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
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.”
“It was fascinating to see Kallen and the kids work together.”
Sharing her insights and knowledge seems only right and natural to Esperian “because I had some great teachers, some of the best in the world,” she explains. “I still have the scores with Luciano’s marks on them, where he’d say, do this, or do this. I wanted to encourage and inspire these young people in the same way he did.”
Mentoring students at Stax Music Academy over this past summer, she advised them on vocal technique and stage presence. “They really touched my heart,” she says. “They are incredibly talented, and so warm and open. They’re high-school age but I didn’t see a lot of attitude.”
Emphasize the body as the instrument, she would tell them. “Yes, you have these vocal cords but you also have your air, your strength, your bone structure, which are basically the resonators. If you feel anything here in your throat when you sing, figure out another way to do it.”
She also urged them to drink lots of water, to exercise — “one of the best places for me to study a score was on the treadmill”— and most of all to get plenty of sleep. “Fortunately I’m a good sleeper and if I have a performance, it’s like something clicks in the brain. I know I won’t sound good if I don’t sleep enough.”
Adrenaline, too, has helped her through many a show. “I might have had a cold and felt pretty sick. But as soon as I’d start singing, the adrenaline would kick in, and I’d feel great. It’s very odd, but healing.”
As for nerves, they can be “a good thing,” she says. “When you’re nervous, you care. But if you’re prepared — and you should prepare as much as is humanly possible — you won’t be so nervous. Being on stage is almost magical,” she continues. “You go to a place outside yourself; athletes call it ‘the zone.’ This inner focus, this huge outpouring of emotion, I tell the kids how beautiful that can be.”
Watching the students together amazed her “because they’re so incredibly supportive of each other. I’ve never once seen a student be unkind to another,” she says. Just as amazing is their talent. “They sing from most every genre — pop, classical, Broadway, country, gospel. One girl performed His Eye is on the Sparrow. She got about halfway through it, and she was singing so beautifully that I just lost it. She wasn’t even aware how honest she was. That’s something I really stress — honesty. Be truthful and look your audience in the eye. Give yourself no wall.”
Tim Sampson, who is communications director of the Soulsville Foundation, says that it struck some people as “odd” to have an internationally renowned opera star working with students at Stax. “But as Kallen and I discussed,” he explains, “good singing is just good singing, regardless of the genre.” She was really beneficial to the kids, he adds, because “they tend to growl out those gutsy soul songs. It was fascinating to watch them work together. I knew that she would fall in love with them and that they would fall in love with her, and that’s what happened.”
What Esperian most wants to accomplish when she works with young people is to make a difference in their lives by providing a positive influence. “They are our future,” she says. “I want to help them live their dreams, to know their joy.”
“I realized life is too short to live in a situation where you’re not happy.”
Thinking about her own future, Esperian reflects first on her past. Her voice breaks as she speaks of her mother and aunt — two of 10 children reared in a tiny place called Goose Hollow, Mississippi, about 20 miles east of Tupelo. “They were poor but they pulled together to survive the Great Depression. Being around my mother and her sisters while I was growing up, I never once heard one of them complain,” says Esperian.
“They had a certain nobility about them, and they were all hard workers and survivors.”
When her Aunt Ruby died in 2003, Esperian flew from Philadelphia, where she was prepping for the role of Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust, to be with the family. “We had the funeral and picked out the gravestone. Then five days later my cousin Jenny called and said, ‘Kallen, you need to get down here.’ Momma had been airlifted to the Tupelo hospital. The song ‘Precious Lord’ kept going through my head and I thought, ‘This is not good.’ My mother held on for about 24 hours, then died of a brain hemorrhage at age 83.
“I didn’t realize the profound effect their deaths would have on me — and still do,” she continues with tears in her eyes. “I’m so grateful to have had those women. They were really my anchors. Of course we get on with life. But things changed after that.”
To some extent, she adds, the loss of those anchors precipitated her divorce eight years ago, after 24 years of marriage. “I realized life is too short to live in a situation where you’re not happy,” says Esperian. “And I think Tom had seen it coming for awhile. I was the one surprised, and it broke my heart to have to do it. It surprised me that I had the courage, because it would have been easier to just stay with it. But I didn’t want to be there anymore.”
The last year or so also brought another source of stress to Esperian, when her son John, now 20, got involved with vehicle burglaries in Germantown. A first-time offender, he’s now living at home on probation.
Preferring not to dwell much on these difficulties, Esperian credits the “incredible support of people who care about us” for helping them both get through an ordeal that she believes saved her son’s life. “God knew he needed to get his act together and He put John in a place where that would happen.” While in jail he completed his GED, tutored other inmates, and is completing a rehabilitation program. “I’m proud of John now. He’s grounded, he has a good heart. God gave me my son back.”
“Rumors of my retirement . . . ”
As this new chapter of her life unfolds, Esperian is philosophical about returning to major opera houses. “That whole scene has changed,” she says, “It’s very political, and in a way I was always considered a bit of an outsider because I never moved to New York.” Being without a manager — she fired hers a couple of years ago — also puts her at a disadvantage: “You need management to stay on the radar of opera companies and symphonies.”
But one of her former managers, in the mid-1980s, isn’t counting Esperian out. George Martynuk, who was with the prestigious Herbert H. Breslin Agency in New York, recalls his client as “drop-dead gorgeous, with a fabulous figure, a mighty cleavage, and a warm, sensuous voice,” says Martynuk, who now owns his own agency. “She impressed everyone with her glorious singing and generous personality. She was a delight to work with, and I often think of her both as an important singer and a warm human being.”
He describes one remarkable performance when she partnered with Pavarotti in a film made in China, titled Distant Harmony. “Kallen was only 25 years old,” he says. “She emerged as a singer of sensitivity and power, holding her own against ‘Il Primo Tenore’ of his time. She radiated innocence, warmth, and charm, and Luciano simply loved her. She’s a stage animal with superb dramatic instincts . . .”
Still, it takes all those qualities and more to stay in the game because, as Martynyuk explains, “Opera is the closest thing to the Olympics. To be able to sing opera is an athletic achievement. There are no [microphones], no amps, you just ‘stand and deliver.’ In a house the size of The Met, you have 4,000 seats . . . and you can’t be intimidated when you walk out and look at that huge expanse you’re expected to fill. The level of self-esteem and sheer confidence would kill most of us. It’s a head game in many ways, and a difficult thing to do.”
Despite all that, he wouldn’t be surprised if Esperian performed again on a major stage. “Like so many talented singers in our business, when Kallen negotiates her life’s priorities and settles down to the hard work of singing opera again, she will be seen and heard in good roles in important houses.”
Others in the music business describe her as a phoenix, the legendary bird who rises from the ashes. And Esperian herself paraphrases lines from one of the Rocky movies: It’s not how many times you get knocked down that matters; it’s how many times you get back up.
“I’ve been a little bit absent,” she acknowledges, “but I’m still in great form vocally. Rumors of my retirement have been greatly exaggerated.”
As for more blockbuster shows in her future, she smiles and says, “That would be fantastic. If they happen, good. But if they don’t, okay. That’s really how my career has been. I’m surprised when something great comes along, but neither do I expect the worst. Maybe it’s just destiny.”
Meanwhile she’ll depend on what has seen her through hard times in recent years: Faith, friends, and music. “I connect music to my faith,” she says. “God gave me this gift and it seems to save me in times when I need it. It truly feeds my soul.”