By Fletcher Word
Sojourner’s Truth Editor
The Toledo Opera presents a new opera this week from Tony Award-winning composer Jeanine Tesori and NAACP Theatre Award-winning librettist Tazewell Thompson. The new opera, Blue, centers on an African-American couple in Harlem to whom a son is born. The son grows into a young man while the mother worries for his future and the father, a police officer, tries to prepare his son for the realities of life in modern day America while also trying to deal with his own identity as a police office.
The couple’s deepest fears for their son ultimately become a reality and they are forced to seek comfort from church and community.
Blue, influenced by gospel music and inspired by so many recent incidents of law enforcement violence against young Black boys and men, has been performed on only four previous occasions – at the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown New York; in Detroit, Seattle and Pittsburgh.
The opera arrives this week in Toledo with a stellar leading cast: Aundi Marie Moore singing the role of The Mother; Darius Gillard singing the role of The Son; Gordan Hawkins singing the role of The Reverend and Kenneth Kellogg singing the role of The Father.
In fact, only one person, bassist Kenneth Kellogg, has sung the role of The Father. Kellogg, who has been praised for his “rich, resonant bass,” was approached for the role of The Father, by the composer, Tesori, before the composition was completed.
After he read the libretto and gained an understanding of the intent and scope of the work, Kellogg was hooked. The work in progress did much more than simply earned his commitment to singing the role of The Father, the opera renewed his commitment to his art.
“I was at a point in my career – I had been singing gods and devils and kings – and this was at the height of media sensation around Black bodies being murdered … my art wasn’t speaking to me or my community,” he told The Truth recently.
Kellogg was on the verge of giving up his artistic career, perhaps going back to school to become a lawyer or social worker “to be more of a benefit to the cause,” he recalled.
As it happened, Blue wasn’t merely a piece of art to Kellogg, himself a father of a young son. “It was my life … Blue became the direct thing.” For Kellogg, Blue became the vehicle that enabled him nor only to practice his art but also to make a difference in matters of importance to his community — the Black community. “I can say something with my art.”
Kellogg grew up in Washington D.C. and, at an early age, discovered the joy of singing and how singing enabled him to express himself. “I was a quiet kid. Music became that way to use my voice … I could sing and not really betray myself.”
When he came of age to attend high school, Kellogg had a choice of the neighborhood public school or the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in the elegant Georgetown area. This was during the 80s and 90s, the height of the crack epidemic in D.C., and Kellogg’s mom insisted on Duke Ellington.
“That showed me a different way – that [bus ride] over to Georgetown.”
That different way led Kellogg to Ohio University for his undergraduate degree and on to the University of Michigan for a graduate vocal degree. Kellogg is also an alumnus of the Adler Fellowship Program at San Francisco Opera and the Domingo Caftriz Emerging Artist Program at the Washington National Opera. He trained at the Academy of Vocal Arts and Wolf Trap Opera.
This training and his quite evident talent – that “rich, resonant bass” – has enabled him to sing many of the staples of opera repertoire: the title role on Mozart’s Don Giovanni; Mephistopheles in Gounod’s Faust; Don Alfonso in Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte, The King in Handel’s Ariodante, to name but a very few of the “gods and devils and kings.”
Now he is The Father in Tesori and Thompson’s Blue, named the best new opera of 2020 by the Music Critics Association of North America.
For Kellogg, Blue has been both an artistic experience and a deeply personal one. As the father of a young son in real life, having had to deal with the death of a son on stage during rehearsals and performances has taken its toll.
“When we started Jeanine [Tesori] said that ‘doing a piece like this is going to cost you something.’”
It’s a price Kellogg has paid through four productions – now his fifth – and that he will continue to pay into the very near future. When Toledo’s production wraps up, he is headed to The Netherlands to sing the role of The Father in the European premier of the opera.
“I keep doing it in different productions and dealing with the death of my son in those rehearsals and it has forced me to face a really harsh reality every day in rehearsal. I also have my own son to think about, who is in the world, so facing that duality of being an actor and being a Black man having to potentially deal with the death of my son was really tough.”
Early on, after a few performances, Kellogg found it necessary on his return home to latch onto his son and hug him for what felt to be an eternity.
“Am I willing to pay that price as an artist? It was a price I had to pay – I can tap into the emotions our community was feeling and I choose to pay this price with every performance.”