[story + interview]
By James Rose
Ever listened to opera in a pub?
How about at a pub like Banff’s Royal Canadian Legion # 26 Col. Moore Branch?
That’s where I was Friday night. At the Legion. Listening to opera. Wild night.
My friends and I couldn’t get in when we first arrived. And we were early. The two hour show started at seven. The Legion was packed. So we sat outside on a back patio picnic table and listened to arias accompanied by piano. I couldn’t get the best look at the performers from that vantage. But I could sure hear. No amplification required.
And when the show’s first break came, I managed to sneak inside and find some other pals to sit with. Sparrow and Riley had already seen me through the window. Sparrow had a pint waiting for me.
Now before Friday night, I’d never been to live opera. I didn’t know what to expect. Yes, I’ve listened to recorded opera, but doing so is a rare occurrence. It requires a very specific time, place and mood for me to feel compelled to fire up the opera.
But at the Legion on Friday night in Banff, I was utterly transfixed, no matter my mood. There I sat among a crowd of oldsters and youngsters, listening to melodic oral artifacts delivered to us peons from prior centuries.
And all the performers, they were young! And they were all beautiful! I kept thinking, who are these people? From where have you come? Down from the mountain? Over from Galt’s Gulch? Doing pro bono servitude for the rest of us, the great unwashed?
And while listening to arias by Wagner, mind wandering to some other space and time, advertisements for the latest Jurassic Park installment played stage right on the giant plasma TV screen (there was no stage). And if Jeff Goldblum’s mug didn’t bring you back to Earth maybe the following ad did for next week’s WWE wrestling match. Hell in a Cell featuring Seth “Freakin” Rollins, Madcap Moss, and others.
But then my full attention would return to these Songbirds from St. Somewhere. Singing about rosenkavaliers and torrid love affairs between family members torn apart by love and rage.
A pin could’ve dropped among the hushed audience as we listened to the languages of Italy, France and Austria sung seven octaves north to melodies derived from the entire musical scale. This isn’t three chord folk.
But like I said, we were in a pub. So while flaxen haired goddesses Down From The Mountain sang about barons bragging about sexual conquests and marriages to daughters of the wealthy bourgeois, I heard the odd comment from the barkeep - who looked as though he’d just stepped off a commercial swordfishing boat. He had a customer at the bar who was the spitting image of Mark Twain himself.
To Mark Twain and others, the barkeep loudly would say things like: “Still workin’?” or “No fuckin way!” or ”Want another Molson?” Or “Okay, thanks buster.”
And when I think about the narratives sung to us, they strike me as rather… pulpy. Scandalous. Street dramas. This is what’s deceiving about opera. Here are the world’s best singers, those with the Right Stuff, Down From The Mountain, singing about material that is… well, operatic. Extravagantly theatrical dime store romances.
But these performers, they delivered. And they were having fun! They had difficulty holding back laughter as they acted out these grand narratives. These black comedies. And the crowd was in on it too. We laughed along with them. But then the pendulum would swing the other way. After one emotionally charged song, the performer left the stage in tears.
And to my right, there was this guy wearing an Egyptian Sphinx T-Shirt, must’ve been in his 50s or 60s, and after every notable point in a song, he’d cry out:
“WOW” or “NOT BAD, NOT BAD” or “I ROLLED MY EYES.”
And his buddy eventually turned his head and whispered, “Timmy, shhhh.” Was Timmy trolling? I don’t think so. For Timmy never smiled, he never frowned, he never changed his voice from the gentle-flowing key to which he tuned the initial outcry, he never betrayed the slightest suspicion of enthusiasm.
Timmy was genuine.
And before the final song was sung, the performers took a break. I went up to one and told her how great she sounded. And while doing so, I couldn’t help but notice she was holding two tequila shots.
“Those, uhh, for you?” I was curious.
“Yep,” she said with a slight shoulder shrug. And then she downed them both. One right after the other, never breaking eye contact with me.
“Isn’t… alcohol bad for the voice?”
“Yep,” she evenly said before continuing on her way.
And the final performance of the evening was from the co-director of this assembled operatic entourage. She sang an aria from Puccini’s Tosca. And this aria, like all the others, was introduced to us beforehand for context. The guy who gave context said it was his all-time favourite opera because it has it all: Politics, torture, murder, love, sex and suicide - the full range of human emotion.
So what we have in Puccini’s Tosca is a melodramatic piece set in Rome in June of 1800. Back when Napoleon's invasion of Italy threatened the Kingdom of Naples's control of Rome.
At one point in the opera a character exclaims that she has lived for nothing other than Love and Art. And this is what the Italian aria we then heard was about: Love and Art.
And the performer, she hit it out of the park. The audience was in complete rapture. Timmy was silent. Barkeep was silent. My friend Sparrow, he’d been munching on a bag of Cheetos through the evening. The Cheetos went untouched.
Next day I’m seated across from Karen Slack at the Banff Centre’s Maclab Bistro. Karen is the co-director of the Banff Centre’s Opera in the 21st Century Program. She’s the one who sang the Tosca aria.
Karen is internationally renowned. She’s attended the best performing arts schools. She’s won all the awards. She’s stood on the world’s finest stages. The Met. Carnegie Hall. You name it, she’s performed there.
Karen was born and raised in Philadelphia. She’s an only child. She didn’t come from a musical family. Her parents were athletes. Dad was a basketball coach and mom played volleyball. But there was always music in the house. Lots of R&B, jazz, and soul. Lots of Motown. In 1978 her parents took her to her first concert: Earth Wind and Fire. Karen was three.
Karen grew up singing. Always she was singing. Singing along to Whitney Houston. Anita Baker. Aretha Franklin. But she couldn’t exactly match them. “I had this big, high unruly voice,” she said over Maclab coffees.
She thought she was destined to become a vet. She loves animals. But those plans changed when, in middle school, her choir teacher persuaded her to audition for Philadelphia’s prestigious (and public) High School for Creative and Performing Arts. Karen got in, no problem.
Before starting at CAPA, she had no intention of studying classical music. She had no intention of a career as a professional musician. Mr. King changed all that. Thanks to Mr. King, Karen fell in love with opera. “At 7:30 every morning, he would just blast opera. I remember thinking like oh my god, this is amazing.” Mr. King was her vocal coach. He played the greats for his students. Maria Callas, Jessye Norman.
Her classmates at CAPA included members of the influential vocal group Boys II Men. Other classmates included Ahmir Thompson and Tariq Trotter. Those guys would later found a hip-hop group called The Roots. You might know The Roots if you watch Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show. They’re the house band.
Karen went to her first opera at age 16. Carmen: written by French composer Georges Bizet. The star of the show was Denyce Graves. At that time, Denyce was in her mid to late twenties. She was such an inspiration to Karen. To sing so beautifully and to also be a black woman. To this day, Denyce and Karen keep in touch.
What is a beautiful voice anyway? Bob Dylan singing roughshod about times-a-changin’? Adele yelling into the mic, reaching the upper register? After all, music is subjective. But to Karen, opera singer par excellence, a beautiful voice is definable: “Warm, round, expressive and expansive. A beautiful voice contains shimmering colours.”
On the come up, Karen had tunnel vision. “Everything I did served my goal. I’m lucky to have the vocal cords I was born with. I’m lucky to have had the right people surround me. I had the best coaches. I went to the best schools. But there have been lots of ups and downs. My road to success was not a straight line. I somehow had the audacity to dream of doing something not at all American. Forget all the race stuff.”
She wishes someone would’ve told her how challenging a career as an opera singer would be when she was in high school. There have been multiple times when she thought of giving it all up. But always, that next gig would come and Karen would be right back to being fully engaged with her calling. Yes, to Karen singing opera is her true calling. A calling that required a fifteen year training period.
“Opera singers train for ten to fifteen years and then hit their peak for about ten years. After that, shit starts to fall apart,” she said laughing.
Karen has no kids. She married a man she’s known since they were both eight. They have a house, cars, and a couple of cats. She spends most of her time on the road. “A busy year, I’m only home twelve non-consecutive weeks out of the year.” It can get lonely. She’s not making the big bucks like other singers with a mere pittance of Karen’s training and pedigree. Opera is niche. It has its own sub-culture. In a country of ~300 million, Karen estimates there are about 50 people who can call themselves working professional opera singers.
Did Karen ever consider moving to Europe? To Vienna - opera’s global epicentre? “I had an opportunity in my twenties, but I decided I like America. My family is here. I’m a proud American. I like our culture.”
Karen loves hip-hop. She says rappers and opera singers have a lot in common. “Whether you sing an aria or lay down sixteen bars, we both do so with bravado and swagger. We command the stage.”
But it ain’t easy being an American based opera singer. Unlike in Canada or Europe, America does not have government grant systems for the arts. And in America, health care is a damn expensive out-of-pocket payment.
“Art in America is largely made on the back of wealthy patrons donating to a foundation. It’s just different.” She sees no reform in sight. “No one really cares that much about the arts. We can’t even agree on gun laws.”
Back to the craft.
What is opera, anyway? Opera is story told through song. Usually there are four or five characters: a tenor, a baritone, a soprano and so on. Some operas are one act plays. Some are five. The French specialize in five act operas. Italians like four. Some are 45 minutes long. Some go for four hours. They are expensive to produce.
“Opera’s origins were not elitist. In Italy back when, the crowd would boo. They’d throw food at the performers. The elitist thing came later.”
New operas are written every day. Karen does not write. She curates and performs. “My creative friends tell me I should start writing, but I want to do other things.” Those other things may include one day starting her own opera company. “But I have no idea what that would look like.”
She wants to sing more. She wants more roles. She wants to find the stories in history that haven’t been told. She would love to see contemporary opera moving away from how women have traditionally been depicted. “But like they say in hip-hop, finding those stories to curate will require some serious crate digging.”
Was performing at the Met, at Carnegie all that it was cracked up to be? Yes and no. “You work so hard to get somewhere, and then once you’re there, you’re kind of exhausted. One of the things I’m working on is being in the moment.”
But was she nervous? “Oh hell ya. I always get nervous. Even last night at the pub. Before I went out, I had a shot of tequila!”
Shots of tequila are not typical for Karen. She's very careful about protecting her instrument when she’s in full rehearsal mode - a four to six-week process before a big show. If she’s at a Mary. J. Blige concert, she won’t scream despite wanting to very badly. She won’t drink or smoke. She tries to minimize how much she speaks. It’s a monkish existence.
But for Karen, she can’t see herself doing anything else.
“Why do we ask people to come to the opera? First, we have to know the why. And it’s not just about using our instrument, our gift. We ask people to give us their time and money, both of which are in short supply. We do that because we believe art is necessary. We believe art is important.”
Be it at Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Opera or Banff’s Royal Canadian Legion # 26 Col. Moore Branch.
And to the latter,
I can testify.