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Kallen Esperian is the one of the world’s greatest singers. As a measure of her stature, she is the only one of the Three Sopranos (Kathleen Ann Cassello, Cynthia Lawrence and Kallen) to have performed individually with each one of the Three Tenors (Plácido Domingo, José Carreras and Luciano Pavarotti) in concerts and in opera houses around the world.

Our FACES interview takes place at the threshold of Kallen’s most recent musical partnership with Gary Beard, who recently retired after 37 years as Artist-in-Residence of Lindenwood Church. Kallen and Gary have woven their talents into a 2014-15 Salon Concert … musical theater gems with a taste of opera. The inaugural performance was November 2 at the lovely home of Elizabeth and Giles Coors. Welcome the lady with a velvet voice, our FACE of Memphis today, Kallen Esperian.

Kallen Esperian as Luisa Miller; image courtesy of Kallen Esperian
Kallen Esperian in her La Scala debut as Luisa Miller; image courtesy of Kallen Esperian

Have you always called Memphis home?

I have been in Memphis since 1982 and lived in Memphis longer than I have anywhere else. I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, but Memphis is my home. Memphis is a mecca for all kinds of music. I love the cultural diversity of our city!

Looking back, when did you discover your love and talent for music?

The first memory I have that involves music is of my first ballet recital, when I was 3 years old. Actually, I cannot recall a time in my life when music was not a very important part of it. My mother played records of great singers like Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra and many others. I began studying piano when I was 10 years old. It was my piano teacher, Kenneth Grome, who first discovered that I had a voice.

Curtain Call: Kallen Esperian in the role of Desdemona in Verdi's Otello at Opera de la Bastille in Paris
Curtain Call: Kallen Esperian in the role of Desdemona in Verdi’s Otello at Opera de la Bastille in Paris; Plácido Domingo was the Otello. This production opened the new opera house. Image courtesy of Kallen Esperian

Briefly describe how your musical talent became a profession.

Before I graduated from the University of Illinois, I was hired by the Opera Theater of St. Louis for a role in the touring production of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. That opera company continued to hire me, and this very fortunate opportunity allowed me to work with some of the best stage directors and conductors of that time. Only four years later, I won the Luciano Pavarotti International Voice Competition, which thrust me onto the major stages of the world. I was the youngest singer ever to win.

Tell us more about your recent partnership with well-known musical artist Gary Beard.

I have recently been rehearsing with Gary Beard, preparing a show consisting of about an hour’s worth of music that relates to my life. I must say this has been a joyous collaboration of creativity, friendship and excitement. Gary is a fabulous musician, and, more importantly, a fabulous human being. I never cease to discover anew the immense happiness of creating with others, and then sharing what we have created with an audience. Our first performances will be in private homes, but we are absolutely looking forward to presenting public concerts!  We are already booking concerts into next summer.

Kallen Esperian and Gary Beard_Salon Concert Series 2014-15
Kallen Esperian and Gary Beard in the inaugural performance of their Salon Concert Series 2014-15 at the home of Elizabeth and Giles Coors

What characteristic is always present in your performances?

I do my best to communicate honestly with my audience, putting no walls between us. I do not see myself so much as a performer, but rather as a storyteller who shares her stories through lyrics and music. I become a part of the story, and choose stories that are meaningful to me and hopefully to those who are listening to them.

Do you ever get nervous?

Of course! Because I care! I believe performers who say they don’t get nervous are either lying or do not care. I use my nerves to enhance my performance. Good nerves can add excitement to a performance; bad nerves can paralyze you.

Kallen Esperian
Kallen Esperian performs musical theater gems with a taste of opera.

Please name your most memorable performances.

There are many performances that have been very special for me; however, these three immediately come to mind: One would be my Met debut as Mimi in La Bohème, with Placido Domingo as Rodolfo. My hometown really turned out to support me, with over 400 Memphians in attendance. The Met said it was the largest hometown crowd that had ever come for a debut, and people over the years dare to ask me why I live in Memphis!

The second is my La Scala debut as Luisa Miller in Verdi’s Luisa Miller. In this performance, I am told that I set the record for curtain calls at La Scala. I believe there were 17.

The third is with Opera Memphis, when I sang the role of Norma in Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma. It was very special for me to sing what is considered by many to be the “tour de force” role for soprano, in my hometown, to a sold-out house, which included so many friends and family.

(l to r) Dabney Coors, the artists' representative for Kallen and Gary's new Salon Concert Series, and Kallen
Dabney Coors, left, is the artists’ representative for Kallen and Gary’s Salon Concert Series. She is pictured here with Kallen before the inaugural performance.

Describe yourself in three adjectives.

Dedicated.  Loyal.  Resilient.

Have you read a good book lately that you would recommend to others?

In the Sanctuary of Outcasts: A Memoir, by Neil White

What are some guiding words you live by or perhaps a favorite quote?

“Where there is a will, there is a way.” My mother’s favorite quote. I wear a bracelet inscribed with those words, in memory of Mama.

My three most important rules in life are: “to be kind, to be kind, and to be kind.”

Do you have a specific mentor? How has that person influenced you?

Luciano Pavarotti. He influenced me in every way. I learned from his example of great singing and from his words, “One must live to be forever a student, to honor our gift, to make it the best it can be, because we were given the gift!”

Kallen Esperian
Kallen Esperian (pictured with Dean Richard Ranta and his wife Carol)

What is your favorite vacation escape and why?

I have not had many vacations as an adult. I am always happy to be home from the road. However, when I was growing up, our vacations were to the Northwoods of Wisconsin and Minnesota to go fishing. I have wonderful memories of those times.

Are there any charitable organizations where you volunteer your time or support? What’s meaningful about this outreach to you?

St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital for Children, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, and really anything that has to do with children. They are where my heart is, and they are our future.

Do you have any favorite fashion trends or must-have clothing items/accessories on your wish list (or already in the closet!) for your 2014-15 wardrobe?

I really do not go for trends. I wear what makes me feel good. I always wear scarves and wraps, because Luciano said, “When you go out, always protect your throat with a scarf!” You will notice he always did. Plus, they always add a sense of drama!

What special events are coming up soon that you are looking forward to?

Yes, my concert series with Gary! Of course, I do have my solo performances apart from the series, but I see the concerts with Gary as continuing on far into the future. We want to make a CD of this collaboration!

Any parting words that sum up “Kallen”?

I take my work very seriously! Myself? Not so much!

Thank you, Kallen! 

Here is a wonderful YouTube video of Kallen, created by the University of Memphis, that highlights her amazing musical career. Enjoy Kallen Esperian, a Tribute … She is truly an amazing Memphian and one of the world’s greatest singers!


And thank you to Micki Martin for her wonderful photos of Kallen at the inaugural Salon Concert 2014-15 performance. 

Micki Martin photography

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About the Author
Christian Owen