|"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
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!
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
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.
© and courtesy of KKN Enterprises]
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
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]
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.
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
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
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.
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].
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.