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Kelly Griffin of Heartbeat Opera: “We will grow our audience”

COVID-19 significantly changed the landscape of music. In certain ways music has been put on hold, and in other ways it is needed more than ever. For classical musicians who perform live in theaters, the question has been how to get the music to the public in a way that maintains the integrity of the […]

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COVID-19 significantly changed the landscape of music. In certain ways music has been put on hold, and in other ways it is needed more than ever. For classical musicians who perform live in theaters, the question has been how to get the music to the public in a way that maintains the integrity of the art. During the first few months of lockdown, the only things I wanted to sing were Spirituals, songs that derived from African slavery in America. I wanted something real — something that spoke to sadness but could also inspire hope. I wanted to use the gift of music to unite a divided world.

I will soon be launching the Liberation Music Museum, which is a virtual project that will highlight the music of cultures that have experienced oppression.


As a part of our series about rising music stars, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Kelly Griffin.

A singer and activist, Kelly Griffin performs everything from opera to spirituals. As an opera singer, she has performed with such companies as New Amsterdam Opera, Opera in the Heights, and MetLiveArts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Her performance in Heartbeat Opera’s Breathing Free will be presented at the Broad Stage and the Mondavi Center in February 2021. She is a founder of the Liberation Music Museum, which seeks to honor the musical contributions of people throughout history who have suffered extreme oppression. The virtual project launches this year with an exhibit about African American Spirituals, songs that originated from the time of African enslavement in North America.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

I grew up in Western New York in a town of about 8,000 people that seems worlds away from where I live now in New York City. For such a small area, we had an arts community that was perfect for a young person. I had the opportunity to study privately with a voice teacher who loved classical music and gave me a lot of time. There was a children’s theater, and community theater, and I had incredible musical influences around me. We would travel to the Chautauqua Institution in the summer to see operas, and I would even take lessons with one the teachers there.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

When I was about 5 or 6, my father gave me a medical kit for children, which had a stethoscope. I started using it as a microphone. My father told me that it was for listening to the heart, but that seemed like a waste of amplification when it made a perfect microphone for my young singing voice. When we moved to Western New York, I took my first voice lesson with a teacher who had me singing songs that I heard on the radio. My mother came to pick me up one week and felt that the lyrics of the song I was singing were too mature for a young person. Shortly thereafter, I found a new teacher, and was given a French art song. It was unique. I didn’t know anyone else singing French mélodie, and that made me feel like I had something of my own. Since then, I’ve met a lot of other singers and heard a lot of mélodie, but I’m always searching for what is unique.

Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

When I was working as a Studio Artist in Florida, I was asked to represent the local opera company at an arts exhibition. I assumed that I would sing between representatives from the ballet and the philharmonic orchestra. To my surprise, I was singing while surrounded by local wildlife including alligators and, if I’m not mistaken, a porcupine paraded around on a leash. It wasn’t quite what I expected, but I will never forget that show!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I remember my freshman year in college someone asked me who my favorite classical pianist was. My response was, “Liberace, of course”. Let me state — Liberace was without question FANTASTIC. However, at a classical training program, I was expected to quickly broaden my knowledge of repertoire beyond what I saw on television.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

COVID-19 significantly changed the landscape of music. In certain ways music has been put on hold, and in other ways it is needed more than ever. For classical musicians who perform live in theaters, the question has been how to get the music to the public in a way that maintains the integrity of the art. During the first few months of lockdown, the only things I wanted to sing were Spirituals, songs that derived from African slavery in America. I wanted something real — something that spoke to sadness but could also inspire hope. I wanted to use the gift of music to unite a divided world. I will soon be launching the Liberation Music Museum, which is a virtual project that will highlight the music of cultures that have experienced oppression. The first exhibit will feature Spirituals, which seems appropriate for this time. It was quite the coincidence when I was invited to participate in Heartbeat Opera’s Breathing Free, which really steps outside of the classical music box to include Spirituals, dance, and is a call to unity through song. These projects have beautifully aligned, and I’m honored to represent such worthy and exciting endeavors.

We are very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?

  1. Art looks better in color.

In the performing arts, we are often judged by outward appearance rather than talent and new ideas. In order to establish a higher performance medium, one has to value a diverse, respectfully inclusive and discrimination free industry. Otherwise, art stays the same. It is always judged under the same microscope. How exciting could things be if we begin to explore the full spectrum of possibilities?

2. We will grow our audience.

One of the best things that entertainment can do is make us believe better is possible. We want to see ourselves as heroes, fighters, lovers, and adventurers. If this picture never looks like me, it is almost impossible to fully experience the transformative powers of art.

3. We all need to be challenged.

Art, while meant to inspire and entertain, is also meant to challenge the viewer. It is an opportunity for growth. How can something inspire and excite if it is the same thing we see in our everyday lives? In order to present diverse points of view, we must expand the scope of what we choose to see and allow the opportunity for what we need to see. That is art at its most vibrant.

We do not live in a monolithic society. Looking through the dark, empty spaces enables us to embrace the light in humanity.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

The only time I feel burnout is when I allow music to be everything. Live a balanced life. That means different things to different people, but find meaning in other areas, give energy to other things and people. Your art should never be 100% of your life.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

We are in a time of tremendous dissonance and polarization. As a society we are asking to be seen and respected for our diversity. Throughout history, artistic expression has been used to challenge societal norms. I would love to see the arts community begin to soften the walls between mediums and genres. Artistic integration could begin to mirror what we hope to see across society. As we challenge the status quo of who we are as a society, let’s begin to challenge what has always been in the arts. Look beyond your medium. Look beyond your genre, and be open to learning from others and even incorporating what you hear and see into your art.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I have been blessed to know several people who have inspired me more than I can say. The first person I think of is Dr. George Gibson. As a young singer, I did not understand how to assume ownership of my voice. I was still very much a student believing that I needed permission to step out. Dr. Gibson helped me learn to take control of my voice and most importantly, trust myself. I owe him a lot.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Find the secret to your heart in your imagination.

I honestly have no idea where I heard this, or who said it, but I love it. When I am overwhelmed by emotion, I am tempted to ignore my feelings. It feels easier. However, as a performer I’ve learned that ignoring my feelings shuts down access to all parts of my imagination. I have to allow my heart to feel before I can share feeling with others on stage. It’s a very vulnerable, but necessary position.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would love to talk music with Questlove. He has an incredible grasp on the evolution of music. He sees how the past influences where we are today, and what will be pushing us forward. He is an artist and an intellectual. I am a classical musician, but very few of my musical influences come from my genre. It would be fascinating to talk to someone so knowledgeable in his artistic expression. I think that I could learn a lot from him and find new inspiration to broaden the interpretation of pieces that have been performed for centuries.

How can our readers follow you online?

Come say hello on Instagram @thatsmekellyg or visit my website www.kellygriffinsoprano.com

This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!


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