Kenneth Kellogg Looks to the Future of Opera

‘Coming Full Circle,’ Bass Kenneth Kellogg Looks to the Future of Opera

Kennth Kellogg

When he arrived for staging rehearsals at the War Memorial Opera House, bass Kenneth Kellogg was dressed for the occasion. He preparing to become one of the first singers to perform in a fully staged opera in the San Francisco Bay Area since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

But it wasn’t his grey-washed jeans or his cozy knit sweater that marked the occasion. Rather, it was the brilliant red T-shirt he wore that announced his commitment to the future—by honoring the past.

An otherwise ordinary shirt, it bore a list of names in large type on the front: Paul. Todd. Robert. Roland. George. William. Those were the names of the artists who blazed a path forward for Black men in opera. Those were the names of the artists Kellogg grew to admire.

Paul Robeson. Todd Duncan. Robert McFerrin. Roland Hayes. George Shirley. William Warfield. Kellogg cheekily refers to them as “the squad.” It was with their memories in mind that he walked into the opera house, ready to make history.

“Being a Black singer, these names are known to you. They’re known as the people who didn’t get the opportunity to shine as bright as they could because of the disparities of the time,” Kellogg says. He wanted to make a statement in their honor.

“In this age, we’re talking about diversity, equity, and inclusion. For a long time that wasn’t a priority of the industry. It wasn’t the priority of opera companies,” Kellogg explains.

“I recognize that because of them, my road is a little easier. So it’s only fitting for me to don a shirt that respects them and pays homage to them as I step onto one of the biggest stages in the country.”

That stage is the massive black platform that currently rises above the lagoon at Marin Center—a stage so big, it was once used for the Coachella music festival. This spring, however, it hosts a different kind of event: The Barber of Seville, San Francisco Opera’s first live production in over a year.

For this to be his first performance since the pandemic began has been deeply meaningful for Kellogg. He credits San Francisco Opera with giving him his first professional experience in opera. It’s also where he trained as a resident artist in the Adler Fellowship Program—and where he met his wife, the opera singer Megan Kellogg.

He first noticed her in rehearsals for 2009’s Porgy and Bess, and instantly he was smitten. “I would hang around her like a little puppy,” he laughs. “I used to carry her scores after Porgy rehearsals to her car, like we were in high school.” The couple recently celebrated their ninth anniversary at their home in the East Bay.

So being back at their old stomping grounds has been “symbolic,” Kellogg says: “It’s coming full circle, from where I began to where I go in my future.”

In this new interview, Kellogg reveals a glimpse into his past—the obstacles he overcame, the sacrifices he made—in order to share the passion that drives him forward.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Could you tell me what life was like for you growing up?

KELLOGG: I grew up in Washington, D.C. I’m not from a very musical family on my mom’s side. But I was very fortunate to have some really great music teachers at public school. And they were most influential in my music learning at a young age. I had a teacher in elementary school who was very adamant in her love for music, which was infectious for me as a young person, to see someone so happy and so devoted and so passionate about music.

I also recognized at a very young age that if you’re in choir and you took piano lessons, you got to get out of regular classwork sometimes to go participate. And we were constantly being called out of school for trips and activities. So instantly I latched onto music as a way to escape the normal rigorous schedule of elementary school. [Kellogg laughs.]

I was introduced to the Duke Ellington School of the Arts as a boys’ choir member in elementary school. Duke Ellington is a performing arts high school in D.C. When the time came for me to go to high school, I instantly chose to go to the Duke Ellington School of the Arts.

My mom, she loved the idea of me being at school from 9 to 5, which was what the hours were at Ellington. And there, that’s where I really got into the expression of music.

It was just an environment that bred creativity. Everyone was just really open. Going to my neighborhood school, being the arts kid wasn’t the coolest thing. But Ellington, that was a place where we could express ourselves in a way we normally couldn’t in different circles. It was really a nurturing environment for artistic expression.

My circle of friends, they were all athletes. They didn’t have music in that way. So a large part of my experience growing up was balancing the role of being an athlete and being a choir kid. You can imagine in high school how that goes.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: A lot of people in this industry come from backgrounds where their parents were artists or singers or performers, whatever the case may be. What’s your family background?

KELLOGG: My mom and dad were separated, so I was raised by my mom mostly. My grandparents as well. But my mom, she worked in insurance for a private company for quite a long time, and then she transitioned to working for the government. But she has no musical experience whatsoever.

I would say I do not come from a musical family at all. So the idea of me being a singer was quite foreign to them. I was a very quiet kid. When I started to sing and get opportunities where my family could come to hear me, they were surprised because they’d never heard me sing around the house.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Was there a lot of support for you pursing this career?

KELLOGG: Oh yeah. My family is one of the most supportive families I’ve ever met. Yes, they didn’t understand exactly what it was, but they knew that I loved it. And they knew I was pursuing it. My mom always had this misconception: “Oh, my baby’s going to be the next Luther Vandross.” [Kellogg laughs.] He was one of her favorite singers at the time.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Do you remember the first time you actually saw an opera?

KELLOGG: Oddly enough, I was in my first opera as I was seeing my first opera. I was in college, actually. It was Gilbert and Sullivan. The Gondoliers, I believe it was. As a freshman in college, I was cast in a production, and it was the first live opera that I was seeing, as a member of the cast.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: You were learning as you were going along. Was that intimidating?

KELLOGG: It was college. It’s not as intimidating. But that’s still the case for me. I can’t tell you every singer who’s ever sung every role. I know the singers that I like, and I know what I like about them. But I can’t hear a phrase from a singer and tell you who it is. So I still feel like an outsider in that respect. I have colleagues who know opera inside out.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: What’s the attraction for you? You said there’s something very personal about it. What is that thing?

KELLOGG: Being an introvert—I’m still very much an introvert—it’s having that outlet. Music has always been that outlet for me to express something in me that I can’t otherwise express.

There’s this thing that happens when I get on stage where I can escape. I can escape being an introvert and really let go and express things that I don’t really know how to express otherwise. And as someone that loves hard work, I thrive off of the challenge. Music is that for me. It’s a challenge on so many levels.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: When you said you were an athlete in school, what sport did you play?

KELLOGG: I’m 6’5”. So basketball is my sport of choice. That was my first love. There weren’t many days when you’d find me not on the basketball court playing.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Did basketball and choir ever compete for your time? For your affection?

KELLOGG: Oh yeah. All the time, all the time. As a kid, in elementary school through junior high school, it’s not really an issue. You could do both.

But because I went to the performing arts high school, they didn’t have a basketball team like every other school in the city. So there was a period when I would go to school at Ellington and then take a bus across town and play for another school’s basketball team. I did that for a year before it got a little too much.

There was one point in college where I considered dropping out of the music program to play basketball, because I just loved it that much. Music, at that point, had stopped being fun. I was taking a theory course, which I didn’t really love. And I was seeking other things that I loved. Basketball was one of those things. So there was that competition very early on.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Can you telling me about that moment, where you considered dropping out of music? What kept you coming back?

KELLOGG: Music has always been fun, going from elementary school to the choir to Ellington. There was just the freedom of expression and encouragement.

But as you get older and you start to progress in the field, the stakes start to get higher. And in college, the stakes started to get to a point where it wasn’t just about the passion and the love of expression for me. It was suddenly about grades. It was about scholarships. It was about having to do the school production. It was about all these external things beyond my passion for it, beyond my love for it.

But luckily I had an amazing teacher who sat me down and told me about the possibilities and my potential and talked to me about what the career in opera meant. I ended up getting help, getting a tutor in the theory course. And it steered me back toward my love and the track of opera. That happened several times, where I’ve fallen out of love with opera and tried to do something else, but realized that that something else just doesn’t do it for me like opera does.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: When you fall out of love with opera, obviously it wasn’t theory classes after a while. What was it?

KELLOGG: So there was another period where I was at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia, and it was high pressure. There’s a point where you feel like you have to do something, as opposed to you wanting to do something. Other people’s interests start to overtake your own.

I love to work. So first and foremost I would push and push and push myself, and I got sick. I couldn’t sing for a period. I went back into the school, just because I needed to be around music. And someone asked, “Can you sing?” I motioned to them that I couldn’t sing, that I needed to take a break. And there was a question posed to me when I said I couldn’t sing. It was: Why are you here if you can’t sing?

For me, that signaled that I wasn’t being valued as a person. I wasn’t being valued beyond what I could offer as a singer. So it started me questioning: Why am I doing this? As a human being, if I’m not being valued beyond what I can offer vocally, why am I investing so much in other people’s interest in the arts? It crushed me.

It started me really on this path of asking why. Why am I doing this? And I went back to my elementary-school love for it. Back to seeing my teachers who really loved what they were doing. I had to rediscover my love for the art, and not someone else’s.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: What’s the most fulfilling moment you ever had on stage?

KELLOGG: It just happened last summer. I was part of a production called Blue which premiered at Glimmerglass [an opera company in New York]. It was a piece that was written for me. And it happened to speak to the Black Lives Matter movement and police brutality, which in itself was very powerful for me as an artist wanting to take back power, wanting to express something really important to my community.

My son was a part of that production as well, so to be on stage with him playing my son—he was four years old at the time—was very special to me. As a young artist they always tell you: You can choose a career or you can choose family. So it’s been really important to me to have it all, in a sense. To have my son be a part of that production with me on stage was proof to me that I could dispel that myth.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: In playing the father in Blue, you’re touching a trauma that never heals and that’s constantly reopened with every new incident of police brutality.

KELLOGG: Blue came at a time when it mirrored my life. I had just had a son, and my son was newly born when we started talking about Blue. So it mirrored my life in so many ways that I knew I had to tell the story.

I didn’t realize how difficult it would be. One of the things that the composer said—and it has stuck with me every time I think about it—is that doing a piece like this is going to cost you.

I didn’t understand what she meant at the time. But as I broke down in rehearsals day after day, dealing with the subject matter, I realized the cost of it. Dealing with the trauma, dealing with the reality that Black bodies are facing today, I had to ask myself as an artist if I could pay that fee, if I could give that emotionally every day in rehearsal. And I can. I want to.

See bass Kenneth Kellogg on stage in The Barber of Seville, now through May 15, and say hello to him on social media or through his website, kennethkellogg.com.

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