Kallen Redux

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.



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A thrillling moment for the young diva —  backstage at The Met, flanked by Placido Domingo (left) and Luciano Pavarotti, after an opening night performance in 1993.

“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.” 

Esperian jams with Kirk Whalum and the Stax Music Acadamy kids at a concert at the Levitt Shell, June 30, 2013.

 

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