Out of Character
Soprano Karen Slack likes to stay busy. In 2020 she became Artistic Advisor for Portland Opera, Co-Director of the 2020-21 Opera Program at the Banff Centre in Alberta, Canada, and a member of the Board of Directors for the American Composers Orchestra in New York City. In addition to these roles, this season she’ll be performing on stages across the country, including making her HGO mainstage debut as Mama in The Snowy Day.
She has worked with HGO previously, however: during the first HGO Digital season, Slack appeared in The Making of the Snowy Day, a documentary on the world-premiere opera, as well Giving Voice II, a celebration of Black artists in opera. Her other digital work during the pandemic includes Driving While Black with Urban Arias, a film the Washington Post called “an examination of Black motherhood in America that more people need to see,” and #KikiKonversations, the popular weekly live talk show she hosted on her Facebook page.
With anticipation building for the world premiere of The Snowy Day, we caught up with Slack to chat about her return to the stage.
With your digital performances and recent film work, you’ve spent a lot of time in front of the camera. Now that you’re going to be returning to live performances, what is it about being on stage again that you’re most looking forward to?
First, the interaction with my colleagues onstage and in the rehearsal room is one of the things I’ve missed the most, so getting back to that will be wonderful. But the sound of the voices and orchestra in the hall is what I am most excited to hear again. I think I might cry in the sitzprobe.
How would you describe being part of a world-premiere performance?
There is nothing like being the first artist to premiere a new work. It is like birthing a baby into the world. You work countless hours learning the score, breathing life into this new role, and getting it on its feet for the first time. It is scary and thrilling at the same time, because you have no idea how the audience will receive it in comparison to, say, the staples of standard repertoire like La bohème or Tosca. I’ve had the opportunity to create one other opera role—Billie in Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis in 2019—and have commissioned several composers to write new songs for me all throughout my career, so I always embrace the chance to create fresh new music and characters, because I get to put my stamp on it first!
You’ve done a lot of advocacy work in your career. Can you share some details about why that’s important to you? How do you integrate that into your career as a performer?
I never embraced the title of “advocate” until 2020. I just do what it is I’ve always done, which is to be of service to others and my art form: creating space for others to blossom and always bringing more people into any space where I have power.
My advocacy work during the pandemic, whether through the creation of my acclaimed Facebook Live show #KikiKonversations, where we tackled issues in our industry during the pandemic, or the work I’ve done with Women’s Opera Network at Opera America, where I advocate for women in leadership with the emphasis on those of us of color—it all has been centered around the commitment I made to myself to be the thing you wish you’d had throughout your career.
The book that this new opera is based on is a cultural treasure. What made you want to take on this role?
In addition to the fact that I love creating new roles, this will be my HGO debut! It was a no-brainer!
Can you tell us about the character you play, Mama?
Joel Thompson wrote a glorious score and gave me a beautiful and deeply moving aria. Mama is like any other mother who loves her kid immensely and worries about him going out into the world for the first time by himself. What I love most about my role is the interaction between the family. You never get to witness Black families who love and laugh with one another on an opera stage without some type of traumatic event as part of the story. It is a breath of fresh air to just see real joy and, most importantly, love from parents to their child.
What do you hope that audiences get out of your performance?
I hope the audience feels the warmth and love of my voice and my performance, but what I hope for most is that they embrace the gift that is composer Joel Thompson and librettist Andrea Davis Pinkney. They crafted a beautiful opera that I hope becomes a staple in every opera house all over the world