By Mandy Moe Pwint Tu
Kallen Esperian came to Sewanee with her clock still on Eastern Time. The clincher: she didn’t realize it. On the first day of faculty orientation, she arrived to her first meeting an hour early and returned to her apartment to fix the clocks she had already set to central time. So on the second day of faculty orientation, she arrived, once more, an hour early.
“It was like a Lucille Ball episode,” she says. “It was just freaky that I would do it two days in a row.”
Esperian’s appointment to Sewanee was last minute. Geoffrey Ward, the university’s choirmaster, had been in Memphis before he worked at Sewanee, working with the Memphis Boys’ Choir, with which Esperian held occasional workshops. In May, Ward asked her if she would come to teach here, and she agreed.
“I’d never been here,” she said. “I’d heard the Memphis Symphony talk about Sewanee in the summer. I was raised in the north, so I didn’t know there was a music thing. I can’t believe I’ve never been here, because it’s so gorgeous.”
A renowned opera singer in her own right, Esperian brings a wealth of experiences with her. She studied ballet when she was three years old until she was 18, and she had voice lessons since she was 16.
In 1985, she won the Luciano Pavarotti International Voice Competition and shot to fame playing Mimi to Pavarotti’s Rodolfo in La Boheme.
“I never dreamed in a million years that I would become an opera singer,” she told The Purple. “I was in an opera before I ever saw one. I loved Barbra Streisand. I would sit at the piano and sing Streisand songs.”
Growing up, Esperian believed that her career would be in musical theatre, “but what’s beautiful is that opera is musical theatre on steroids.”
She went on to make her La Scala debut in 1987, playing the title role in Giuseppe Verdi’s Luisa Miller. Within a year, she debuted at the Metropolitan Opera as Mimi, in Puccini’s La Boheme, opposite tenor Placido Domingo as Rodolfo.
“It was really a Cinderella story,” she explained. “I believe it was my destiny. There are many ways of trying to obtain an opera career. Mine was a bit unconventional, I think, in the way that it took off.”
Despite her fame, Esperian remains grounded. She spoke of a wooden sign that she keeps at home in Memphis, almost as old as her 25-year-old son, which recalls a moral from Aesop: “Kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.”
She explained, “The gift has given me the privilege of seeing the world and of sharing [music] with people. It is a circle because if I give, then I also get. Not only in singing; in life. It’s very important to be kind.”
Since arriving in Sewanee, she has hiked to Piney Point and heard the Thumping Richards, which she referred to as “the best band” when she overheard them playing on Family Weekend. But most of all, she has been coaching students to better utilize their voices, and she is heavily involved in this semester’s musical theatre production of Cabaret.
“I really am passionate about what I do,” she said. “Not only the singing part, but the teaching. I say to my students – you’ve been given something you had nothing to do with. It will never be perfect. However, it is your joy, somewhat obligation, to continue to make it the best it can be for your whole life. We’re forever students; it never stops.”