Building THE ELLIE LOBBY MAIN HALL OTHER SPACES OPENING NIGHT The STARS MOVERS & SHAKERS CARMEN
KRISTIN CLAYTON, soprano
THE STARS

RENÉE FLEMING
BEN HEPPNER
JAMES MORRIS
STEPHEN LORD
JAKE HEGGIE
KRISTIN CLAYTON
JUDITH CHRISTIN
JULIAN GAVIN
THEODORA HANSLOWE
CYNTHIA LAWRENCE
ROBERT ORTH
EMILY PULLEY
MARCIA RAGONETTI
GARRETT SORENSON
CHARLES TAYLOR
HAO JIANG TIAN
STEPHEN WEST
YALUN ZHANG
OPERA COLORADO CHORUS




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The Faces of Love




"WOW! That's the kind of singer I love!"

Jake Heggie was very taken by her voice on first hearing KRISTIN CLAYTON sing. They quickly became friends and soon Heggie, who today is America's most popular composer of opera and song, would write songs for Clayton and make it his practice to often play a new composition for her to sing through before it received its premiere. Their artistic collaboration has been deep and extensive. For example, Heggie wrote a song cycle called "Eve's Song" for her Schwabacher debut recital; and she recorded the song "If you were coming in the Fall" on his CD "'Faces of Love." This won for Heggie the Schirmer Art Song Competition in 1995. At the workshop for Heggie's celebrated first opera Dead Man Walking, she sang the lead role of Sister Helen Prejean, a mezzo-soprano part that luckily Kristin could fill at the time: "My voice was lower because I had just given birth to my first child. Obviously, I don't sing the role now." [Photo: courtesy of Opera Colorado]



Kristin and Jake in front of the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in Denver [Photo © and courtesy of KKN Enterprises]


It all started in the early 1990s while she was an Adler Fellow at the San Francisco Opera Center and Heggie, still incognito as a composer and songwriter, was working in the Company's PR Department. His first evaluation of Kristin's voice was not off the mark, as the audience who heard her perform Heggie's 20-minute, one-character mini-opera, "At the Statue of Venus", at the Opening Concert Celebration of Denver's Ellie Caulkins Opera House would affirm.  Commissioned by Opera Colorado specially for the occasion, the piece for soprano and piano - with libretto by renowned playwright Terrence McNally - was originally written for soprano Renée Fleming, but Kristin stepped into the role as if it had been composed for her.  Statuesque as a statue of Venus, she moved on stage as a natural actress with a gift for comedy and a voice to match - a beautiful, robust soprano that hits all the right notes, agile and confident, and so at home with Heggie's wonderfully polyphonous music.

Kristin had only 3 weeks to prepare for the role.  She came to Denver a few days early to get acclimatized to the altitude of the "Mile High City."  The less oxygenated air at high elevations can be a problem for singers. "I did have a headache the first day," she said. But she got over that and soon was caught up in the excitement that usually accompanies a world premiere, this one more special than others because it was in celebration of a brand new opera house.

To give their number that extra special touch, Kristin and Heggie, who was to accompany her on the piano, thought "Wouldn't it be nice if we had a statue of Venus on stage? And so, we set about town looking for one and found just what we needed at a party rental place. We rehearsed with Jim Robinson who helped me a lot with his stage direction. It worked out very well. The piece became truly a staged operatic monologue rather than a vocal recital." As Jake Heggie expected, Kristin gave a knock-out performance. And the audience loved her!

CLICK HERE to listen to "At the Statue of Venus" - the complete piece from which the clip heard on opening this page is excerpted. [Streamed with permission of Jake Heggie, Kristin Clayton, and Opera Colorado].

CLICK HERE to read an interview with Jake Heggie where he talks extensively about "Statue of Venus" and his continuing musical collaboration with Kristin.

In October, Kristin and Jake gave a special performance of the piece for Terrence McNally, who could not be in Denver for the premiere, in a rehearsal room at San Francisco Opera. The playwright, shown with Jake and Kristin in the photo at left, was obviously pleased with how Kristin gave life to the character of his creation.

[Photo © and courtesy of KKN Enterprises]



"THE DIVA"

We met with Kristin over tea at a café two short blocks down from the Opera House in San Francisco a few weeks after her debut at The Ellie, in between her rehearsals, not at the Opera House this time, but at Teatro ZinZanni on Pier 29 along San Francisco's historic waterfront, where she was singing the role of "The Diva" in an interactive dinner-cabaret-theater type of show. It's a role that caricatures the opera diva, which she originated in 2000 and still performs occasionally when she's at home in San Francisco and not singing in the more rarefied atmosphere of the Opera House. She sings the very hummable aria "Ebben? Ne andrò lontana" from Catalani's La Wally. "It's a lot of fun," she said. "The audience, most of them hearing it for the very first time, fall in love with the aria and they want to know more about it.  So, they somehow pick up something about opera." Indeed, it's one way of bringing opera to a public that just might be enticed to try it as a form of entertainment. Teatro ZinZanni is an environment she's comfortable in, as it's not too removed from the Broadway type of music-theater that she had set her sights on when she was attending music school in Georgia. [Photo courtesy of Kristin Clayton]


WESTWARD BOUND

That was Shorter College in Rome, Georgia where she studied with John Ramsaur. Her family had moved to Georgia from North Carolina where she was raised. Her father, who hailed from a family of tobacco farmers, was a great guitar player and country singer. Kristin fondly remembers summer evenings of lively singing under the stars. "I guess the music in me came from my father," she said, adding "although my mother, who is from Long Island in New York, loved Broadway."





[Photo © and courtesy of KKN Enterprises]


She sang a great deal of Sondheim's music while in college, "but I was singing Schubert's Lieder too; and then I reached the point where my teachers told me I had to make a choice - either Broadway or opera." They made it clear that her voice was more suited to the classical repertoire. She took their advice, and that pointed the way to opera as a career.  

Her first professional operatic roles were Donna Anna in Mozart's Don Giovanni and The First Lady in Mozart's Die Zauberflöte with the Wolftrap Opera Company. "That was where I first met Peter Russell. He was General Director of Wolftrap then," she recalled, thrilled that their paths had crossed again in Denver, where Russell (shown here with Kristin and Jake) is now President and General Director of Opera Colorado.

Opera as her chosen career would point her westward still. After graduating from college, Kristin attended graduate school on a full scholarship at the University of Cincinnati where she studied with Barbara Honn and had the distinction of being the first recipient of the John Alexander Memorial Award.

As she was finishing her studies, she came upon an announcement of the annual auditions for the Merola Program at the San Francisco Opera Center.  This career development program is an entry point that can often lead to the prestigious Adler Fellowships coveted by promising young opera singers. Without setting high expectations, Kristin sent out an application and auditioned.  Given the competition, getting in was a long shot - or so she thought. But Program officials knew better. Recognizing great talent, they accepted her into the Program AND offered her an Adler Fellowship AND enlisted her in the Schwabacher Debut Recital Series - the same path that such opera superstars as Deborah Voigt, Susan Graham, Sylvia McNair, Thomas Hampson, to name only a few, followed early in their careers.

It was thus that San Francisco became her home base. As an Adler Fellow, she performed in the Opera Center's showcase productions. Then in 1994, she made her San Francisco Opera debut as Mme.de Tourval's maid in Susa's The Dangerous Liaisons, which was nationally telecast on PBS (US Public Television). She covered for Renée Fleming then, subsequently becoming the renowned soprano's cover in her performances with San Francisco Opera. Today, Kristin has sung many soprano roles, some on an exploratory basis to help her place her voice range with exactitude and build her repertoire, which has expanded considerably since her Adler Fellow days. "My fach* is firmly lyric-soprano," she knows with certainty now.


A BALANCING ACT

It was also in San Francisco, at the Opera, where she met her husband, the Yugoslavian bass-baritone Bojan Knezevic who was also a Merola Program participant. They have two children. They occasionally perform together, such as in Festival Opera's production of Donizetti's comic opera Don Pasquale in which he sang the title role to Kristin's Norina, shown at right.

CLICK HERE to hear a clip of Kristin singing Norina's aria "Quel guardo, il cavaliere...So anch'io la virtù magica" from a performance of Don Pasquale with Bojan Knezevic in the title role at Festival Opera in Walnut Creek, CA. [Photos and clip courtesy of Festival Opera].

Raising a family has, admittedly and not surprisingly, made demands on her time and she has learned that for an opera singer "balancing career with family life is quite a challenge. I wish someone would write about this aspect of an operatic career because I know there are others aside from myself." Happily, Kristin appears to be doing a good job of it.  She is exploring roles she has not sung before, such as Tosca and Desdemona - eager and ready now more than ever to take her career to new heights and to all corners of the globe.



*Fach: the German system of classifying voices of opera singers primarily by the range, weight and color of their voices.


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