After years as night janitor, black opera singer gets his big break
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Never give up on your dreams, someone told Keanon Kyles along the way.
It stuck, even in dark moments, like when he’d find tears dropping as he cleaned corporate offices on his night shift job as a janitor.
Kyles, 29, is an opera singer, a rare black male in a music genre many may see as staged musical dramas with high-pitched singing. A little time with the talented Kyles changes that thinking.
“It started when I was 7. My mother signed me and my sister up with Chicago Children’s Choir. We worked our way up to the top concert choir,” Kyles said.
“We went on tours all around the world. That was my childhood. At age 13, I joined Gallery 37’s Operatics Ensemble. It was the first time I was part of an opera production. I realized I had a strong interest and love for it,” he said.
“High school was when I really came to believe I had a chance at being an opera singer. For a state competition, my teacher picked me to perform an aria with two weeks to prepare,” he said. ” I won us an honor superior. That’s when I thought: ‘This could be something.’ ”
After years of chasing that dream, at times feeling beaten, Kyles, who was raised in the Brainerd neighborhood on the South Side, just got his big break.
He leaves for Scotland on Tuesday, after earning the lead role in “Rigoletto,” an opera in three acts by Giuseppe Verdi. The role of this hunchback court jester is one of the most powerfully dramatic character roles in opera.
“He was just a kid when he auditioned to be in the elite ensemble I conducted for Gallery 37. He had such a good voice,” said Andrew Schultze, an eminent opera singer, conductor, stage director and teacher who has sung throughout the U.S. and Europe, from Carnegie Hall to Milan’s La Scala Opera House.
Kyles’ longtime mentor and voice coach, Schultze again worked with him as a teacher at Columbia College, where Kyles obtained a music degree in 2010.
“It’s been really wonderful to see this kid who was always interested in music become focused on opera. He sings gospel. He sings jazz. He sings everything. But he just kept saying, ‘I want to do opera,'” Schultze said.
“He has this talent. It’s compelling him. It’s propelling him and impelling him,” said Schultze, who, with his wife, will travel to see Kyles’ performance. “He’s such an unaffected person, a really nice guy. I said to him, ‘Keanon, Rigoletto is the one role I’ve always wanted to play. I’ve studied that role but never gotten to do it. Now, you see, you are singing it for me!'”
The third of four children of William and Vivian Kyles, a construction contractor and stay-at-home mom, Kyles left home after college to share a North Side apartment with roommates. To pay the bills while chasing his dream, he contacted a placement agency that had employed him during college. All they had was janitorial work.
“I was like, ‘Ummm … I’ll get back to you.’ I needed a job but wasn’t expecting to be cleaning nothing up,” said Kyles, voice soft as butter, melodic even in conversation. “After talking to my mother, I had a talk with myself. I realized this was just a job. And that’s when adulthood started.”
He has worked as many as three jobs at a time to fund his opera journey, weathering frustration and occasional tears. But as his performance gigs increased, so did his exposure.
Doors began to open. He was accepted in summer 2015 into Europe’s premiere young artist performance festival, Italy’s Trentino Music Festival. Summer 2016, he secured the role of Colline in Clyde Opera Group’s U.K. production of “La Boheme,” one of the world’s most popular operas. The performance garnered him Clyde Opera Group’s Rigoletto role.
This could put him on the map. His parents will also be at the performance.
“When I realized his interest was classical music, I was thrilled because a lot of young African Americans who go into music are drawn to hip-hop,” his mother said. “When he graduated from Columbia and did his recital, everyone was just amazed because he sings in three languages. He has this stage presence that brings music alive, even if you don’t understand a word. He has that same presence in character and spirit, just a bright light.”
Kyles just wants to share his gift.
“I want young people to know they don’t have to wait for anybody to hand them something, or tell them you deserve it,” he said. “If you believe it, work at it. Being a star doesn’t begin when you reach the spotlight. It starts the moment that light bulb goes on that this is what you want to do.”