Carving Her Own Path: Kelley O’Connor’s Extraordinary Career

 

Mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor is one of the most exciting and versatile artists in the world of classical music. She is a quadruple threat at least, in that she is a phenomenal singer, actress, pedagogue and is simply “drop dead” gorgeous! Her repertoire is as wide as you can imagine, ranging from highly acclaimed performances of such dramatic heavyweights as Britten’s Rape of Lucretia with Boston Lyric Opera, 2019 and Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde  with both BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Dallas Symphony Orchestra, 2019, to a string of world premieres by international composers, including her Grammy winning portrayal of Federico García Lorca in Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar

A native of Fresno, California, Miss O’Connor will be returning home in late February to join guest faculty at the Fresno State Art Song Festival, but not before she flies off to Amsterdam to perform Peter Liberson’s Neruda Songs this month and then to Seattle to sing Das Lied von der Erde with Seattle Symphony. Her schedule is impressive during the best of times, let alone in the middle of a pandemic. Besides being an extraordinary artist, Miss O’Connor is also a sought-after pedagogue, her latest teaching assignment was at Eastman School of Music. 

It is commendable and extraordinary that she was able to carve out some time in her international schedule to come home and share her expertise with young singers of California’s Central Valley – a historically disadvantaged community. I recently asked her a few questions about her career and her ability to steer it into very interesting and exciting directions.

 

You are a very versatile singer, how important is this quality to your continued success?

I think it is extremely important to remain versatile throughout your career. Not only can it make you attractive to different conductors and organizations, but it also keeps you continually learning and growing as an artist. It is lovely to sing pieces you know, but very important to not become complacent and continue to push yourself to learn new repertoire. It always surprises me how much I learn when working on a new piece. 

 

Can you comment on your collaboration with contemporary composers? For instance, John Adams wrote the title role of The Gospel According to the Other Mary for you and you have performed it both in concert and in the Peter Sellars fully staged production, under the batons of John Adams, Gustavo Dudamel, Grant Gershon, Gianandrea Noseda, Sir Simon Rattle, and David Robertson.

I have been extremely fortunate to be part of the creation of many new works by today’s foremost composers. I recommend that everyone do this! The opportunity to create a truly new work with no concept of a pre-existing version is very liberating. It gave me the time to figure out my own voice, and at this point to be able to communicate with the composers what I would like them to incorporate into the roles. One has to figure out one’s strengths when put in this situation, so it is a huge opportunity for growth.

You gave several important world premieres – was it just luck, did you actively seek these opportunities, were you approached or was it a combination?

Kind of a combination of knowing the right people, and being prepared. I simply auditioned for Tanglewood when I was a student at UCLA, and Osvaldo Golijov said “She can sing low, and she has the right eyebrows,” which started my first new music experience! Also, working with Golijov and Dawn Upshaw as the principal soloist completely enhanced my first world premiere experience. Everyone was so welcoming and loving, and absolutely allowed me to create my own character journey in Ainadamar. I was very spoiled! Peter Sellars then took up the baton with Ainadamar, and told John Adams he should work with me. So, it was being part of these incredible pieces, and also proving to people in charge that I could handle the pressure and had something to say.

 

You have managed to conquer some of the most iconic and challenging dramatic mezzo repertoire and you have carved your own path by embracing contemporary music that was sometimes specifically tailored to your voice. Is it important to keep doing both and how does one inform the other?

Completely! They actually inform each other so much. While new music is my passion, so is Mahler, and I believe it is so fulfilling for an artist to sing the entire gamut of music. I’ve been lucky to not be pigeon holed in new music, and I embrace creating new pieces as well as singing iconic pieces I have heard my whole life.

 

Could you talk about your Grammy winning recording? Did winning have any impact on your subsequent career and development as an artist?

Ainadamar was truly the turning point of my entire life. My first recording, my first full opera role, my first summer program, my first professional conductor, so many firsts! Thankfully, everyone was just as enamored of Golijov’s music as I was, and it created a truly incredible recording. Complete with a flamenco singer, chorus ladies singing with complete abandon, and an orchestra who surrendered to the piece as much as the singers. It is something I have never been able to recreate. 

 

What is your view on the effects of the pandemic on the industry? Is there a recovery in sight and how do you personally navigate these challenging times? 

Luckily, I do feel that we are emerging from the complete shut down that the arts experienced during the pandemic. It was definitely a tough time for those involved in this industry, and it is so wonderful to get back at it. I currently have a full season, and things seem to be moving ahead. I feel that audiences and artists are eager to return to the shared experience that we have in the hall.

 

Was there a “silver lining” of going through the pandemic in your case? Has the pandemic permanently changed the industry in your view and if so, how?

Yes! I am even more grateful for this beautiful art form than I was before. When something is completely taken away from you, you are forced to ask yourself if you can live without it….and I can’t. I felt as if I couldn’t breathe. I missed it so. Really taught me to not take what I do for granted, and appreciate every opportunity.

Going forward, I am hoping that we all see the arts through wiser eyes, and not take any performing for granted. Hopefully, there will also be the introduction of new repertoire and other voices that need to be heard. I believe there will be a bigger awareness of what is needed in the world at large.

 

What advice do you have for young singers who are now trying to bridge the gap between studies and professional employment?

Be prepared! On day one it is always integral that you show up knowing your part backwards and forwards. I think this is one of my best assets, and became something I am known for. You will maintain a good relationship with the conductor and the company if this is a priority.

 

If you could sing one genre for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?

This is a complicated question! I can’t imagine a life without Mahler in it, however my passion for new music is at the forefront of my career. Creating works from the beginning is such a priceless experience, and something I couldn’t live without. 

 

If you could talk to your younger self in college, what would be one advice you would give?

Have faith. There is not one path, and don’t believe it when people tell you there is. Sing what you are passionate about, and what brings you joy. Be prepared, open and vulnerable. There will be moments of darkness, but the sun will come out again.

5th Fresno State Art Song Festival will take place on February 25-26, 2022.

Dr. Maria Briggs

Dr. Maria Briggs, is a Russian – born, Australian soprano. Dr. Briggs holds Bachelor degree in piano performance, Masters in vocal performance and DMA in opera performance (Sydney University and Northern College of Music, UK). Dr. Briggs has sung with Opera Australia, Pacific Opera, Lyric Opera Weimar and Glyndebourne Opera Festival, UK. Maria is Associate Professor of Voice at Fresno State and now lives in Fresno with her husband Matthew and two sons. Dr Briggs’ recent album “Winter Evening” explores romantic Russian art song and can be streamed on all platforms. Dr. Briggs is a regular contributor to the CS Magazine www.mariabriggssoprano.com