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Ideas

Career Day: The Opera Singer

By Julia Beck

Kenneth Kellogg is a bass who performs across the United States and Europe. He is based in northern California.

Did you always want this career?
I never set out to be an opera singer. I tried to quit music so many times! In college, I was on scholarship, completely bored and failing a music theory course. My voice teacher was the wife of the dean of the music school. She jumped in to help me pass the course and keep singing.

Still, it took many years until I realized I was really an opera singer. I was performing for the San Francisco Opera Company. I remember lounging in a coffee shop with a friend during the morning rush — we were in PJs and just taking it slow. The rest of the world was in their work uniform and rushing with briefcases in hand. It was in that moment that I got it.

How is your work life structured?  
There is no season or off-season. I have to stake out my own time. In the end, I am a freelancer with no parental leave and no benefits. I know both my personal and operatic time are important, so I am learning the tricky art of making it work well for me and my family.

I always have one, if not three or four, scores with me. I do scales and work on technique an hour a day.

As your career has progressed, how has the casting process changed?
Now, I have an agent who does the leg work for me. Her job is to sell and to find roles that are a good fit. I still have to be a quality musician, make positive impressions, maintain a good reputation as an artist. My agent is great at asking me what I want; we talk about the pros and cons of taking on certain pieces at certain houses.

What kind of coaching and support do you get?
First, my wife Megan is an opera singer, and she gets it. Then there is my cast of coaches. My voice coach is there to get and keep my voice at optimum level — he feels like a technician, therapist, and parent all rolled into one. I have additional coaches who are good with a different things such as diction and music. I once had a massive role in a French opera, so I worked with a French speaker to help my pronunciation and diction to sound fluent.

How do you prepare for productions?
I always have one, if not three or four, scores with me. I stay in shape by practicing; I do scales and work on technique an hour a day. I spend at least three hours a day studying repertoire, meaning I focus on rhythms, basics of music, and other essentials.

What’s it like to put on makeup for a show?
It’s something I had to get used to. I don’t know how women put eyeliner on themselves. Make-up time varies depending on the production design. I’ve been in the chair for 5 or up to 30 minutes. I do always fight to keep from shaving, though. I’ve grown attached to my beard and have to have good reason to cut it.

Do you listen to opera at home with your family?
Not at all! My passion is singing opera, not listening to it. I tend to listen to hip-hop, R&B, and jazz. I may or may not be listening to Hamilton multiple times a week.

You’re a tall African-American man, a relative rarity in opera. Are people ever surprised?
It’s not the first thing they expect to hear. I love this; it’s happened several times: I’m leaving the gym after a workout and a guy comes up and asks, “Do you play for the “Washington Wizards?” To which I nonchalantly say, “Nah, I’m an opera singer,” and walk off in an imaginary plume of smoke.

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Julia Beck is a writer based in Washington, D.C.

Illustration by Verónica Grech

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