There are a lot of ways I spend week nights- working late, grabbing dinner with friends, catching up on laundry, watching a movie on Netflix with my husband over popcorn. One activity has never made the list though: going to the opera. That is, until last month when I attended City Lyric Opera’s production of Peter Brook’s adaptation of Bizet’s “La Tragédie de Carmen.” As I sat down in the intimate theater space shared with friends and strangers, I imagined the evening would entail music I didn’t like in a language I didn’t know acting out a story I couldn’t understand. This was my first opera, and my only references were scenes from the movies Pretty Woman and Fifth Element. I expected an outdated form of theatre amongst the wealthy elite who sat silently gazing at the stage, appearing unmoved and uninterested. I blame pop culture for my lack of culture.
90 minutes later, my dread had been completely eradicated by a deep sense of awe and wonder. Along with everyone else in the room, I jumped to my feet to give the talented cast a standing ovation for the profoundly moving experience they had just given me.
I never thought I would say this, but I like opera. Thanks to City Lyric Opera, I walked into the theater a skeptic and left a believer! I recently got to learn more about the opera world and how this nonprofit is innovating change by chatting with Kathleen Spencer, co-founder of City Lyric Opera:
Nicole Smithee: When did you first discover your love for music, and more specifically, opera?
Kathleen Spencer: I have always loved music. I grew up playing piano and singing in the Knoxville Children’s Choir. My first encounter with opera was in 7th grade. I was asked through the Knoxville Children’s Choir to be in the children’s chorus of Knoxville Opera’s La Boheme. I remember it being super fun, but not really thinking too much about it. It wasn’t until college when I fell in love with opera. I started my undergrad as a Music Industry major. I was at MTSU, just outside of Nashville, and I wanted to be the next Sara Bareilles! However, in my junior year at MTSU I was cast as Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart. I knew I loved to sing and perform so, of course I took the role! It was opening night of this show that it clicked that opera was far more fulfilling to me than pursuing the pop world. I loved the culture, language, costumes, history, and art of it all. The depth behind why and how an opera was written was fascinating to me, and the technique behind singing was challenging and exciting. I switched gears and focused my last two years of school on training as a classical singer pursuing a career in opera. I was accepted into the Manhattan School of Music for my masters and there learned and grew to love the art even more.
Nicole Smithee: What have been the greatest challenges you have experienced as a singer and performer in the opera world today?
Kathleen Spencer: Oh so many! It’s HARD! School was wonderful, but doesn’t really prepare you for the reality of the industry. So often, I would go to auditions, sing my heart out (and well) and then hear that I didn’t get the role, later to find out it was because I was too tall, or I didn’t have a prior connection with the company, or I was too short, or I was too pretty, or I was too womanly, or I wouldn’t look good next to the tenor, etc. So many aspects of it have nothing to do with your skills, but rather the expectations of the people behind the table. It’s hard to not let that affect the way you see yourself after a while. I remember in January 2015 I had just completed an audition season of 15 auditions. I had received multiple callbacks, and I knew I was prime for a YAP (young artist program.) I had done a lot of work and was ready to step into the next part of my career. I received 14 rejections and 1 waitlist. It was AWFUL! I cried in the shower and cried out to God, “Why am I not good enough? Why do you want me doing this if only to fail? What is wrong with me?” It was pretty miserable, and one of the toughest times in my life so far. I questioned my purpose, talent, and God, because it didn’t make sense. I think the mental challenges are by far the hardest part of being a performer in the world of opera today.
Nicole Smithee: Why do you believe it is so important to create opera experiences accessible for everyone?
Kathleen Spencer: Because opera is awesome and is for everyone. Myth number 1: opera is only for wealthy people. Myth number 2: Opera is dated and irrelevant. These are lies we’ve grown to accept because the industry has done a poor job of evolving with society. The focus has been on preservation and tradition rather than innovation and intentionality. The stories written for opera are the same stories we tell today and are relevant in our culture now. The difference lies in how it is presented to an audience. It is crucial (in my belief) for the arts (and opera) to be accessible to all people so that we as a society are able to see new points of view, experience various cultures, and grow to appreciate one another. Music has a way of softening a person and opening them up to a new perspective.
Nicole Smithee: How did you start City Lyric Opera?
Kathleen Spencer: City Lyric Opera was originally founded as ARE Opera in 2016. We wanted to be Accessible, Relatable, and Enjoyable to all people. ARE became confusing for people, and did a poor job of serving our organization and its mission so we rebranded as City Lyric Opera a year ago. However, our principles are still rooted in the idea that opera should be available for all people and should be presented in a way that is relatable and engaging. Megan Gillis, my co-founder, and I were so frustrated with the industry. We would sit on the playground (we both nannied kids in the same elementary school) and talk about all the many talented people we knew in this city that weren’t getting opportunities because of the politics and old philosophy of the art form as well as the way the industry was going to become irrelevant if our generation didn’t step in to change the cycle. One night, Megan came over and I said, “We’re going to start an opera company.” After a bottle of wine, and a five-year plan (that has dramatically changed!) we had ARE Opera. Most people didn’t take us seriously at first. Some people still don’t, but I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished in the last three years!
Nicole Smithee: How is City Lyric Opera redefining how people produce and perceive opera?
Kathleen Spencer: We produce operas that are not too long (hello—a new opera goer attending a six-hour Wagner opera is not the way to win someone over.) We choose rep that can tell a story that we believe our community can relate to, and we look for singers that can actually tell a story. All of this, with translations, and updated productions provides an opportunity for the audience to encounter opera in a new way. We are not traditional, and that’s alienating for some in the opera world. However, we have found that it has grown our audience in first-time opera goers.
Nicole Smithee: What’s next on the horizon for City Lyric Opera?
Kathleen Spencer: The 2019-2020 season is going to be amazing! We are so thrilled to be producing Menotti’s The Medium this fall and Humperdinks Hansel und Gretel in the spring! We will also be hosting 5 salons and 3 WorkshOpera’s this year. Our underlying theme for this season is the battle between dark and light. This theme is reflected in our mainstage as well as our salon series. We are really excited to tell these stories as well as talk about them in our salons!
Nicole Smithee: What advice would you give to someone looking to start their own nonprofit or pursue a project they are passionate about?
Kathleen Spencer: Just do it! There are always reasons to not take a chance, but if you are passionate about it, get to work. Do your homework, research, surround yourself with supportive people, and take the initiative!
Kathleen Spencer is a New York based artist, singer, and creator. She grew up in Knoxville, TN where she loved playing piano and singing. She was always very involved with her youth worship band as well as school musicals. She moved just out of Nashville, TN to earn her Bachelor’s of Music at Middle Tennessee State University in Vocal Performance. It was here that she explored jazz, pop, and opera. She pursued her love of opera, which led her to Manhattan School of Music for a Masters in Music in Vocal Performance. After graduating, Kathleen worked in young artists programs such as Brevard Music Festival and Chautauqua Institute of Music. In fall 2016 she reached out to her friend Megan Gillis, and the two of them co-founded City Lyric Opera. Through CLO, Kathleen has had the opportunity to not only produce opera, but develop her photography and teaching skills. She serves as the Executive Director and President of the Board of Directors. Along with her professional endeavors, Kathleen is passionate about working with the Nonprofit New York, a relentless collective force for good. She also enjoys serving on the worship team at Liberty Church. You can learn more about Kathleen at www.kathleenspencermusic.com/ and follow her on Instagram @kspencer.helton
Nicole lives in Manhattan with the love of her life, her husband Ben, and spends a good chunk of her time on airplanes, traveling the world, and speaking at various conferences and events. Nicole is the CEO and Co-Founder of Iridescent. Driven to see women maximize their potential, she’s also a mentor, author, and blogger, and is frequently pounding away at her laptop to create content that inspires and empowers others to live boldly and compassionately. She enjoys quality time with friends and family, getting lost in a good book, being active and exploring, and Netflix-binging. To learn more, check out www.nicolesmithee.com or follow her at @nicolesmithee.
Let’s talk about it! Have you attended an opera and what was your experience like as a first-time opera goer?