October 09, 2019
Backstage life: Kenneth Nichols
Welcome to Backstage Life where we feature the people behind the scenes who make opera happen. Today we're talking to Kenneth Nichols, a member of the Regular Chorus at Lyric Opera. Here's what he had to say about his life at Lyric.
WHAT IS YOUR ROLE AT LYRIC, AND HOW LONG HAVE YOU HELD THE POSITION?
I am currently in the Regular Chorus. August marked the beginning of my 19th season.
WHAT LED YOU TO WORK AT LYRIC?
While in Chicago performing in Show Boat [at the Auditorium Theatre], I saw David Hockney's production of Turandot [at Lyric] and absolutely loved it. Getting to hang out with Ben Heppner at a sushi restaurant afterwards was an added bonus! When Show Boat closed a couple of years later, it was the only logical choice, as I was now based in Chicago and musical-theater options were fewer and farther between. I started with the Ryan Opera Center back when it was called LOCAA [Lyric Opera Center for American Artists], performing in their education programs. I was eventually hired for the Supplementary Chorus, and then Regular Chorus the following season.
WHAT'S A TYPICAL DAY LIKE FOR YOU?
I get up around 5-5:30 to spend some time in prayer. Then, depending on the rehearsal schedule, I'll either have breakfast and go to the gym, or have breakfast and come to the theater. After rehearsal, if I don't get to the gym in the morning, I usually go for a run or a long walk when I get home. Pretty low key, but I like it that way.
WHAT'S THE MOST CHALLENGING ASPECT OF YOUR JOB?
There are two: the first is learning and singing in Russian. I think we've only done three Russian operas since 2000, and, at least for me, it's not a language you can just pick up, as it bears absolutely no resemblance to English and there's nothing to hang on to. The other is trying to remember an opera that we haven't done in a while. This season, we'll revisit The Queen of Spades. It's a double whammy for me, because it's been close to 20 years since we last performed it. In fact, it was my very first production at Lyric Opera of Chicago. And it's in Russian. Challenge accepted.
WHAT KEEPS YOU COMMITTED TO THE WORK YOU DO?
I love it! It's what I've wanted to do since I saw my first opera when I was in high school. And I plan on doing it for as long as I am physically and vocally able to do so. It's one of the reasons that I work out. Being in shape physically helps me to stay in shape vocally. The other thing that keeps me committed is the audience. There may be someone in the audience who's never been to an opera before. If what I'm doing onstage can contribute in any way, shape, or form to that person falling in love with opera, then it's all worth it.
WHAT'S SOMETHING ABOUT YOUR JOB THAT PEOPLE MIGHT NOT KNOW?
We have more fun offstage than onstage. Not that we don't enjoy being onstage – it's just a different kind of fun. Onstage, it's the joy of making music, and trying to stay in the moment when the music is so beautiful that you don't know whether to scream or break down and cry. Offstage, we're just silly. Whether it's the "Cool" dance from West Side Story, the White Elephant doing the Running Man in The King and I, or the Star Wars sound effects in Turandot. We have a blast!
A FAVORITE LYRIC MOMENT?
There have been so many. The fight in Die Meistersinger was one of the rare times we got to be silly onstage. I was the Birdseller in Sweeney Todd and got to speak with a cockney accent, which was a new experience for me. And Cendrillon – if we performed that opera every season, I would be totally fine with it.
BEYOND OPERA, WHAT ARE YOUR OTHER PASSIONS?
Musical theater, motorcycles, health, and fitness. I started in musicals playing Woody in Finian's Rainbow in junior high school. All the seeds were planted while I was in New York but didn't come to fruition until I came to Chicago. A choir member at a church where I was singing loaned me a book about an African American from the Northeast, who took a road trip on his BMW K75 to see if or how race relations had progressed in the South. I was hooked. All I wanted after reading that book was a BMW K75. I still haven't found one. Neither have I been able to locate the book – the search continues. I've had a long love-hate relationship with health and fitness; I have been on and off that wagon more times than I care to remember. About three years ago, I decided to get on and stay on. I didn't just go on a diet, I changed my diet and dramatically increased my workouts. The results have been both rewarding and lasting.