“It started when I was 7. My mother signed me and my sister up with 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. For a state competition, my teacher picked me to perform an aria 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, who was 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 really 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 him and impelling him,” said Schultze, who, with his wife, will travel to see Kyles’ performance. “He’s such an unaffected person, a really nice guy. I said to 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. He was accepted in summer 2015 into Europe’s premiere young artist performance festival, Italy’s Trentino Music Festival. Summer 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 in Chicago.|
Kyles just wants to share his gift.
“I sing R&B. I sing gospel. I sing all of those things but nothing stands out to me more than opera,” Kyles said. “Since opera is such a European-driven genre, I wanted to represent for 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 off the color of your skin 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 are African-Americans interested in opera. Put yourself in an arena that nobody would expect you to ever be.”
Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.