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We will not just make singers, we will make artists: An interview with Kelley Nassief

Portland State University alum, recently hired as the school’s Director of Opera, talks artistic development, coping with Covid fallout, and romanticism.

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Kelley Nassief, PSU's Director of Opera and Opera Studios.
Kelley Nassief, PSU Director of Opera and Opera Studios.

Portland State University recently announced that Kelley Nassief will become its Director of Opera and Opera Studios starting in the fall. She will take over a robust and acclaimed program – despite the pandemic – from Christine Meadows, who retired in 2021.

Nassief is one of the most illustrious singers ever to graduate from PSU. She won the 1995 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, a 1997 Richard Tucker Career Grant, was a 1996 Laureate of the Leonard Bernstein Jerusalem International Oratorio and Song Competition, and won a 2001 Sullivan Foundation Grant. She has sung under the baton of Kurt Masur, Michael Tilson Thomas, Charles Dutoit, Julius Rudel, Marin Alsop, Joann Falletta, Seiji Ozawa, Hans Vonk, Neemi Järvi, Carlos Prieto, Yeol Levi, Miguel Harth Bedoya, and other prestigious conductors. Her appearances with orchestras include The New York Philharmonic, L’Orchestre de Paris, Dresden Philharmonic, The National Symphony, The Royal Flemish Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, and the Philadelphia Orchestra. On top of that, she has created many roles with opera companies in the U. S. and Europe. 

In addition to her Bachelors of Music from Portland State University, Nassief holds a masters degree in vocal pedagogy from Westminster Choir College. In her new role, she will be guiding 32 undergraduates and 5 graduate students in the PSU’s opera program. They make up a portion of the 330 students (undergraduates and graduates combined) who are pursuing music degrees in PSU’s School of Music and Theater.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and flow.

OREGON ARTS WATCH: What is your job like? What does the director of opera at PSU do?

KELLEY NASSIEF: As an adjunct I have been teaching 30 or 40 students a week. With my new position I will be teaching around ten students, then I will teach classes. I have a degree in vocal pedagogy and I love teaching. I will teach opera history and the opera workshop. I’ll also do a lot of production meetings and planning. I have a lot of recruitment and fundraising. 

OAW: How do you do recruitment?

KN: I’ll be going to all-state choir and all-Northwest choir events, setting up a booth and inviting students to come to PSU. We are looking at doing some new things with our web site and doing more outreach. We might take some scenes and go to some schools. We hope to introduce people to opera. 

OAW: What will PSU Opera perform next year?

KN: We will do Die Zauberflöte – aka The Magic Flute – in German for our spring opera. It’s a great work that will bring in a lot of students who can try a role. We have some students who – because of COVID – have no stage experience at all or very little. This is a show that doesn’t depend on one person, and it has a lot of smaller roles where people can get their feet wet. 

OAW: You have to have someone who can hit those high notes for The Queen of the Night!

KN: We have some! We even have an incoming student who has already done it.

OAW: How do you pick the right opera for these students?

KN: I haven’t worked as a director before, but I have been teaching voice for a long time. So I have worked with students and tried to find the right roles for them. I know the challenges for those roles and how to prepare for them. Plus, we have a great staff of teachers here. They know what they are doing. They know the voices in their studio better than I do. We have an excellent group of students, and Die Zauberflöte should work out well. We are going to do some staging elements that we have never done before. I can’t reveal what those are at this point. But that will add to the opera experience. 

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OAW: How did you decide on PSU?

KN: I have done a lot of research about music programs in the Pacific Northwest, and I think that PSU is the strongest. The teachers are passionate about opera and want to help the students here and beyond.

We have undergraduates, graduates, and opportunities for some people who have graduated recently. In fact, I have been one of those who had the opportunity to come back as a returning artist to do Susannah with Phyllis Curtin. It was amazing to work with someone who originated the role. We also did master classes with Jerome Hines. It was incredible. Thirty years ago, Ruth Dobson created a wonderful program that Christine Meadows took to a new level. 

OAW: It is difficult to have an opera career in the U.S. You have to travel distances to opera houses. If you have a family, it’s an even higher hurdle to deal with. 

KN: I had twin girls and a great career with opera, concert performances, and recitals. I thought that I could travel with them, but once they started school, I realized how unfair it would be to expect them to travel with me. I know people who do that, and I respect that. They see the world and get to experience lots of different cultures. But I wanted my children to have the regular experience where they are grounded. When they turned four years old, I could see the writing on the wall. I put opera away for a while and focused on singing with orchestras. I did a lot of Four Last Songs, Verdi Requiems, and lots of wonderful works. 

OAW: I remember seeing you in The Marriage of Figaro with Portland Opera. It was a wonderful homecoming. 

KN: I was the countess, and that was my first opera after my kids, twins, were born. They were nine months old! My parents were still living here in Portland, and they helped to take care of the kids while I was in rehearsal, but it was challenging. Oh yeah! I would go to rehearsal and then I would be up all night. Then I would go to rehearsal the next day and then be up all night. 

If you are an active professional, you are travelling ten months out of the year. You can read on a Facebook page how they are missing their daughter’s recital. It’s sad. There are a lot of difficult decisions.

OAW: How old are your girls now?

KN: They are in college. One is studying history and the other is studying languages. 

OAW: They decided not to follow their mom on stage?

KN: Both are musically talented. One plays the cello and the other sings. But the last two years have been dominated by COVID. Events were cancelled and taking lessons online was discouraging – sometimes with a machine that evaluated things like the vibrato. You can’t learn with a machine.

In the arts and the education system, we really need to work on — because some years were lost for these students. We have students who really got into music but never did a school musical. They lost their concert experiences. They had to do all of their lessons on Zoom. You have students who started in the fourth grade on their instruments, but they didn’t know enough to keep it going. So they started doing other things. Now if they want to jump in, they are behind. 

OAW: And you have to rebuild your audience.

KN: There are people who are afraid to attend performances because of COVID, and that is understandable.

OAW: It is difficult to understand the stress on singers, especially if you are trying to becoming a professional.

KN: When I first moved to New York City, I did 150 auditions the first year. That was like one every other day. There was never an audition that I did that had as much stress as the ones I did for the Metropolitan Opera Company. You start to wonder if that was my vibrato or am I just shaking! But it is just one of many ways to try to make a career. 

OAW: I know that you don’t want to push young singers too far too quickly.

KN: I don’t want to get too technical here, but there are two muscle fibers that we are dealing with. There are fast twitch and slow twitch muscle fibers. Fast twitch is that power right now, which young people rely on when they discover that they can sing great music. Slow fibers are for endurance. So, the fast twitch are the sprinters and the slow twitch are the marathon runners. But the slow twitch muscles take years to develop. Careful planning, careful practice. Those fibers can develop in a way that is healthy. 

COVID interrupted that development and that has hindered the careers of some. Once a student discovers that they can sing big, they want to keep doing that, but you have to reign it in. 

It used to be that agents looked after singers’ careers and they would consider that voice and career over a lifetime. But now there’s a temptation to go bigger, bigger at a younger age, when singers might look the role of the character that they are creating for an opera, but their voices are not ready. 

Aesthetically and visually, that’s the picture that is wanted right now. But no one is looking out for the singer so that he or she will have a career that will last decades. Their voices can get wasted, and there are thousands of other performers who can take their place. So, in the education system, we have got to help people take care of their voices and pick their roles carefully. Then we can really help them.

OAW: PSU also does a studio opera piece in the smaller space. Will you be doing that as well?

KN: Yes, our fall opera presentation is usually a chamber opera. We are going to do a ground-breaking work called Good Country. It will be the premiere in its new iteration. We are bringing the composer Keith Allegretti to PSU. Harry Baechtel and Chuck Dillard are heading that project, and it makes sense for them to continue with it.

Good Country is a true story about a stagecoach driver from the Gold Rush era who lived his life as a man, but when he died, it was discovered that he was a transgender man. This is a timely story. It fits our community of students very well. They are passionate about presenting it.

OAW: What are some of the things that you have to teach students most often?

KN: You have to help them develop their voice. You teach languages, you teach different styles. You are introducing a freshman for example to everything. The biggest goal for me over time – from a freshman to the senior recital – is to develop them as an artist. We live in a time where the education system is – I give you a lecture, and you get a test. Sir Ken Robinson said, “Life gives you a test from which you learn a lesson.” That gives you more of an opportunity to experiment and see what works, but students are so used to thinking that there is one right answer. They are looking to you and asking, is this right? They don’t feel comfortable taking chances and bringing their own thoughts and feelings to a work because they have never done anything like that. So, you are helping them to find the artistry and ability to sculpt phrases, draw in an audience, play with color and nuance. That’s the goal. I don’t want my students to be singers. There are a lot of singers out there. I want them to be artists. I want you to say something. We are nurturing young artists to go out there and have something to say with beautiful voices that are well trained. 

OAW: Do you have a favorite conductor who you worked with?

KN: I worked with conductors who liked to share an artistic vision. I liked that because you could bring your own thoughts to the table, and you were collaborating. I like teamwork. But even with conductors who were more tyrannical about their own vision, I learned a lot still. I learned how to shift my vision, and how to work with someone else’s vision – what their perspective was. That opened my mind to other perspectives and ideas. It’s a teaching moment. 

OAW: What’s the vision for PSU opera?

KN: I am excited post-COVID to create some new things. I’m grateful to Ruth Dobson and Christine Meadows who are continuing to mentor me through the process. I’m excited about building the program up even more, getting involved with the community, and making the reputation for us that PSU is the conservatory of the Northwest. This is where you go to perform and become an artist with sound technique that will allow you to have an international career.

I didn’t go to graduate school right away. My whole career was based on my work here. I did some summer apprenticeship programs, but this was the base of the work. When I turned 40, I could see the writing on the wall, and I wanted to become a professor. So I pursed a degree in vocal pedagogy because I was interested in voice science. I went to Westminster during the summers, and they were very flexible with me. 

We teach how to sing with your whole body. We also teach romanticism. Nowadays, people can go to a dating site and slide, slide, slide – hook up. They don’t date. They don’t romance or woo somebody. Where do they learn to court someone? It is such an operatic thing. When you are teaching someone a French art song, there’s text about waiting for a beautiful moment, and it’s very seductive and sensuous. It’s very hard to teach students about sensuosity. Once they get it, they are thinking, well, why doesn’t my partner do that! Kids don’t watch movies anymore. So, you are teaching people how to be romantic. The phone thing has been a bit of an issue on how people relate to each other.

James Bash enjoys writing for The Oregonian, The Columbian, Classical Voice North America, Opera, and many other publications. He has also written articles for the Oregon Arts Commission and the Grove Dictionary of American Music, 2nd edition. He received a fellowship to the 2008 NEA Journalism Institute for Classical Music and Opera, and is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America.

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