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On a high note: Soprano Kendall Gladen reaches out to St. Louis students

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 13, 2012 - In her scarlet, clinging dress, mezzo-soprano Kendall Gladen arched her head with gypsy attitude, hit a D and sang "Quand je vous aimerai," French for "When will I love you?" The line begins one of opera's best-known arias, the taunting habanera in Georges Bizet's "Carmen."

Gladen was a dramatic contrast to the usual fare in the lecture hall at Wells Fargo Advisors' headquarters downtown -- talks on derivatives, annuities and emerging energy markets. Her audience was different, too: about 120 St. Louis Public School students, their music teachers, tutors and moms.

The Wells Fargo event was part of Gladen's eight-day residency and community outreach through Opera Theatre of St. Louis. She presented several mini-concerts and motivational chats at five schools, three churches and the Regional Business Council's Young Professionals reception. (Gladen is starring as Carmen in this summer's OTSL production.)

In the last six years, Gladen, a St. Louis native, has become accustomed to singing before demanding audiences in Germany, Italy, France and on both East and West Coasts. Tuesday she didn't stint for St. Louis students. She said she took special delight in singing for them because she was once in their place. She called it "an honor" to introduce opera to many in the city that has been so good to her.

On Tuesday, L'Ouverture Middle School boys snapped their heads up in attention when she sang the habanera. "She has such emotion in her voice," said a wowed eighth-grader, Juwan Walters.

Dello Thedford, Gladen's choir director when she attended Roosevelt High School, was seated in the first row. He beamed so brightly that they could have switched off the hall's lights. He had not heard her sing in about five years.

"Her voice is, well, it is just unbelievable, the maturity, the professionalism such capability," he said. The usually verbal teacher paused, still awed by her voice. He's pleased she's confident but has not allowed her international successes go to her head.

"Proud does not even describe what it means to have had Kendall as a student," he said. "She treats me almost as if I were her father."

Thedford's current music students from Central Visual and Performing Arts Academy, where he's dean of arts, surrounded him at the concert. Eleven years ago he moved to Central VPA, after teaching 25 years at Roosevelt.

During her last two years at Roosevelt, Gladen was also on OTSL's Monsanto Artists In Training program, a college preparatory program for gifted high school singers that can last up to three years.

"The Monsanto AIT program changed the trajectory of my career, and I'm forever grateful," Gladen said. "I think it's still the only thing for high school students like it in the nation." The program won the President's Committee for the Arts and the Humanities award as a model program for at-risk youth.

Afterward, Gladen also was chosen for OTSL's Gerdine Young Artist apprentice program.

The two programs boosted Gladen's career, giving her a total of six years of vocal coaching and confidence-building on and off stage, she said. While in the Gerdine program, she sang in the chorus in OTSL's 2004 production of "Carmen."

The dream of most Gerdine Young Artists is to return to the company in a title role. Gladen gets her chance May 18 when she sings the title role in OTSL's "Carmen." Ever since being in the chorus, Gladen has been captivated by its great mezzo role and loved its color, sinuous dancing and castanets.

Carmen, a Complex Character

Gladen has sung Carmen in six productions in the United States and Germany. In December, she saved the San Francisco Opera production when a mezzo called in sick before opening night. Ten days before opening, San Francisco's management reached Gladen in Toronto where she was singing in "Rigoletto."

There was a hitch. The California company's director was rehearsing its cast in a "Carmen" that included spoken stage conversations rather than the sung recitatives, which Gladen knows well.

Most of Gladen's work has been in French, Italian or German, all of which she studied in college. Even now she studies languages. After her vocal coaching sessions, she takes home the lyrics and goes through each line word for word with dictionaries until she can memorize and then communicate the idea and emotion of each word.

"I know what every word means when I sing it," she said.

But this time, "I had to learn French dialogue," she said in an interview. A French language coach in California worked with her daily via Skype. Using visual examples, Gladen pressed her tongue to the roof of her mouth and rolled her lips to achieve a few French sounds not used in English.

"It was hard," she said.

San Francisco Chronicle music critic Joshua Kosman described her voice as having a "creamy vocal tone and solid technique" and admired her "sinuous wordless dance for Don Jose." Without regular rehearsals and new dialogue, it's not surprising that he lamented "the lack of theatrical flair." She had plenty of that at the Wells Fargo gig.

She enjoys exploring all facets of her characters.

"Carmen is often played as a superficial, sexy woman," she said. Gladen sees her as a more complex woman enjoying the power she has over a man as long as she remains distant, independent and as free as a rebellious bird, she said.

"It's right here in the lyrics, she said. "She's sexy, yes, but Carmen's more than that. She's a gypsy, an outsider who does not want to be tied down. She's cautious, smart, witty and catches men off-guard. She knows exactly what she is doing."

Then, Gladen dramatically stretched out her arm upward and said: "She's dangereuse."

A Star at Roosevelt

Thedford recalled that even in her freshman year at Roosevelt, Gladen had a "remarkable" voice coupled with a strong work ethic. She was determined to do well in all her classes, not only music, he said. She was set on joining her older sister as the first generation of their family to graduate from college.

"She was a straight A student almost, with maybe one or two Bs," Thedford said.

In an interview earlier, Gladen said that at home she'd been surrounded by family who loved music: spirituals, pop, jazz and rhythm and blues.

"No opera, I didn't grow up in an Italian home with Verdi and Puccini," she said. Thedford introduced her and other Roosevelt classmates to classical music.

Thedford helped her apply for the AIT program. In her junior and senior years, OTSL provided a taxicab after school to get her to Washington University where voice professor Christine Armistead gave her weekly lessons. As an AIT student, she had opportunities to attend cultural events and museums -- all to motivate students to prepare for college and apply for scholarships. OTSL also grants some college scholarships.

Gladen was accepted by the University of Maryland. Carmen Balthrop was her Maryland voice teacher, and the pair still works on Gladen's new roles together. After Gladen's sophomore year, she had to take time off because of financial struggles and family health issues. When she could return, she went to Washington U and her former AIT coach, Armistead.

Her own experience informs what she tells students. In several talks to students, including one Monday morning, she stressed that it takes hard work to become a professional singer.

"It is not an easy feat," she said. "I tell students that it is very hard work, takes discipline and that they should not expect to make lots of money. They can't expect to start out making $50,000 like they might working steady 9 to 5. I had lots of jobs, including working in a Enterprise call center, but I never had to sleep in my car like (comedian) Chris Rock did."

Moving on Up

In the eight years since Stephen Lord, OTSL music director told her to spread her wings and go to New York, he has continued to give her encouragement and tips by email, phone and occasionally in person.

But she also credits her family for helping her through the stressful patches.

"My family was always supportive," she said.

Her older sister Rolanda Gladen, whom she describes as her academic role model, a special education teacher in the St. Louis Public School, has flown to many of her productions. And her mother Rochelle Gladen, a school bus driver, is a big cheerleader.

In 2006 she was the only mezzo among 11 singers to win an Adler fellowship at San Francisco Opera. Adler fellowships are performance-oriented residencies for what that company calls "the most advanced young singers." In addition to grooming them for roles, most fellows get an artist manager, or agent, to help them know what roles are being cast worldwide. As an Adler fellow. Gladen made her San Francisco Opera debut as Giovanna in Verdi's "Rigoletto." There she also sang in her second production of "Carmen," this time in the solo role of Mercedes.

With an agent, demand quickened, and she moved up a notch in "Rigoletto" to sing Maddalena in her Italian debut at the Teatro Comunale Giuseppe Verdi in Padua. She repeated that role with New Orleans Opera, the Los Angeles Opera and Canadian Opera Company. In Switzerland she sang Meg Page in Verdi's "Falstaff" at the Opera de Lausanne, and Lily in George Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" at Washington's National Opera.

Her Adler Fellow network got her first Carmen role, a concert version with the University of California Davis Symphony Orchestra. She ssng her first fully staged version at Festival Opera in Walnut Creek in the Bay area. Since May 2009, she has sung Carmen at Michigan Opera Theatre in Detroit, Miami Grand Opera, Lake George Opera in N.Y. and at the Deutsche Oper Berlin.

But Tuesday at Wells Fargo, she told her audience that she was going to take them "home" by singing the spiritual "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho."

Her audience gave her a sustained standing ovation, a bouquet of long-stemmed, yellow roses and many hugs because, as Gladen said, "I don't do handshakes; I hug."

Patricia Rice, a freelance journalist in St. Louis, has long covered opera. 

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.