The greatest diva Memphis has ever produced, Kallen Esperian has sung with Pavarotti and Domingo, performed before kings and queens, and starred in opera classics all over the world.
photograph by Larry Kuzniewski
(page 1 of 2)
For more than two decades, Kallen Esperian graced the stages of the world’s largest opera houses, mentored by the likes of the late Luciano Pavarotti, performing alongside icons like Placido Domingo. Touring in such roles as Mimi in La Boheme, the hazel-eyed beauty racked up rave reviews around the globe; critics raved about “an unreal sweetness” in her voice, and were blown away by her “stupefying dramatic force.”
But the last few years have brought challenges to Esperian, who since 1981 has called Memphis home. Grappling with the deaths of loved ones, a change in managers, upheaval from divorce, brain surgery after an accident, and her son’s health and legal problems, she has been forced to put her career on hold.
A turning point came in 2010, when she was in an automobile accident near Poplar and I-240. “I took a knock in the head and got a black eye,” says Esperian, who wasn’t driving at the time. A scan revealed a colloid cyst, which was causing her brain to fill with spinal fluid. The surgeon explained that it was slow-growing and could have been there for 20 years. Prior to the surgery, she admitted that she’d been having “a bit of a problem” memorizing her scores.
“When I used to work on something, a part of my brain would keep playing as if it were a record in my head,” she explains. “I (had) quit hearing that for a while. As soon as the cyst was removed, the record started again. And sometimes,” she smiles, “I can’t get it to stop!”
Though the operation was successful, the traumatic experience caused Esperian to step back and take stock. “That wreck actually saved my life,” she says. “I may never have known the cyst was there otherwise, until it was too late. So I had to absorb all this.”
Esperian was still grieving over the deaths of her beloved mother and aunt within five days of each other in 2003. She had divorced her husband, Thomas Machen, in 2005, because she says, “I was just no longer happy in the marriage and I felt a lot of struggle and stress.”
Making matters even worse was her professional situation. “My last large engagement was a series of performances in Madame Butterfly at the Met in 2005 and 2006. After that, I was not pleased. My manager just didn’t have the necessary connections. And I won’t blame him altogether. I lost touch and let him go.”
Finally, only three months after her surgery, her then-16-year-old son John Machen was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes and immediately had to start injecting insulin. “So much was happening then,” says Esperian, now 52, “so much to learn and adjust to that was changing our lives.”
But adjusting she is.
In 2011, Esperian accepted a year-long position as artist-in-residence at the University of Mississippi, where she directed opera scenes, created a master class, and worked closely with opera students to help them grow into artists. More recently, she has mentored students at Stax Music Academy, about whom she says, “I absolutely love them, and I would leave there feeling good.”
Esperian also is opening a home studio for private students — “adult singers of all types and all genres of music,” she says. And she continues to perform at various venues and festivals around town and beyond. In recent months she has given two shows with the River City Concert Band — including one featuring romantic ballads at the Germantown Performing Arts Center. At Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry she performed in the Crossroads Children’s Chorus Festival. On October 6th, she will sing at a fundraiser for the Tiara Tea Society, a nonprofit that helps severely handicapped children. She often performs with the Memphis Boychoir. And on December 15th, she’ll lend her voice to a Christmas concert at Germantown Presbyterian Church.
“I never planned to stop singing and I haven’t really,” she says, relaxing in the home near High Point Terrace that she shares with her son and their three dogs, Sarah, Presley, and Rosie. “But I lost a few years. I had new priorities.”
For a moment she pauses, as her lovely face grows pensive and her eyes fill with tears. Then her smile brightens the room as she leans forward and declares, “I realize that in the last year and a half that I have felt pretty grounded and happy. More so than I have in quite some time. This is a new chapter in my life and I’m ready for it.”
“I get chills thinking about the way destiny guides us.”
As a child growing up in Barrington, Illinois, in the 1960s, Esperian lived with her mother and her Aunt Ruby, who owned “a rooming house for bachelors.” Her natural father — an Armenian named Arthur Esperian — died when she was a baby, and at the rooming house, her mother met and married Kenneth Parquette. “He became my father and I was so lucky to have him,” says Esperian.” He died when I was 16. He bought me the piano that’s in my music room.”
Melodies filled her childhood home, as the youngster sang along to Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, Nat King Cole. Her powerful pipes prompted teasing from her stepfather. “Daddy said once, if they needed a tornado siren they could just slap me on the behind and stick my head out the window!”
In high school, her singing talent drew the attention of the school’s choir director, Phillip Mark, who encouraged Esperian; upon graduation, he wrote in her yearbook, prophetically, “Let me know when you get to the Met.” In college at the University of Illinois, she was thinking of switching her major from voice to theater, but over Christmas break, she received a letter from the school awarding her a full scholarship, with one stipulation: she had to remain a voice major.
“I get chills thinking about that now,” she says, “the way destiny guides us. The school saw potential in me that I didn’t see.” Soon, she auditioned for an opera and captured the leading role. “And of course I learned that opera is musical theater, just ramped up about ten notches.”
The diva received her degree in vocal performance and went on to sing with opera companies in Chicago, St. Louis, and Memphis. By this time she had met Thomas Machen, one of her college instructors who was 12 years her senior. The couple married in 1982 and moved to Memphis, where Machen had accepted a job as head of the opera department and voice instructor at then-Memphis State University.
Not long after their move here, she found herself on the fast-track to stardom. In 1984, she landed first place in the Metropolitan Opera’s Mid-South Regional Auditions; a year later, she won the Pavarotti International Voice competition. “It was scary and of course I was nervous,” she recalls. “That was back when we still had phone booths, and I remember stopping on the way home to call my mother to tell her I’d won the Met auditions.”
Lincoln Center, La Scala, and the Met
After that came one major debut after another for the young soprano — Philadelphia, Genoa, West Berlin, Vienna — as she sang the great female lead roles of the opera canon. “I was 24, so young, and already in the big houses,” she says. “I don’t think I knew enough to be really terrified, but I did know singers who had worked 15 years and never made it. So, wow — I was grateful to learn from the best.”
The best, of course, included Luciano Pavarotti himself, with whom she made her first national television appearance on “Live from Lincoln Center” in 1989. “He’s been dead just over six years now. It was a blow to lose him,” says Esperian today, reflecting upon their first performance together almost 25 years ago. “The day he died I played his aria from Luisa Miller; it was sheer perfection. He was such a special person and connecting with him was a fairy tale. The fact that he believed in me meant so much, believed enough to coach me and support me. That was amazing!”
The year 1989 marked another significant milestone in Esperian’s career, as she debuted at La Scala, Milan’s famed opera house, where earlier she had been understudy for the role of Luisa Miller in the eponymous opera by Giuseppe Verdi. “It’s a very difficult part to sing,” she explains, “and the fans at La Scala are hardly forgiving.” One night the soprano who was playing Luisa got booed off the stage for singing off-key; she turned and cursed the audience, not necessarily “the smartest thing to do,” says Esperian with a laugh.
“I was pretty sure I’d get the call [to take her place], and it came the next day. I was so nervous. Every time I’d try to vocalize I’d start crying, just trying to warm up. But it went well for me.” Quite an understatement, since her performance garnered 17 curtain calls.
Then came the event her former teacher had prophesied — her debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, portraying Mimi opposite Placido Domingo’s Rudolfo in Puccini’s La Boheme. She still remembers not only the 30-second curtain call from the New York fans, but also the numerous Memphis friends and supporters who had made the trip to the city to be in the audience.
“What matters is what you give out there.”
Over the next 15 years, Kallen Esperian was arguably one of the greatest sopranos in the world. In 1995 she made her London debut in a televised “Pavarotti Plus” concert at Royal Albert Hall, a concert so fine that Princess Diana of Wales, who was in the audience that night, invited Esperian to do a command performance at Caernafon Castle in Cardiff, Wales. A whirlwind schedule took her to Amsterdam, Bologna, Barcelona; to the Dresden Opera in Germany, the Deutsche Opera in Berlin, and the Bastille Opera House in Paris, where she played Desdemona opposite Domingo in Verdi’s Otello.
With every performance, she came to embrace the characters she portrayed, from Norma to Tosca, Desdemona to Luisa. “I sang a lot of Verdi. He writes these beautiful arcing lines,” she says. “But Luciano advised me to wait till later to do [Puccini’s] Tosca and Madame Butterfly. You need to be a bit more mature and grounded in your technical abilities to sing Puccini, he said; otherwise you can hurt yourself.”
Like any singer, she’s had some “not-so-great” reviews, but she learned early on not to read any review till she was done with all performances. “Reviewers can be really cruel. What matters is what you give out there. If a person is willing to take risks and be honest on the stage, now and then something will go wrong.” Criticism comes with the territory, she concludes, so “getting a bad review just makes me appreciate the really great ones even more!”
Standing out among many special productions are several that took place in Memphis, including Bellini’s Norma, with Opera Memphis. “To be able to sing what is considered by some the ‘pinnacle’ role for a soprano, right here in my hometown, was wonderful. The costumes were designed and made locally by Dawn Austin of Dawn’s Couturiere; she has designed many of my gowns over the years and I owe her and her business partner, Patrice Evensky, a great deal of gratitude.”
Another standout event was a Christmas benefit in 1998 for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. The special, which was performed at the Orpheum and televised by WKNO, took place before her divorce and was conducted by her then-husband Tom. “It was truly a labor of love for me,” she says, “and it remains one of my most beautiful memories.”
She also treasures the memory of an Orpheum performance in 2006 in which she sang standards by Cole Porter, George Gershwin, and Harold Arlen — “all music I grew up listening to,” she says. “I was very fortunate to have a 50-piece orchestra made up of some of Memphis’ finest musicians, the music arranged by Sam Shoup, and beautiful dancers from the New Ballet Ensemble. We all worked very hard but the end result was well worth it.”
“I knew I had a decision to make.”
The year 2006 also marked the last year Esperian sang at The Met; “the performance went incredibly well,” she says. But by 2011 — still dealing with changes in her life and bearing the brunt of a costly divorce — she realized her career had slid into neutral and says, “I knew I had a decision to make.” She’d kept her voice strong, and she decided one good way to use that voice was to share it with students.
After sending emails to universities — most of them in the Memphis area so she could stay near her son — she heard from Charles Gates, head of the music department at the University of Mississippi. “He wrote back immediately,” says Esperian, “and they created a position for me. I was thrilled.”
During her time in Oxford, she designed a listening course that would help music students understand the history of their craft going back to the turn of the twentieth century. She remembers that, as a college student herself, she would go to the listening room in the library where “a friend would play all these recordings for me, all the great voices and their repertoire, and I learned so much.
“Now,” she continues, “the students have computers right at their desks and they can pull up the music and interviews with singers, such as Maria Callas, and learn how she prepared for an operatic role.”
Esperian would help the students compare singers and arias and discuss the differences in phrasing and in voices. “I love doing that,” she says. “It’s fascinating to me. I would stress to the students, ‘Never copy a sound; do it your way, because that’s what makes the human voice so unique. But do try to learn why the person phrased it just so, or breathed in a certain place.’ All that makes it more than just sound and makes a singer grow into an artist.”