Clovis High grad Kelley O’Connor to open Fresno Philharmonic season
Theodore Kuchar, music director of the Fresno Philharmonic, was having coffee recently with Kelley O’Connor when he asked: “Do people in Fresno know who you are?”
O’Connor, a 1998 Clovis High School grad, had to laugh. In an entertainment world built upon a constantly shifting terrain of pop culture, it takes a lot for a mezzo-soprano to be noticed. That’s the case no matter how effusive her reviews or how shiny her 2007 Grammy Award, which she won for a recording of the world premiere of contemporary composer Osvaldo Golijov’s opera, “Ainadamar.”
“Actually I think I am very incognito in Fresno,” says O’Connor, who lives in the area when she isn’t traveling. “I was copying music at Fresno State and a music student recognized me (work out clothes and all!) and, I was very surprised. But I truly like it that way.”
O’Connor, whose career got a kick-start while still in graduate school at UCLA when she was tapped in 2003 for “Ainadamar” at the famed Tanglewood Music Festival, is like many performers in the arts who are better known in the world’s cultural capitals than their own hometowns.
Kuchar wants to help set that straight. Although O’Connor has performed locally before, Kuchar has been hoping for years to introduce her to the Fresno area in a big way. That will happen with her headlining appearance in the opening concert series of the Fresno Philharmonic’s 2012-13 season.
I’ve interviewed O’Connor several times over the years and have always been impressed by her dedication, professionalism, sense of humor and love of the Fresno-Clovis area. Not to mention humility. (In 2007, she left me what remains to this day one of my favorite phone messages: “Hi, this is Kelley O’Connor, and, um, I’m the one who won a Grammy on Sunday.” A pause, then laughter. “I don’t get to say that very often.”)
She’s been traipsing about the world so much recently that we had to connect this time with an email interview — one that she answered while on a plane last weekend to Madrid. I asked memories of growing up, thoughts on her career and, of course, her program with the Philharmonic.
Question: First off, what will you be doing in Madrid?
I am singing Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1 “Jeremiah” with the Spanish National Orchestra. It’s in Hebrew! I sang this piece last year with the Los Angeles Philharmonic on a world tour.
What is your earliest memory of singing?
My mom always says it was my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Taylor at Mickey Cox Elementary School, who “discovered” my talent. I must have been singing the ABC’s at that point! And throughout elementary school, I sang in the choir and also in talent shows with the encouragement of choral director Valerie Quiring and principal Lloyd Harline. I vividly remember singing “Happy Trails” for him in the auditorium at Mickey Cox.
Your experience in Clovis schools?
I loved each one: Mickey Cox, Clark Intermediate School and Clovis High School. I was very active in choir at each place, and I was also part of the Central California Children’s Choir. Thank goodness there were great music programs at these schools, as well as a community children’s choir that I could be part of. It really helped me develop my skills as a musician at a young age.
Talk about your high school years and the impact it had on you.
I was the choir nerd in high school but luckily there were a bunch of great kids in those groups and we never got into trouble! It was a blessing for my mom!!! I also became involved with drama at Clovis High and did one production at Roger Rocka’s. I was able to incorporate acting much more into my singing once I became interested in these other courses.
What are your memories of performing with Good Company Players?
I played head wife, Lady Thiang, in “The King and I” at Roger Rocka’s my senior year. It was definitely a wake-up call and showed me how much work goes into this career. Six shows a week and school was quite a challenge, but it’s what you do when you love something.
Were your parents supportive of your decision to study music? Were they worried that the odds are slim that someone can go on to a professional career?
My mom has always been my biggest supporter. It’s rather amazing since I don’t come from a musical family and this was really unchartered territory for her. My life wouldn’t be possible if it hadn’t been for the sacrifices my mom made from voice lessons to sheet music to piano lessons to college. This was definitely not a cheap undertaking. She is so thrilled that I am finally singing in Fresno so that everyone can see what all our hard work produced!
What do you consider your first big career break?
Definitely my summer at Tanglewood where I was part of the world-premiere of Osvaldo Golijov’s “Ainadamar.” I was at graduate school and auditioned to be part of their summer program. Luckily, Osvaldo heard my tape, saw my picture and said, “This girl has to play Lorca.” Thus began my life of playing men on stage!
Give us a taste of what your life is like today. Where do you call home? How many weeks out of the year do you travel?
My life right now is on the road. I’m writing to you while flying to Spain! Actually, starting this week I am busy until Thanksgiving. Thank goodness I am singing in Fresno so I can actually be home. After those performances, I am back on the road. I call Fresno home at the moment but hope to move back down to L.A. and incorporate some teaching into my work schedule. It is something I am very passionate about and would also keep me in one place. I would say I spend nine months of the year on the road.
Catch us up on your career.
This summer, I performed my life-changing role (Lorca in “Ainadamar”) in Madrid. This was my 11th performance of the piece! Before that I played the lead part in the world-premiere of John Adams’ “The Gospel According to the Other Mary” with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel conducting. I’m returning to L.A. later this year for a staged version and world tour.
As a child, did you attend the Fresno Philharmonic? Did you ever dream you’d be the main attraction (at the season opener, no less)?
I actually attended a lot of traveling musicals at Saroyan. That was one of my early dreams. I loved musicals and wanted to be part of that. I think that was the much more popular road, but I found my own way.
Tell us about your Philharmonic program.
I have the honor of singing Peter Lieberson’s “Neruda Songs.” I am so thrilled that Maestro Kuchar agreed to program this piece as it is truly special to me. Peter wrote them for his wife, renowned mezzo Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, and they are the ultimate love letter. The poetry of Neruda combined with the true love of these two amazing artists (both of whom have recently passed) is a legacy that I am honored to keep alive.
What are three words that best describe you?
Sincere, artistic, devoted.
Which do you prefer — singing in staged operas or performing in concerts?
Definitely concerts. I feel that there is much more direct connection with the audience. I have nothing to hide behind; no character, no costume. I am myself and simply trying to communicate the message of the music. I think it is much more pure.
Was singing always a given for you? Or did it take awhile growing up to realize that this is what you wanted to do?
Yes. I have always been singing. It is the certainty in my life. Even though almost nothing about the traveling musician’s life is stable, my gift definitely is. I know that I am meant to do this.
Kelley O’Connor with the Fresno Philharmonic, 8 p.m. Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Saroyan Theatre, 700 M St., fresnophil.org, (559) 261-0600. $15-$71