Artist to Watch: Kelly Birch

Now Here’s an Opera Singer Who Can Sing and Crack Four Eggs at the Same Time!

Kelly Birch, mezzo-soprano, is one of the 2018-2019 Lyric Opera of Kansas City Resident Artists. She recently performed as Kate Pinkerton in the Lyric’s production of “Madama Butterfly” and multiple roles in the Explorations Series’ “High Fidelity Opera.” In February, she’ll appear in the Exploration Series’ “Mack the Knife is the Man I Love.”

“I’ve always done music, always,” she said. “At one time, there was a VHS tape when I was about three. I was singing ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’ in one.

“Music for me has always had a very personal aspect to it. I’ve been my own music therapist for a very long time, so I use music to express emotions that I don’t understand, I use music to heal myself when I’m having a hard time, I use it to help my life.”

Birch has been active in Kansas City since she moved here from Los Angeles in 2011. She graduated with her doctorate from the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance in May 2018, where she also explored new music and concert music. This past spring, she was the alto soloist in Gustav Mahler’s Symphony no. 2 “Resurrection,” with the Topeka Symphony Orchestra.

She’s been busy elsewhere, too, with productions in both San Diego and Bulgaria the past two summers. Birch loves to travel — “I have a hard time staying in one place!” she laughed — so she’s well suited to the vagabond aspect of an opera singer’s life.

Birch is also an in-demand accompanist and instructor, though her current performance schedule doesn’t allow as much time for those endeavors. “The only reason my parents put me in piano lessons was because I would sit at the piano and try to plunk out these way too difficult accompaniments to Broadway songs and Disney songs,” she laughed, “because I loved singing them but I want to hear all the other stuff, too.”

Though she started out interested in musical theater, it was that wanting to “hear all the other stuff” that led her, eventually, to opera. “It’s wonderful. It’s everything in a performing arts situation,” Birch said.

Everything, it seems, including cooking, as Birch’s performance in Lee Hoiby’s one-woman opera “Bon Appétit!” can attest.

Starring in Opera 180’s production last April, Birch donned a curly brown wig and signature denim apron, bringing to life beloved chef Julia Child as she sang and cooked her way through a recreation of the famous television show, “The French Chef,” emulating Child’s infectious charm and gleeful chuckle.

“It was a lot harder than it looks, let me tell you! I was like, oh, 18 minutes and it’s in English — piece of cake!” she laughed.

“There was so much going on with the cake building and singing and remembering technique and fitting in with the piano reduction. Luckily there’s a video of the opera on YouTube and I literally just sat my computer on my bed and did the show with her every day for two hours, for a week and a half before we opened.”

“The hardest part was making sure I cracked four eggs and split the yolks in the amount of time needed to while singing,” she said.

Birch reprises the role Feb. 15 for Lenexa’s City Center Live.

Comedic one-acts aside, Birch recognizes that opera is not the kindest genre in its portrayal of women: “I have a problem with operas that seem to have one-dimensional, victimized women.”

Her own experience includes a history of strong women. “My family is filled with brilliant, hardworking, high-achieving women, just always wanting to be like them, which pushes me higher and higher, to learn more, absorb more, work harder,” she said.

She’s had her share of bad experiences, though, which have shaped her development in music and in life and helps her empathize. “The relationships with all the people in my life bring me to this point. Some of them were terrible relationships, some of them were wonderful relationships.”

Birch said, these bad experiences “change how you present yourself to other people, change how you trust other people, change how you want to be in the world.”

In roles where the female character seems like a victim all the time, Birch strives to “sit down and try to find different facets to her. They are there.

“I love to tell stories about all different types of people, where they come from and why they do the things they do and how they react to different situations,” said Birch, citing suffering or joy or trials. “When I watch a story or listen to a story that’s really committed and engaged, I come away with lots of different things: I’m either transported or relaxed or it causes me to think or view the world differently.”

“I would hope that the stories that I could tell do the same thing for other people. Make the world a better place.” 

Lyric Opera of Kansas City Explorations Series presents “Mack the Knife is the Man I Love” at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 9 in the Michael & Ginger Frost Production Arts Building, 712 E. 18th St. For more information visit www.kcopera.org.

City Center Live presents Opera 180 production of “Bon Appétit!” at 7 p.m., Feb. 15 in the Community Forum at Lenexa City Hall, 17101 W. 87th St. Pkwy. The event is free.

About The Author: Libby Hanssen

Libby Hanssen

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She’s written for KCUR, “KC Studio,” “The Kansas City Star,” “The Pitch” and “KCMetropolis.” Libby maintains the culture blog “Proust Eats A Sandwich” and writes poetry and children’s books. Along with degrees in trombone performance, she was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University.

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