Hometown Diva 

International opera star Kallen Esperian adds a grace note to Memphis music.

Onstage, Kallen Esperian can look beautiful, threatening, even domineering. In person, she resembles a young Elvis Presley: A wild mane of hair is swept dramatically off her face, perfectly framing her sharp cheekbones and jet-black eyebrows. Expressive green eyes, ruby lips, and an all-black wardrobe complete the picture.

Esperian has shared stages with Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo. She's portrayed Madame Butterfly, Desdemona, and La Traviata at such first-class venues as New York's Metropolitan Opera, London's Covent Garden, Milan's La Scala, and Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires. But today, the famed soprano seems perfectly at home in Memphis.

"This town is such a well-kept secret," Esperian says, relaxing over a caramel latte at Otherlands. "My day-to-day life is here. I'm Tom's wife and John's mother. I go to the grocery store, drive to baseball and soccer practice."

Memphis has been her home for more than two decades. After receiving a bachelor's degree at the University of Illinois, she followed her soon-to-be husband, Thomas Machen, south when he landed a job at the University of Memphis. Twelve years later, their son, John, was born. Although her family currently lives in the 'burbs, Esperian makes regular treks to Midtown and downtown, her favorite parts of the city.

Asked if she'd consider leaving Memphis for more sophisticated climes, Esperian's eyes flash dangerously. "Never," she says. "For years, everyone told me, 'You have to come to New York if you want to sing opera.' I like to visit, but I love where I live.

"My mom kept me grounded," she adds. "She gave me Mississippi roots." Her mother, a native of tiny Fulton, Mississippi, was, Esperian claims, "my biggest role model. She and my Aunt Ruby -- I tend to admire the people I knew the best. Why idolize a stranger? I wish I could strive to be more like them. Every day, I wonder, What would Mama do?"

Esperian sounds more like a small-town heroine than a world-class singer. Her star began rising in 1985, when she swept Pavarotti's famed International Vocal Competition. She later toured China with Pavarotti and starred opposite Domingo in Otello in Paris. With Kathleen Cassello and Cynthia Lawrence, she formed the Three Sopranos, a femme-fatale counterpart to Pavarotti, Domingo, and José Carreras' highly successful Three Tenors. World renowned as the Verdi soprano of choice, Esperian was in high demand as an opera singer.

Then her real-life role as a mother threatened to derail her operatic career. "The year I got pregnant, I had to cancel my most important work to date," she says. "When it became a reality, [the opera world] was happy for me, but everyone said it wouldn't be easy to come back."

Esperian takes a sip of coffee, sits back and shrugs. "I don't like to plan," she says. "I love to be spontaneous, and that included having a baby. My son comes first. Right after he was born, he traveled with me all over the world. But now I want him to have a childhood.

"John does appreciate opera," she continues, "but I didn't want to force it on him. You're only a child once. John has got a lot of musicality and drama in him. Right now, he says that he wants to be a rock star. If that happens, I'll be in the first row cheering him on."

These days, Esperian seems happy balancing both careers. She cooks dinner and drives carpool, and, when time allows, she slips off to perform the lead in Manon Lescaut, or Falstaff's Alice Ford, of Mimi in La Bohème.

Her schedule for the 2005 season is full: In February, she starred in Madama Butterfly at the Met, while last week, she sang the national anthem at an exhibition game between the Cincinnati Reds and the Toronto Blue Jays at AutoZone Park. In May, she'll travel to Los Angeles for a reprisal of her Falstaff role, and she's got a fishing trip with her son penciled in for August. Next fall, she'll sing Gershwin with Michael Stern's IRIS Chamber Orchestra at GPAC.

"Every role is different, and you can play a particular character so many different ways," says Esperian, who practices daily with a pianist when she's preparing for a performance. "Take Alice Ford -- Falstaff is a comedy, which isn't typically my main focus. For once, there are no stabbings, no angst. It's fun. And it's not a huge responsibility, vocal-wise, because it's an ensemble piece.

"For a typical opera singer, it's about sound. But I'm trying to communicate an emotion. It's all in the way I feel a role and how I can channel it. It's not about me or the audience," she says.

"Most times, I like to experiment," she says, recalling her performance as Lescaut, which was directed by Andreas Homoki in Munich, Germany.

"His idea for the set was all steps," Esperian remembers, rolling her eyes. "I had to learn how to sing while running up and down, and, at one point, I had to roll down a staircase. One time, my knee started bleeding, and Andreas told me it was good luck!

"But how incredible is it to make a living doing something so beautiful!" she says.

"All of us in the arts make career choices based on professional and personal aspirations," says Michael Ching, artistic director of Opera Memphis. "This community has a lot to offer on both levels -- from an artist's standpoint, there's a real sense of being valued. Also, a dollar goes further here than it would in New York.

"Kallen decided that this town is a great place to raise a family. We're very glad she's made Memphis her home. We hope we are playing some part in keeping her here," he continues. "She's been such a great marketer for us -- people love her as much as they love her singing."

"I believe in Opera Memphis," Esperian says, her voice firm. "The artistic world isn't in a good way right now. I can't tell you how many people are suffering from budget cuts. Work isn't as plentiful, but Opera Memphis managed to build a rehearsal facility that's the best I've ever been in. What does that say for this city?"

Esperian is talking about the Clark Opera Memphis Center, a practice space located in East Memphis. "Even when I perform in the best opera houses in the world, I'm used to being in gross, dirty rehearsal spaces," she says. "When we did Tosca here last winter, [baritone] Francesco Petrozzi was blown away."

"When I arrived here [in 1992], the opera company had been rehearsing in area high schools," Ching confirms. "We're a mid-sized opera company, and we can't compete with London or Paris, but what we can do is treat people right. Call it Southern hospitality. We wanted to build a facility that provided a nice place to work.

"We didn't need to build an opera house but a home for the opera," Ching says, explaining that private funding -- spearheaded by gifts from the Adams Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, the Assisi Foundation of Memphis, private donor Barbara Marshall, and others -- paid for the Clark, which opened in May 2003.

This weekend, Esperian will perform at the Clark in a benefit concert for Opera Memphis. "I'd do anything for this company," she declares. "I feel that way about all the arts -- if I can give my time and my talent, I'm glad to help." It's not the first time she's stepped forward to help local organizations. Last summer, proceeds from a concert she performed at Eudora Baptist Church went to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. Other shows have benefited the Memphis Vocal Arts Ensemble and other area charities.

"The first part of the evening will be all opera," Ching says. "We'll be focusing on several excerpts from Bizet's Carmen. Our resident artist quartet will join Kallen for 'Habanera,' which will be a teaser for the audience. because we're considering staging Carmen in a future season. Steve Aiken, our general director, who's also a baritone, will perform a scene from Pagliacci with Kallen -- the famous duet between Nedda and Silvio."

For the concert's second half, Esperian will join arranger/bassist Sam Shoup, drummer Tom Lonardo, and pianist Tony Thomas for a set of torch songs. Her repertoire, which includes versions of "Lover Come Back to Me," "Autumn Leaves," and "Stormy Weather," comes from an upcoming album she just recorded at Young Avenue Sound with Shoup and engineer Willie Pevear.

"Last August, I recorded An Enchanted Reverie, a collection of Christmas songs, with Willie and a group of Memphis musicians," Esperian says. "It went so well that I decided to cut another record. Willie told me he was hearing torch songs, and he made a list of material to cover. The first song on his list was 'Autumn Leaves.' He didn't realize it, but when I was growing up, Mama would sit in the living room and listen to me sing. In her later years, she'd still say, 'Kallen, sing me that song. Sing me "Autumn Leaves."' So everything came full circle. This album was meant to be.

"We recorded with a 24-piece orchestra in a very small room. It was live -- there was no tracking and no overdubbing. By far, it was one of the most fulfilling things I've ever done," says Esperian, who will release the album on her own label, Goose Hollow Productions, later this year.

"That's the funny thing," Ching says of Esperian's pop leanings. "Everybody who works in opera grew up with some other kind of music. For me, it was the Beatles. Classical singing is the foundation of all good singing, and an opera singer can sing anything if it's in the right key. It's all well and good to love opera, but we need vernacular music too. It's like cultivating an orchid or enjoying the daffodils in your backyard. You can't have orchids all the time.

"And," he adds, "opera music is essentially a pop-culture art form. Most of our repertoire was written for the general public. It wasn't until the robber-baron era of the late 19th century when it became highfalutin. My goal is to have people think of opera in the same breath as Memphis music. We don't expect to eclipse rockabilly or blues, but whether or not you attend the opera, this organization plays an important and valid role in the city's ongoing musical culture."

Esperian agrees. "That's what makes Memphis such an interesting city," she says. "It's the center of music -- blues, rock- and-roll, and jazz. The musicians in this city are so good and so well rounded. Everyone here appreciates music -- whether it's pop, classical, or whatever -- on a really high level. The best performances I've given have been in Memphis.

"Think about all the great things we have here," she says, listing such disparate attractions as the Blue Monkey, AutoZone Park, Beale Street, and the Memphis Botanic Garden. She smiles grandly. "I wouldn't live anywhere else."

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