Kirstin Chávez, Mezzo-Soprano, Speaks of the Production, Her Character and a Bit About Herself
Once again, we’ve been lucky to receive a transcript of an interview between Chris Cox, Director of Marketing and Communications for Pittsburgh Opera, and Kirstin Chávez, the gifted mezzo-soprano who will sing the role of Glenda in Daniel Bernard Roumain and Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s We Shall Not Be Moved. This, the company’s final offering of the season, opens Saturday evening, May 13, at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center, 980 Liberty Avenue in downtown Pittsburgh, and runs through May 21, 2023. Full production details, performance dates – including the Thursday, May 18, 10:30AM Community Matinee – and tickets, are all available now at the Pittsburgh Opera website. The opera’s entire cast, including Ms. Chávez, will be making their Pittsburgh Opera debuts.
Mr. Cox and Ms. Chávez were kind enough to have the much-appreciated conversation solely for the purpose of providing us with some additional insight into the production.
Chris Cox: When did you decide you wanted to become a professional opera singer, and how did you go about becoming one?
Kirstin Chávez: I started singing with my father when I was five. He was a specialist in Spanish-American folk music, and he’d also studied opera. My parents were both teachers, and we moved to Malaysia when I was seven. My parents would put on the musicals at school – my mother was kind of English drama, my father was music – and I was always in the musicals. I fell in love with that whole realm of creativity. I was quite sure that I would become a musical theater singer. There was no opera in Malaysia at that time. Someone told me when I was seventeen that I’d make a great Carmen someday, and I was offended. Of course, ironically, it’s turned into the role of my life and is something I specialize in.
I came to New Mexico after living in Malaysia and pursued my bachelor’s degree in music. That was when I first really started hearing classical singing. I listened to a recording of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing “Mache dich” from the St. Matthew Passion, and I was utterly transported. I couldn’t believe that such a thing was possible. I became much more interested in classical singing, and finally I was posed with the question of whether to go for a master’s degree in musical theater or in classical singing. I watched a video of “Pavarotti and Friends” performing all sorts of scenes from different operas, and I thought “I have to try to do that, because that’s amazing.” I realized that opera would be the very hardest thing that I could possibly spend my life doing. I can say now that I was absolutely right about that. I thought “if I’m going to spend my life doing something, it better be challenging, it better be something that I can evolve with,” and I loved the idea that as I got older I would take on different roles. That’s all been true, and it’s been an enormous blessing over these past 25 years. I found the depth of the music – the poetry and the classical sounds and the harmonies, it felt like not the tip of the iceberg, but what’s underneath. If I’m going to spend my life in something, it’s got to be profound.
Kirstin Chávez as Glenda in We Shall Not Be Moved
CC: In We Shall Not Be Moved, you’re playing Glenda. Tell us a little bit about Glenda.
KC: Glenda is a really amazing character. When I first was invited to play her, I was honored beyond measure. The first experience was at a workshop in New York. Normally singers who have had successful careers would not be asked to sing at a workshop without some sort of guarantee about singing the role if the full opera gets produced. But I was not guaranteed to do the role, and I was somewhat taken aback. So I came in with a bit of an attitude. I didn’t know a lot about the show, but by the end of the first day, I thought “if they don’t take me on to do this, I will literally shoot myself. It would be horrible to not be part of this, because of how impactful the piece is.”
One of the great challenges for me, interestingly, is that I am a Latina who grew up in Malaysia, not in New Mexico where I was born. I didn’t grow up with Latina culture around me at all. In preparing for this role, I researched Latina policewomen, and as you can imagine there aren’t a lot of them, to dive into their stories more. The story of Glenda runs a bit parallel to the story of Un/Sung. They both grow up in rough neighborhoods. Glenda was influenced by some good people who helped her find her way out of a difficult situation, and when she sees Un/Sung, she thinks “I see her in me, I need to help her make the right choices.” But the conflict between the two of them indicates it’s not so black and white.
One of the things I love about Glenda and gravitate to is her desire to help others. That’s what’s driving her. She has a lot of baggage no doubt, but she’s really interested in helping. That speaks to me very loudly and that’s who I infuse her with.
CC: You’ve sung a lot of Carmen, all over the world. How are the characters of Carmen and Glenda similar?
KC: At the core, there is an unshakeable strength and power. With Carmen I equate it to that Latina fire and spirit. Glenda absolutely has that, and a certain moral compass, which is not necessarily the same moral compass that others might have. The idea of what’s right and wrong, what’s acceptable and what’s not, that’s very clear for both these characters. I love playing into that strength.
Alexa Patrick (Un/Sung) & Kirstin Chávez (Glenda)
CC: What are you most looking forward to about these performances?
KC: It’s going to be a hugely impactful, powerful, and ultimately uplifting experience for me and the audience. It’s visceral. As Glenda, I’m apart from the rest of the cast, which in its first iterations was a source of great sadness for me actually. I felt apart enough as it was, being one of the only light-skinned members of the cast. But it allowed me the capacity to experience the show myself, and to watch from backstage the dancers’ interactions with the brothers and Un/Sung. It’s extremely powerful to witness. The music is completely infectious.
CC: Why should people come to see this show?
KC: The stories that it tells. They’re real stories, frankly, and even though many of the characters are fictional, they’re believable. They’re not “good and evil”; they’re shades of grey. They’re human beings who make mistakes and are faced with choices and have to decide which way to go. That’s something we all encounter many times in life.
The music, the power of [stage director and choreographer Bill T. Jones’] choreography, magnifies the power of the story. It’s clearly a mishmash of styles. [Composer] Daniel Bernard Romain has the unique ability to give voice, literally, to very raw emotion. Whether it’s John Henry singing at the point where he feels like he’s dying, or whether it’s Glenda singing at the point where she finds herself completely alone with a gun to her head, it’s very raw, very real, and very personal.
CC: Any concluding thoughts?
KC: I feel so grateful to be here, because I know that lots of other people could sing this role and perform it well. It’s important to me – I feel like I’m doing something that matters.
Remember – for full details as to the plot, production details, cast bios, TICKETS and more, visit Pittsburgh Opera!
David Bachman Photography (Production shots)