It’s hard to imagine, but Soprano Karen Slack’s illustrious career was jump-started by a happenstance meeting at a Wendy’s.
Karen is known for her beautiful, flexible and expressive voice, which boasts a wide range of colors. In addition to making a name for herself in the most beloved heroines such as Violetta and Aida, she is now expanding her artistry by singing new music by American composers.
She debuted a new piece, “Healing Tones,” by Hannibal Lokumbe, with The Philadelphia Orchestra this spring, and this summer, she creates the role of Billie in the world premiere of Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up In My Bones, opening on June 15th at Opera Theatre of St. Louis. Karen’s path has taken her to the stages of The Metropolitan Opera, The San Francisco Opera, Chicago Lyric Opera and many other renowned concert halls.
How did she rise to stardom, and how does she maintain her level of excellence? We sat down to ask her a few questions to find out.
CS: What is your secret weapon as a performer?
KS: Humility…. I am a vessel! I am there to tell the story and serve the music! Maturity has shown me that. It comes from God through me to the people.
CS: What is your favorite pre-show or pre-audition tradition to get yourself ready? Several cups of coffee and as much water as I can stand! I like quiet time with my score sometimes, listening to my favorite recording of that particular Opera during my day or warm-up. I am a worrier by nature so if it’s an audition I don’t listen to any Opera at all.
Only hip-hop so I can get myself hyped up to go in and get the job done!
CS: How do you creatively find home away from home when you’re performing on the road?
KS: All I have to say is Thank God for Marco Polo, FaceTime and Google chat! I’ve been lucky this season to work with many friends and in bigger cities so I never got bored or terribly lonely. I am a bit of a loner by nature so time away from others is a comfortable place although I try not to go more than 6 weeks without seeing my husband and never more than a few days with our speaking/texting with my Father. I was born for this career and rarely ever suffer great loneliness. I grew up as the only child in my home, and I have always been excellent at entertaining myself.
CS: Any tips for work/life balance?
KS: When it’s time to focus on home, focus on home. For me it is incredibly difficult to not think about my career. Whether I’m thinking about the next gig or how to get the next job. It is a 24/7 situation up in my head because I have dedicated my life my career. But, I know that if I don’t get it straight and make the time necessary, my home life will be miserable. My marriage is my solitude, so I work very hard to make sure my husband has the things he needs from his wife – Mrs. Blackwell, not Ms. Slack.
CS: You’re known for your glamour – onstage and off. How did you find your style?
KS: HA! I take great pride in looking good! We never get to see the curvier women in Opera get props for being stylish and fashionable, so I take that as a compliment. I have always envied singers who make a career in the concert/recital World because they get to sing AND wear what they want! That is a dream! My fashion sense comes from my Father. He has always been the most stylish man I have ever known. He always looks and smells fantastic! Few things are better than walking across the stage in the most amazing costume or gown, so do yourself a favor and study your personal style.
There are no rules anymore, and you can look like a million dollars on a budget with a little effort and a little imagination. As a perfumer you owe it to yourself to be aware of what looks good on you and what does not. For certain body types and even skin tones it will take more work to find what pops, but you are a performer, and that is part of the job.
CS: After winning a $50,000 competition at 18 years old, you walked away from a Lincoln Center debut. How did you know when it was time to jump back into the game?
KS: Well I remember being in a meeting with an agent at CAMI when I was 20, thinking I have no idea what they are talking about. I had just lost my mother and I knew that it was not my time. Divine intervention. So shortly after telling the Rosa Ponselle Foundation President I was not going to sing my debut recital, she sent me packing back to Philadelphia. I was sitting in a Wendy’s restaurant a few months later and my now friend Don Marazzo remembered my face from being in Opera News after winning the competition.
He, with a few other singers, took me back to Curtis Institute of Music to sing for each other, and the next day I got a call from Mikael Eliasen inviting me to audition for Curtis! After graduation I went through both the Merola Program and Adler Fellowship at San Francisco Opera. It has been a whirlwind of peaks and valleys, but the one thing that is consistent especially when the road is rough is the I BELIEVE IN ME! Never give up!
CS: What is your advice for young singers who want to be the next Karen Slack?
KS: There will never be another Karen Slack or any other performer! Be the very best YOU can be in each stage of your development. My advice to those pursuing a career in the Classical vocal arts is to NEVER lose sight of why you choose singing in the first place; NEVER stop letting your imagination run wild! It will serve you in your creative process and in the path to finding your “voice”. Focus on the things you can control! Be it your voice, your appearance, repertoire choices etc. You can’t control who hires you or who likes you. We all waste too much time trying to figure it out…STOP IT! Please take the blinders off! The idea that there is only one way to have a career, a time limit or that there is only one type of success is one of the fastest ways to stall and/or derail your path, particularly in this present climate. Remember it’s your journey, so try to at least enjoy the process!
CS: Is there anything you wish you could help opera audiences understand?
KS: Two things come to mind. #1 that we are human beings with real emotions and families etc. So try and be mindful when you judge and critique every aspect of an artist lives. It takes a tremendous amount of courage, sacrifice, determination and hard work to get even a fraction of what was given. If you love the art form like you say you do, please respect those who are in the trenches delivering it the very best way they can.
In the same breath I would like to say that audiences have more power than they think they do! Artist don’t hire themselves, so if you love a certain singer/director/conductor that isn’t being cast in your home company, use those social media platforms to make your voice heard. Be more interactive with these companies as to the repertoire you want to see and support. When they oblige, go out and buy the tickets and encourage those close to you to buy them too. The only way this thing works is if we work together!