SFOpera - With Grammy Nods and a Film on the Way, It’s Kenneth Overton’s Year

With Grammy Nods and a Film on the Way, It’s Kenneth Overton’s Year

He had stepped onto the stage knowing one world. He would leave to discover another.

It was March 12, 2020, and baritone Kenneth Overton was wrapping up a solo performance, singing spirituals at Lehman College in New York City. He had heard the rumors before showtime. As he looked out onto the crowd, he noticed it was unusually sparse.

But still, as he left the concert gallery, it was a surprise to learn that New York governor Andrew Cuomo had just imposed the first statewide limits on public gatherings. The state had tallied 325 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, a leap of over a hundred since its last estimate.

“I went in, did the recital, and they handed me my check and said, ‘The university is now closed along with the rest of the city. Be safe. Good luck.’ That was it,” Overton recalls. Facing cancellation after cancellation that spring, Overton’s managers reassured him: Take this time to focus on your fall performances. But then, those performances were canceled too. And the ones after that. And the ones after that.

“For the first two months of the pandemic, I had no desire, no desire to sing at all. It was the last thing I wanted to do because it brought such sadness,” Overton says.

He was overwhelmed with a feeling he’d never known before, one he now believes to be a serious depression. He didn’t want to warble into his phone or to pixelated faces on a computer screen. He had no desire to pin up ring lights or turn his apartment into a green room. It all felt overwhelming. He meditated. He prayed.

And all the while, the pressure was mounting. By his estimation, he lost almost $100,000 in cancelled contracts. “There was no preparation to emotionally or financially deal with losing an entire year's worth of work.”

But then, something his managers told him flipped a switch in his mind. When the lockdown orders were lifted, theaters would need performers. Productions would need to be recast. Now was the time to be nimble, to dive into the small projects that lead to the big ones.

“So that's when I said, ‘Get up off of the couch, turn off the Netflix and get busy,’” Overton laughs. It would turn out to be one of his biggest years to date.

Overton — the star of San Francisco Opera productions including Porgy and Bess, The Girl of the Golden West, and Billy Budd — entered 2021 with multiple Grammy nominations, a documentary nearing completion and a feature spread in Opera News magazine. It was level of acknowledgement he could have never imagined. 

Speaking by phone this January, Overton confides that that there’s one interview question he has always hated: Where do you see yourself in five years? Five years ago, he would have never expected to be where he is today. In fact, growing up, he never planned to be an opera singer at all.

It was the 1980s TV series Fame that brought him to the performing arts, with its cast of effortlessly glamorous, leg-warmer-wearing teen idols. As a 13-year-old student in Philadelphia, Overton once dreamed of a sensible career in law. Fame sabotaged all that.

He petitioned his guidance counselor to let him audition for Philadelphia’s performing arts high school. And he did not tell his parents. Overton came home one day to find his mother sitting with his acceptance letter in her hands: “Explain yourself.”

He turned on the waterworks. So his parents relented. Give the school a shot for a semester, they said: But if your grades drop or you come home with blue hair or piercings, you’re out. 

Overton was in for what he calls a “rude awakening.” His classes were “nothing like the Fame school on TV. We kids weren't dancing down the hallways or on taxicabs in the middle of the street.”

Instead, he had all the normal courses — English, science, math, and social studies — plus specialty courses about music theory and sight-reading. Overton knew how to sing, but he had only ever done it by ear, at church for example. “It was to the point where I would skip my first period sight-singing class because I was so afraid of it.”

He found a mentor, though, in his choir director, a man with a booming voice that Overton initially found intimidating. But he had a way of inspiring Overton, pushing him further than he had gone before.

When puberty hit, Overton’s voice plummeted from boy soprano to baritone. “It was like this drop off the edge of Mount Everest,” Overton remembers. He panicked. But his choir director was there to reassure him.

From the choir classroom, Overton would hear opera wafting down the hall, the voices of mysterious singers carried on the air: Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, Leontyne Price. Overton didn’t get it. His primary exposure to opera was through Bugs Bunny cartoons — and the music always seemed ridiculous to him.

“It was a joke. I was like: I don’t see myself doing that,” Overton says. “Because here I am thinking a career in classical music means Bugs Bunny and horns on your head.”

But then the choir director gave the class an assignment. The legendary soprano Jessye Norman had given the choir free tickets to her upcoming recital. Attendance would be mandatory.

At the time, Overton didn’t know if Norman was a man or a woman, if she was Black or white. All he knew is that he would be missing The Cosby Show on Thursday night.

“So we get to the theater, and we see all of these fancy people arriving and limousines outside of the opera house, people in fur coats and the whole nine,” Overton says. “And we go up to our cheap seats and we sit there. All of a sudden, this woman emerges from the side of the stage as if she's gliding on air, and the entire audience erupts in applause.”

By the end of the recital, Overton says he was in tears. He remembers asking his choir director: “Is this what you think I can do?” He replied, “That’s what I know you can do.” 

The recital would transform his life. Later, when Overton applied to university, he would sing one of the hymns he heard that night. And years after that, he himself would be hosting a tribute to Norman, as an associate producer on the upcoming documentary film Black Opera.

Overton was brought into the project in 2019, at the recommendation of his Billy Budd co-star Sidney Outlaw. Black Opera’s executive producer Miranda Plant and director Jonathan Estabrooks welcomed him on board.

In the decades since that Jessye Norman recital, Overton had transformed himself into what he calls a “sponge.” He gobbled up VHS tapes from the library and devoured PBS specials, all in the pursuit of more artists, more history and more inspiration for his classical music career.

The recital, he says, “opened up a new world for me.” Learning the stories of other artists, even as a teen, helped him see the world differently. “Then it's like, ‘Oh, what do you mean Marian Anderson is from Philadelphia? What do you mean she grew up five blocks from where our school is?’”

He still bristles with excitement when he thinks of that first Jessye Norman recital. “I found it absolutely magical that, first, a human being could stand in the middle of a stage in a 3,000-seat theater with just a piano and no amplification and sing to the back of the hall in at least three or four different languages. And she was beautiful. She was regal. It was like watching a queen. And the fact that she looked like me, it was just like: This is outrageous. I didn't know that this existed.”

Black Opera was an opportunity for Overton to channel all the knowledge he’d gained. The feature documentary is set to spotlight six of America’s greatest Black singers: Leontyne Price, Martina Arroyo, George Shirley, Simon Estes, Grace Bumbry, and, of course, Jessye Norman. 

But while Overton “jumped in with two feet in the deep end” of the project, he was wary of failing. He had never worked on a feature film before. And then there was the idea he could be end up being pigeonholed as a Black artist. It’s a concern he’s contended with since his earliest days on stage.

“When I was starting out in my career as a young, young singer, people would tell me, ‘Don’t do Porgy and Bess,’” he explains. “That’s all companies would ever see me as or see me in.”

Overton, who started his career singing Mozart and Puccini, ultimately ignored that advice — and for the most part, it worked out well, he says. Opera companies that engaged him for Porgy and Bess would often bring him back for other projects too. 

But when he performed Porgy and Bess in Bregenz, Austria, he heard stories from other Black artists who shed light on less positive experiences. “They were saying, ‘Well, be mindful that Porgy and Bess will often be a first offer. You will often be the only Black person in the room doing a standard opera. Or you will often be slighted on your fees, in comparison to when you do Porgy and Bess, when you do another opera.’ And all those things proved to be true.” 

Working on Black Opera, though, has brought Overton even greater perspective about what can be done to avoid that pigeonholing. One of the biggest takeaways, he says, is the need for industry leaders to take a stand. 

“George Shirley has told me stories about hotels in the South that would not allow him to stay in the hotel with the rest of the cast. [Twentieth-century opera impresario] Rudolf Bing would say, ‘Well, if he can't stay here, then none of us are staying here.’ And so you need people who are brave in that way, and we need more of them even today.”

With the United States in lockdown and citizens quarantining, filming for Black Opera has been difficult. Some work could be done over Zoom. But Overton took the safety measures as an opportunity to bring more voices into the project.

Not only did he organize last September’s tribute to the late Jessye Norman, who passed away in 2019, but he also hosts Facebook series to talk with Black artists active today. Those efforts have reshaped the documentary as well.

“We're just expanding it because we felt like it was important for audiences to not look at opera like it's in a precious museum,” he says. “So the singers that we’ve added to the film are singers of today who stand on the shoulders of the original six.”

Overton particularly hopes that kids can see themselves reflected in the final film, like he once saw himself reflected on stage in the person of Jessye Norman — and how Norman herself was inspired by Black contralto Marian Anderson, and so on, and so on.

In a year of Zoom calls and few performances, a surprise came this past November. Overton had resigned himself to the fact that no one was paying much attention to album releases in 2020: There were more important things in the news cycle to worry about.

But then, at the end of a Zoom call in late November, he received a text: “Congratulations.” Composer Richard Danielpour’s album The Passion of Yeshua, with Overton singing Yeshua, had been nominated for three Grammys: for best choral performance, best engineered album, and best contemporary classical composition.

“I dropped my phone. I started crying. I called my parents, I called my grandmother,” Overton says. He didn’t even know the nominations were scheduled to be announced that day. “I’m just blown away and humbled by it all, honestly.”

Now, with the premiere of Black Opera in sight and the Grammys to look forward to in March, he’s not as worried about the canceled contracts or lost income that first sunk him into a depression. “I’ve been replenished in so many other ways,” he says.

Get to know baritone Kenneth Overton through his website and on social media or through the Black Opera documentary film project, slated for release in 2021

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