An Afternoon of American Song: Meet Nicole Keeling
By Kelly Maxwell
“I understand that opera can seem inaccessible,” says Cherity Koepke, Opera Colorado’s Director of Education & Community Programs and Director of the Young Artist Program. “I mean, it is a big art form. To try to wrap your arms around something that can be more than three hours long and in a different language can feel very scary. But that’s the beauty of An Afternoon of American Song. It strips all of that stuff away and gives you the essence of what opera really is: a story that is sung.”
Opera Colorado’s third annual Afternoon of American Song takes place on Sunday, March 4, and features performances by the Opera Colorado Young Artists of 21st century American gems spanning musical theater, cabaret, opera, and art song. Tickets are on sale now and just $25—and that includes not only the performance, but light bites and beverages, plus a post-performance reception with this talented group of Young Artists.
Over the next week, we’ll get to know each of these performers, as well as more about this year’s Afternoon of American Song. “This year the theme is something very personal to all of us as artists,” says Koepke, who worked closely with Assistant Director Brett Sprague to curate the event’s lineup. “The theme is what it’s actually like to live as an artist. We’re trying to communicate to the audience that this life is not just applause and cheers, but there are also times where it is really lonely.”
One of the pieces Koepke is most excited about is Scott Alan’s “At All,” which will be performed on March 4 by soprano Nicole Keeling. “The first time I heard it, I cried,” says Koepke. “I knew, within three seconds of hearing it, that I was going to give it to Nicole. It needed to be Nicole because she has a certain musky quality to her sound. This piece really needs that weight because it is so emotional. It’s the story of leaving home for your chance at a career, all of the sacrifices that you had to make to get to where you are, how the life on the stage is the life that you know you’re meant to have, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not hard. As an artist, Nicole is figuring out how you can have such emotion in a piece and still perform it so the audience gets something from the performance—which is not easy to do.”
But Keeling is up to the challenge. Today, we speak to the soprano about her background, An Afternoon of American Song, and more.
What has been your trajectory in your career that brought you to Opera Colorado as a Young Artist?
I do feel like I am very lucky because I was hired here straight out of grad school. But before that I had a slightly different path because I didn’t start out as a music major—I started out in accounting. I have a very vivid memory of sitting in Accounting 2 and thinking, “What have I done to myself?” So, I ended up getting an Associate’s Degree in Accounting and started studying music after that. I did my undergrad at Eastern New Mexico University, a really small school in New Mexico. I think that was really the right choice for me. They didn’t have a grad program, so I got a lot of performance opportunities even as an undergraduate. I sang a lot and got a lot of stage time, which made a huge difference once I got to the University of Oklahoma and got my Master’s degree in Vocal Performance.
I feel really lucky because I have friends that couldn’t find opportunities straight out of grad school. I think taking time off earlier was helpful for me. I was older, more prepared, and ready for something of this caliber, with Opera Colorado.
That’s a big leap, from accounting to singing. How did you make that decision to pursue a career as a performer?
Even though I started in accounting, I ended up as a dual major in undergrad, studying both education and performance. My dad is actually a trombone player and he has had a job at a junior college his whole career. He’s also done so many performances, with so much gigging, playing in a ton of musicals, and playing in something like five symphonies. I went into all of this thinking, “If I could be the singer version of my dad, I’d be really happy.” I do think finding that sort of thing is harder as a singer, though. I realized I need to really focus on the performing side first, and then I can always have the education side to come back to. But if I do it in the reverse, I don’t think it’s going to work.
I love hearing about people’s trajectories because there are a lot of unique decisions along the way.
So many! It seems like we all have a similar background, but when you really start looking at it, the things that shape us are so different.
You’ve been in Denver for nearly six months now, as part of Opera Colorado’s Young Artist Program. What has it been like so far?
I think personally, the best part has been the mainstage covers I’ve gotten to do. They are things that I could sing now, in my repertoire, and things that I should be familiar with. This experience has given me a really safe space to get those under my belt and feel comfortable with them before I’d do them in a really high-pressure situation. Here, I’m happy to get feedback from some really excellent minds and get some honest opinions about what I’m doing.
Speaking of which, how has it been working with the Opera Colorado team (Cherity Koepke, Brett Sprague, Parisa Zaeri, and Jordan Ortman)?
I think we can always tell that they want us to succeed. That’s something that you don’t always get. They’re focused on the Young Artist Program as a whole, but they’re also very committed to each individual artist in a way that’s really rare and exactly what we need at this point in our careers and in our lives.
Looking ahead to Afternoon of American Song, on March 4, is there a standout piece of repertoire you’re excited to perform?
That’s actually really hard to say. I have two pieces that I’m really excited about for different reasons. I have one called “Wagner Roles” that was written for Deborah Voigt. It’s really funny, but it also rings very true for me. Because of our voice type, the character talks about the roles we end up getting; I never get to be fun, I never get to be the cute one, and I’m always the depressing one who’s crying. I really I feel that. I was telling Cherity, one day after an event someone came up to me and asked, “Are you ever going to sing something fun?” And I joked, “No, I’m not!”
I also have one that is called “At All” that I think was premiered by Cynthia Erivo, it’s by Scott Alan, and is just heart-wrenching. I think it’s so important for people to see that other side of our lives. That is actually a huge part of this year’s Afternoon of American Song theme, which is “The Life of the Artist.” Yes, we love being on stage and it is great to get applause. But there is a lot more that goes into it. This song is her looking back on her long career and saying, “I hope this was worth it for me. I hope it was worth it for my family, that there’s nothing they would change, and that they understand why I did this.” I have yet to practice it without crying, so we’re going to see how it goes! As a performer, you do think about your family and the people in your life, and you hope that at some point this reaches a place where they can understand what you’ve done, if they don’t already.
Going back to the theme of that humorous “Wagner Roles” piece, what would you say is the biggest misconception about your voice type?
My voice is bigger, and so I do just end up playing a lot of women who are sad for whatever reason. That’s just sort of what’s written into my voice type; you’re never the cute little sister, and hardly ever get to be the villain. The Young Artists’ school tours have been a lot of fun for me because I get to play characters so outside of my wheelhouse. Hopefully, that can bleed into the roles I am doing and let me portray them in a way that’s different. I want to bring some more fun and some more fire into some of those characters.
What would you say to someone who’s just now starting out and someone who’s deciding, “Do I want to dedicate my life to being a professional opera singer?”
I would say if you love it, and if this is what you want to wake up and do every day, that you have to at least try. That’s something people have told me, too: you have to at least try. Set a goal for yourself, like, “If by this age things aren’t happening, then I’ll try something else.” But if this is what you have to do to be happy, you have to at least try it and hope that it will work out for you. But you won’t know if you don’t give it that chance!