Kenneth Nichols has been a member of the Lyric Opera Chorus for 13 years. We
caught up with Nichols this summer in between performances in the chorus of San Francisco
Opera’s Show Boat, (a co-production with
Lyric Opera, Houston Grand Opera and
Washington National Opera), to talk
about his experiences as a singer and his thoughts on Lyric’s upcoming
production of Porgy and Bess.
Why did you become a singer?
When I was in junior
or senior year of high school, my school choir went to a matinee at the
Metropolitan Opera and we saw Rigoletto.
That pretty much did it for me.
What about that performance stands out
most in your mind?
primarily—but also the scenery and the whole atmosphere when the chandeliers
go up and the lights go out. And then we got a chance to go backstage, we got
to see the costumes ... it was pretty intense. And the singing was glorious!
Did you grow up with music at home?
Yes, I sang at home.
I was in a church choir, and my parents were in gospel quartets when I was
growing up. Music has always been a part of my life. I just wasn’t sure what
direction it was going to go until that matinee performance of Rigoletto.
What brought you to Lyric?
Actually I came to
Chicago because I was singing Joe in Show
Boat at the Auditorium Theatre. That’s what brought me to Chicago and I
fell in love with it. Show Boat closed about a year or so after
that; I just started doing auditions. I heard there was an opening at Lyric and
I jumped in there.
What do you enjoy the most about being in Lyric’s chorus?
Well it’s a lot
like a family—with all that that entails! Every family has drama, and we have
drama sometimes, but basically we all get along. It’s a great place to work. I
love all of my colleagues and they all contribute something to the end product.
That, to me, makes it enjoyable and that’s why I stay.
Who is the musician you admire the most and why?
I don’t know that I
could say there’s one that I admire the most, but Renée Fleming is high on that
list. I’ve known her since college and I’ve seen her grow. She’s always been a
sweet person and she’s always been a giving person, whether on stage or off
stage. What I admire is that even though she’s reached incredible heights in
her career, that hasn’t changed. She still stays sweet, she’s still
approachable, and you can still talk to her. That I admire quite a bit.
You’ve performed in Porgy and Bess before—what do you love most
about the opera?
I would have to say
the music and the orchestration in particular … you’ve got gospel and spiritual
influence going on, you’ve got symphonic music and it all fits together. He
[George Gershwin] put it all together really in an incredible way and the music
itself, not to mention the singing, just moves me.
What makes next season’s Porgy exciting?
We have a different
cast first of all. We have different chorus people and a different conductor.
All of those people bring something different to the table. And when that happens
the dynamic changes, the energy changes... and so in a way, even though it’s the
same production, it’s really not the same. It makes it like you’re doing a
whole new production.
Do you think Porgy
and Bess has a modern message?
extremely relevant today. Porgy and Bess
is about a community and really a society at large. How do we as a society deal
with violence? That’s one of the first things we see—Crown, in a drunken,
cocaine-fueled rage, kills Robbins. How do we deal with poverty? How do we deal
with disasters and tragedies? How do we deal with that as a community, as a society? I think they dealt with it because they
stuck together—there was love there. They loved each other and that love held
them together through all of the stuff that they went through … and ultimately that’s
what’s going to hold us together as a society. So I think it’s extremely valid.
One more final fun question: When you need a break, when
you’re not in the opera house, what do you do?
Golf and motorcycles. I rode out here [San Francisco] from Chicago. It
was amazing. You really see the country from a different perspective. You could
fly, but you wouldn’t get to see the things you see just riding and
experiencing this beautiful country that we have.
the complete conversation—which includes more about Nichols’s background and
his defining moments—here!