Lyric Opera's new artist-in-residence Karen Slack praised for knockout voice, making opera 'accessible'

Also known for championing women and people of color in the industry, the artist will play major local festivals this summer.

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KARENSLACK-061824-9.jpg, Karen Slack, Lyric Unlimited’s artist-in-residence, at Lyric Opera of Chicago outside of the opera house, Monday, June 17, 2024.

Karen Slack, Lyric Unlimited’s artist-in-residence, returns to the Chicago area this summer for a variety of performances.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Before she was an esteemed soprano gracing the stages of renowned opera houses, Karen Slack was simply “Special K.”

It was the nickname her friends bestowed upon her during her childhood in Philadelphia. Yes, they were referencing the popular Kellogg’s cereal brand. But they also perceived a uniqueness in their comrade.

“I think my friends were just like, ‘There’s something different about her,’” said Slack, now 48. “Even before the singing.”

That special quality has followed Slack into her 30-year opera career. It’s not just her extraordinary voice that allows her to stand out among other singers. She is praised for her advocacy for women and people of color in the industry; her innovative arts programming; and her community engagement. It’s for those reasons that the Lyric Opera of Chicago has selected her as the Lyric Unlimited’s Artist-in-Residence for the 2024-2025 season.

Slack made her Lyric debut ten years ago as Serena in “Porgy and Bess.” She will kick off her return on Aug. 25 at the “Sunday in the Park with Lyric” concert in the Jay Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park. But Chicago audiences can catch her even earlier at the Grant Park Music Festival on June 19, and during the premiere of her “African Queens” program Aug. 1 at the Ravinia Festival.

Karen Slack
KAREN SLACK in concert

— Grant Park Music Festival, “Songs of Freedom,” June 19, 6:30 p.m., Jay Pritzker Pavilion, 201 E. Randolph St., free, grantparkmusicfestival.com

— Ravinia Festival, “African Queens,” Aug.1, 7:30 p.m., 201 Ravinia Park Road, Highland Park, $15+, ravinia.org

— “Sunday in the Park with Lyric,” Aug. 25, 7 p.m., Jay Pritzker Pavilion, 201 E. Randolph St., free, lyricopera.org

“It just felt really natural to bring someone like Karen in with her very clear artistic and creative vision and goals, and the work that she does in the opera performing community, but also in the civic community,” said Afton Battle, vice president of Lyric Unlimited and artistic operations.

As part of the residency, Slack will host master classes, artist talkbacks and initiatives that bring music and storytelling into the community. She will highlight select operas in Lyric’s season through “KiKi Konvos,” a continuation of her Facebook Live chat show #KikiKonversations. And she will work on a collaborative project showing off the local neighborhoods of some of Lyric’s singers.

Additionally, she will perform new concerts and some of her signature programming, including “Of Thee I Sing,” songs of love and justice that she curated following the murder of George Floyd.

KARENSLACK-061824-5.jpg

“I have always had just such an admiration and respect for Lyric Opera of Chicago. I’m so grateful they saw something in me and understood that it is important to have somebody like me representing opera in Chicago” says Karen Slack, Lyric Unlimited’s artist-in-residence, photographed in the lobby of the opera house.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

“Our audiences will see an incredible mistress of the craft at work,” Battle said, “and also be enveloped in a beautiful sound, beautiful artistry and gorgeous music, because her depth of knowledge of the repertoire is so vast that it’s really mind-blowing.”

Slack said she is excited to get out into the community and “reach people where they are.”

“I have always had just such an admiration and respect for Lyric Opera of Chicago,” she said. “I’m so grateful they saw something in me and understood that it is important to have somebody like me representing opera in Chicago.”

Slack’s introduction to opera happened in high school. When she heard her choir director blasting recordings by sopranos such as Jessye Norman and Maria Callas, she was thrilled to discover other women who shared her “big, high and loud voice.”

Soprano Karen Slack sings in Lyric Opera of Chicago's production of "Porgy and Bess" in 2014.

Soprano Karen Slack sings in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of “Porgy and Bess” in 2014.

© Todd Rosenberg Photography

But seeing mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves perform “Carmen” at Opera Philadelphia sealed the deal.

“I still remember that same seat that I sat in as a 16-year-old kid, just mesmerized,” Slack said. “That’s when I decided I wanted to pursue opera.”

Slack received support from both her choir teacher and her parents. Her mother took a second job to help pay for her gowns as she entered competitions. Like a basketball coach, her father encouraged her to be the best.

Before she died of cancer, Slack’s mother was able to see her daughter win the prestigious Rosa Ponselle International Vocal Competition, which allowed her to study privately in New York at the age of 18.

“They never let me give up on my dream,” Slack said of her parents. “They never let me know how sick my mom was because they were like, ‘You’ve got to do this thing.’ They got to see me sing in Lincoln Center when I was like 19 or 20 years old. My mom made sure I had all the tools that I needed in life to take with me on my journey.”

20240508-GloverSlackByChrisLee

Karen Slack performs with the New York Philharmonic earlier this year.

©2024 Chris Lee

That journey led Slack to graduate from Curtis Institute of Music, as well as prestigious training programs with the San Francisco Opera. It took her to the stages of the Metropolitan Opera and Washington National Opera. It even placed her in a singing role in Tyler Perry’s movie “For Colored Girls.”

“When she opened her mouth, I remember being bowled over,” said Mikael Eliasen, the previous head of the voice department at the Curtis Institute of Music. “But what I liked most about her was that she had such a generosity of soul. ... It was quite wonderful to see her develop and become who she is today, and also her great caring for community work.”

Slack serves as a faculty member at the Banff Centre for Arts in Alberta, Canada; an artistic director for the Portland Opera; and the co-chair of OPERA America’s Women’s Opera Network. She is also known for premiering the works of living composers, often highlighting Black artists.

“To get people involved in opera, you need to see yourself up there,” said Susan Ashbaker, Slack’s former vocal coach at Curtis. “And she really brings a beautiful voice to that.”

Though Slack is proud of her special gifts, she strives to make opera approachable.

“I don’t lean into the elitism of it,” she said. “I don’t want to be a cake topper or at the top of the Christmas tree. I’m not interested in that. Let me be right in the middle where everybody can see me, and be accessible and relatable.”

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