Philly native and current Drexel Hill resident, Karen Slack says she originally wanted to become a veterinarian up until the time she was about 14 or 15.
“My father worked in security at the U. of P. and I hoped to go there to study veterinarian medicine. But my 8th grade teacher in middle school recognized and appreciated my voice, and told me I should think about becoming a singer,” Slack recalls.
Eventually, Slack took her teacher’s advice, auditioned for the Performing Arts High School, and was accepted into its program. “Plus I found out how much schooling you would need to become a vet, not knowing that music required just as much time and was just as complex in a different way.
“But by then I was hooked, and after hearing Maria Callas and Jessye Norman sing, I tried to get my hands on as many records of them as possible so I could study their voices,” she adds.
After four years in high school, Slack was off to the University of Hartford to study vocal performance, when at the age of 18 she became the youngest winner in the history of the Rosa Ponselle International Competition for the Vocal Arts held in New York City.
“I was then supposed to make a big debut in New York but realized I wasn’t ready and decided to shift gears,” Slack says. “And so that’s when I ended up at the Curtis Institute of Music and stayed there for six years studying voice and opera. And so it seems I really was destined to become a singer.”
After Curtis, Slack headed off to San Francisco Opera where she got involved in a training program for young and aspiring opera singers. And Slack proved herself to be one of the best. Over the years she has performed with major conductors in opera houses and concert halls around the world.
“Wherever they’ll hire me, that’s where I’ll go,” she laughs.
And to our good fortune, Slack has been hired to be one of the featured artists in the debut of the Opera Philadelphia Channel, a global platform that opens the 2020-2021 season to opera lovers via their television screens. The show premieres Friday, Oct.23, at 8 p.m. EST, and remains available on-demand throughout the season.
According to Slack, “The platform is new, of course, because of COVID. We are rehearsing at the Wilma Theater while practicing social distancing. Then everything will be audio mixed and then released.”
Of course, the pandemic has impacted everyone, and Slack admits she is no exception. “Singing through live theater is how I make my money, so obviously, since there’s no live theater right now I’ve lost a lot of work.
“But we’ve all had to learn to be creative,” she continues. “As with other industries, we’ve had to learn how to catch up with the other genres. A lot of singers and a lot of musicians have had to learn to be very resilient in the way we do our work. It’s definitely been a hardship for everybody.”
Today, this soprano insists only the human voice can touch people in a way nothing else can.
“Music is the point we all connect regardless of who you are, what your political affiliation is, what color or culture you come from. I’ve seen how music transforms people. It transformed me and allowed me to go places I never thought I could go, and meeting people I never thought I’d meet.”
Thankfully, many viral offers have begun to come her way. In addition to just becoming arts supervisor for the Portland (Oregon) opera company, she’s also established an affiliation with an artistic organization in Canada.
“I’m probably busier now than before the pandemic hit,” Slack concludes. “And I’m learning to enjoy every minute of all the things I’m now doing.”