By Robin Gallaher Branch. Photography courtesy of Kallen Esperian
Kallen Esperian has a large painting above her piano. Colorful in red and gold, it contains the single word, hope. That word resonates throughout the decades of her life lived in the limelight as a world-renowned opera star but also in the recent years of less public prominence and private struggles.
However, wonderful things are happening right now in her life and career as a soprano.
In March she was among those honored by Bill Haslam, governor of Tennessee, with a Distinguished Artist Award. The other two honorees were Amy Grant, the singer/songwriter, and Vince Gill, the country singer. All were invited to perform at the Nashville ceremony, but only Esperian did. She sang several arias, including the beloved “Habanera” from “Carmen”.
Esperian, a Memphian, laughs that she never gets used to the honors she receives. “I always feel humbled,” she said. “I just thank God. His gift has allowed me to see the world and to give and receive so much joy.” Esperian has a merry sense of humor and her eyes sparkle when she talks.
Another significant event is a documentary on her life, “Vissi D’arte.” Directed by Stephen John Ross, it premiered at the Indie Memphis Film Festival in May 2016 and has been shown in Palm Springs and several other American cities. The Italian phrase meaning “I have lived for art” comes from an aria in Tosca by Puccini which Esperian has sung many times. The documentary chronicles her career with its whirlwind years of international stardom and acclaim, its period roughly from 2006 until recently when she was largely away from the public realm, and its steady upswing since 2015.
“Her great humanity and truthfulness come out in her singing,” said Gary Beard, her accompanist for the last three years. “God gave her an incredible talent that she had nothing to do with. She’s done everything she can to perfect it.”
As a child, Esperian’s talent was not particularly recognized. At age 16, she knew she loved to sing and, more importantly, knew she could sing. Later on she realized she wanted to sing. An early role was with the Opera Theatre of St. Louis as Jenny Diver in “The Beggar’s Opera” by John Gay. She graduated from the University of Illinois.
She has played key roles in 13 Verdi operas like Desdemona in “Otello” and Luisa Miller in the opera of the same name. She has starred as Cio-Cio-San in “Madame Butterfly” and Mimi in “La Boheme” by Puccini. Her bel canto repertoire includes Bellini’s “Norma” and Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda”. Notable tenor costars have been Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo. She has sung at The Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, and Royal Albert Hall. Her La Scala debut was as Luisa Miller.
“I feel the happiest when I am singing and using what God gave me,” she said.
Esperian jokes that she chooses her roles in two ways. First, she’ll take the role if the opera is named for her character. If it is not, she’ll take a role if her character dies in the end. If the opera does not meet at least one of those bars, “I don’t do it.” she smiled.
When asked about her favorite costume, she chuckled. Most of the best soprano roles depict women in difficult times. “They were usually very poor. I don’t get to look really pretty,” she laughed. “However, I have many beautiful concert gowns.”
Espirian’s life has had hard times. She divorced in 2006. In 2009, she was in a car accident; a routine brain scan because of the accident unexpectedly found a colloid cyst. Within two weeks she had major brain surgery. “The doctors said the cyst had been there for 20 years or more and was growing,” she said. In 2010, her son was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes. Adjustments in her life curtailed her career. Assessing those years she said, “Life is like opera. But life is stranger than opera.”
About two and a half years ago, “the sun came out,” she beamed. Her life took a turn. “The documentary concentrates on the support of great friends and their help in getting me to sing again,” Esperian said.
Beard believes the decision to rest her voice for several years was a good one; the stress of pursuing a career and the stress of personal difficulties can ruin a voice. “Frankly, I think her voice has come back better than it ever was,” he said.
Esperian keeps to a training regimen. “Opera singers are athletes. We’re not models. You have to be strong,” she said. She works with a personal trainer three times a week; Pilates strengthens her core muscles. Over the years, she lost 65 pounds. She loves teaching voice and passing on “the art of singing.”
When asked to describe her voice, she said, “I have depth and a brightness. People tell me that it’s velvet-like.” Then she laughed and explained that they add, “It doesn’t hurt their ears!”
Dabney Coors, her good friend, describes Esperian’s voice as one heard once every 100 years. “She sang for four people in my house and her voice was ringing the chandeliers!” Coors exclaimed.
That painted word above her piano, hope, remains pivotal in this new season in Esperian’s life. What does she want to do professionally in the next few years? Esperian, her expressive face showing she enjoyed the question, replied, “Norma. Because you cannot do that role unless you are totally at the top of your game.”