Interview by Barry Johnson
Classically trained as a coloratura soprano, Kristin Chenoweth holds a masters degree in opera performance from Oklahoma City University. Her career spans film, television, voiceover, and stage. In 2015, Chenoweth received a coveted star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 2009, she received an Emmy Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series for her role in Pushing Daises. In 1999, she won a Tony Award for You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown, and she was also nominated for her original role of Glinda the Good Witch in Wicked in 2004. She earned a Drama Desk Award, Outer Critics Circle Award, and Broadway.com Audience Choice Award for her lead role in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s On the Twentieth Century, and has performed to sold-out audiences across the world, including performances at Carnegie Hall and Royal Albert Hall.
Chenoweth has been nominated for two Emmy Awards and a People’s Choice Award for her role on Glee. Other notable television roles include appearances in The West Wing, Disney’s Descendants, and The Muppets. She also starred in NBC’s Hairspray Live! as Velma Von Tussle in December 2016. Last year, Chenoweth released The Art of Elegance, her first album of Great American Songbook classics, via Concord Records. The album debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Jazz and Traditional Jazz charts. Chenoweth has various projects coming up, such as the animated films My Little Pony: The Movie and The Star. She can also be seen in the Starz original series American Gods, where she has reunited with Executive Producer Bryan Fuller in the role of Easter.
BARRY: This year’s been so exciting for your fans with Hairspray Live!; the release and national tour of your latest album, The Art of Elegance; filming American Gods and The Star. You work with HSN, along with numerous other projects. It feels like you are doing everything. What keeps you inspired, and how do you find the energy to shine in each of these projects?
Kristin: I guess the main key, for me, is to really watch my health. I try to get as much sleep as possible, which isn’t always amenable with my schedule. But I try to get naps, even on planes. I think hydrating is incredibly important. And using time, when I have it to myself, to listen to music or read—things that calm me so that I can keep my mind and spirit open and ready to go in any art form.
B: Your Art of Elegance album is truly beautiful. Tell us about the initial creative vision that led to that album.
K: My producer, Steve Tyrell, asked me what kind of album I wanted to make. I wasn’t sure, so we spent a few days making lists, and the lists kept coming down to standard classic music. And that kind of helped me make my decision. Then, of course, cutting down the songs to what you hear now was really hard. I almost wanna do a part two, because there are so many songs to sing.
B: We are so excited about your performance for Portland Opera’s Gala. What moved you to pursue an advanced degree in opera, and how does that background inform your other work? What speaks to you about the art form? Do you have a favorite opera
K: My teacher and mentor at Oklahoma City University, Ms. Birdwell, is truly the one I should credit for opening my voice and my mind to other styles, especially operatically. Vocally, it was there. I had always sang in church and country music growing up in Oklahoma. It was at OCU that I discovered, “Oh! This high F is there.” And she explained to me that I was a coloratura. It just went from there. I began to open my mind and learned all kinds of different repertoire.
One of my first roles was Adele in Die Fledermaus [as a] freshman at OCU, and from that point on, I just played a lot of very fun roles as a young singer, young soprano. I know many people don’t consider this a…quote-unquote opera, but I do believe that Leonard Bernstein’s Candide falls into the same category. Cunégonde (with the New York City Philharmonic for PBS) remains my favorite of any role I’ve played. And for sure, I’m going to say that the lead in Tales of Hoffmann is a dream role that I always wanted to play. Another is Marie in Donizetti’s Daughter of the Regiment. I really wish I could’ve gone back in time and played that. I have many favorite operas, but La Traviata is always good for me.
B: On top of your work in film, TV, theater, and recording in the studio, you also make time to be a true champion for the arts through the Broken Arrow Performing Arts Center Foundation and other community initiatives, including the Opera Gala this September. Why do you think the arts matter in our communities, and why do you think we should support opera?
K: Well, opera is an art form that needs to keep not just repeating itself, but also be new. That’s the way we look at musical theater. If you’re going to do a revival of Promises, Promises or Hello, Dolly! or How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, you want to make sure you put your stamp on it. I feel the same way about opera. That’s why I love hearing opera directors rethinking a new way to do The Magic Flute, for example. Young singers: this is where you cut your teeth; this is how you learn technique. This is just the basics. Any opera in your rep should be on the ready all the time. It’s a great technical tool as you continue on with your career. Now, we are lucky that we have composers who are writing for young singers and also companies who are commissioning new works. So anytime that you can already have something that’s been written and learned, do it. Because there will be new stuff to come and add to your rep, and you’ll want to make room for all of it.
B: Is there anything that you’d like to share with Portland audiences and your many fans here?
K: Just that I can’t wait to come back and enjoy the city. People have always been kind there to me when I come on tour. And that—whether you’re an opera-lover or musical
theater-lover or R&B-lover, soul, country—good music is good music, and it should all be celebrated, especially at a time when arts programs are being pulled from schools. This is the time when we play our instruments, when we sing and celebrate music.