Monday, February 25, 2019

Chicagoan Keanon Kyles, a black opera singer, gets his big break after years as a night janitor.

Bass-baritone operatic singer Keanon Kyles performed in his studio at the Fine Arts Building at 410 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago. Kyles has worked as a janitor and voice coach to fund his dream. Never give up on your dreams, someone told Keanon Kyles along the way. It stuck, even in dark moments, like when he'd find tears dropping as he cleaned corporate offices on his night shift job as a janitor.
Kyles, 31, is an opera singer, a rare black male in a music genre many may see as staged musical dramas with high-pitched singing. A little time with the talented Kyles changes that thinking.

"It started when I was 7. My mother signed me and my sister up with the Chicago Children's Choir. We worked our way up to the top concert choir," Kyles said.

"We went on tours all around the world. That was my childhood. At age 13, I joined Gallery 37's Operatics Ensemble. It was the first time I was part of an opera production. I realized I had a strong interest and love for it," he said.

"High school was when I really came to believe I had a chance at being an opera singer. My teacher picked me to perform an aria for a state competition with two weeks to prepare," he said." I won us an honor superior. That's when I thought: 'This could be something.'"

After years of chasing that dream, at times feeling beaten, Kyles, raised in the Washington Heights community's Brainerd neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, got his big break.

He earned the lead role in "Rigoletto," an opera in three acts by Giuseppe Verdi in Scotland. The role of this hunchback court jester is one of the most powerfully dramatic character roles in opera.

"He was just a kid when he auditioned to be in the elite ensemble I conducted for Gallery 37. He had such a good voice," said Andrew Schultze, an eminent opera singer, conductor, stage director and teacher who has sung throughout the U.S. and Europe, from Carnegie Hall to Milan's La Scala Opera House.

Kyles' longtime mentor and voice coach, Schultze, again worked with him as a teacher at Columbia College, where Kyles obtained a music degree in 2010.

"It's been wonderful to see this kid who was always interested in music become focused on opera. He sings gospel. He sings jazz. He sings everything. But he just kept saying, 'I want to do opera,'" Schultze said.

"He has this talent. It's compelling him. It's propelling and impelling him," said Schultze, who will travel with his wife to see Kyles' performance. "He's such an unaffected person, a really nice guy. I told him, 'Keanon, Rigoletto is the one role I've always wanted to play. I've studied that role but never gotten to do it. Now, you see, you are singing it for me!'"

The third of four children of William and Vivian Kyles, a construction contractor and stay-at-home mom, Kyles left home after college to share a North Side apartment with roommates. To pay the bills while chasing his dream, he contacted a placement agency that had employed him during college. All they had was janitorial work.

"I was like, 'Ummm … I'll get back to you.' I needed a job but wasn't expecting to be cleaning nothing up," said Kyles, voice soft as butter, melodic even in conversation. "After talking to my mother, I had a talk with myself. I realized this was just a job. And that's when adulthood started."

He has worked as many as three jobs at a time to fund his opera journey, weathering frustration and occasional tears. But as his performance gigs increased, so did his exposure.

Doors began to open. In the summer of 2015, he was accepted into Europe's premiere young artist performance festival, Italy's Trentino Music Festival. In the summer of 2016, he secured the role of Colline in Clyde Opera Group's U.K. production of "La Boheme," one of the world's most popular operas. The performance garnered him Clyde Opera Group's Rigoletto role. This would put him on the map.
Bass-baritone operatic singer Keanon Kyles poses for a portrait near his studio at the Fine Arts Building, 410 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago.
"When I realized his interest was classical music, I was thrilled because most young African Americans who go into music are drawn to hip-hop," his mother said. "When he graduated from Columbia and did his recital, everyone was amazed because he sings in three languages. His stage presence brings music alive, even if you don't understand a word. He has that same presence in character and spirit, just a bright light."

Kyles just wants to share his gift.

"I sing R&B. I sing gospel. I sing all those things, but nothing stands out to me more than opera," Kyles said. "Since opera is a European-driven genre, I wanted to represent the blacks because we can sing. We can do that. We can sing in Italy. We can sing in France. People will put limits on you based on your skin color until you prove them wrong, and that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to prove everybody wrong and to prove to people that there were African Americans interested in opera. Put yourself in an arena that nobody would expect you to ever be."
"I want young people to know they don't have to wait for anybody to hand them something or tell them you deserve it," he said. "If you believe it, work at it. Being a star doesn't begin when you reach the spotlight. It starts the moment that the light bulb goes on. This is what you want to do."

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.

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