Opera:

Is there art that resonates for you particularly strongly outside of opera?

Kenneth Kellogg:
I’m a visual artist. I do a lot of portraits and drawing.

Seattle Opera:

Do you have any favorite visual artists?

Kenneth Kellogg:

Kadir Nelson, who does portraits. He’s one of my favorite artists.

Seattle Opera:
Thank you, Kenneth. We look forward to getting to know you better as our new Artistic Ambassador!

No comments:

Post a Comment