Lyric Opera of Chicago

Chorister Profile: Kenneth Nichols

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Ken Nichols in Show Boat.

Nichols as the Second Armored Man in Lyric’s 2011 production The Magic Flute.

Nichols as Don Alfonso in Cosi Fan Tutte in college, at State University of New York at Potsdam.

Nichols and his motorcycle.


Bass-baritone Kenneth Nichols has been a member of the Lyric Opera Chorus for 13 years. We caught up with Nichols this summer in between performances in the chorus of San Francisco Opera’s Show Boat, (a co-production with Lyric Opera, Houston Grand Opera and Washington National Opera), to talk about his experiences as a singer and his thoughts on Lyric’s upcoming production of Porgy and Bess.  

Why did you become a singer?

When I was in junior or senior year of high school, my school choir went to a matinee at the Metropolitan Opera and we saw Rigoletto. That pretty much did it for me.   

What about that performance stands out most in your mind?

The singers primarily—but also the scenery and the whole atmosphere when the chandeliers go up and the lights go out. And then we got a chance to go backstage, we got to see the costumes ... it was pretty intense. And the singing was glorious! 

Did you grow up with music at home?

Yes, I sang at home. I was in a church choir, and my parents were in gospel quartets when I was growing up. Music has always been a part of my life. I just wasn’t sure what direction it was going to go until that matinee performance of Rigoletto.

What brought you to Lyric?

Actually I came to Chicago because I was singing Joe in Show Boat at the Auditorium Theatre. That’s what brought me to Chicago and I fell in love with it.  Show Boat closed about a year or so after that; I just started doing auditions. I heard there was an opening at Lyric and I jumped in there.  

What do you enjoy the most about being in Lyric’s chorus?

Well it’s a lot like a family—with all that that entails! Every family has drama, and we have drama sometimes, but basically we all get along. It’s a great place to work. I love all of my colleagues and they all contribute something to the end product. That, to me, makes it enjoyable and that’s why I stay.  

Who is the musician you admire the most and why?

I don’t know that I could say there’s one that I admire the most, but Renée Fleming is high on that list. I’ve known her since college and I’ve seen her grow. She’s always been a sweet person and she’s always been a giving person, whether on stage or off stage. What I admire is that even though she’s reached incredible heights in her career, that hasn’t changed. She still stays sweet, she’s still approachable, and you can still talk to her. That I admire quite a bit.  

You’ve performed in Porgy and Bess before—what do you love most about the opera?

I would have to say the music and the orchestration in particular … you’ve got gospel and spiritual influence going on, you’ve got symphonic music and it all fits together. He [George Gershwin] put it all together really in an incredible way and the music itself, not to mention the singing, just moves me.   

What makes next season’s Porgy exciting?

We have a different cast first of all. We have different chorus people and a different conductor. All of those people bring something different to the table. And when that happens the dynamic changes, the energy changes... and so in a way, even though it’s the same production, it’s really not the same. It makes it like you’re doing a whole new production.  

Do you think Porgy and Bess has a modern message?

It’s extremely relevant today. Porgy and Bess is about a community and really a society at large. How do we as a society deal with violence? That’s one of the first things we see—Crown, in a drunken, cocaine-fueled rage, kills Robbins. How do we deal with poverty? How do we deal with disasters and tragedies? How do we deal with that as a community, as a society? I think they dealt with it because they stuck together—there was love there. They loved each other and that love held them together through all of the stuff that they went through … and ultimately that’s what’s going to hold us together as a society. So I think it’s extremely valid. 

One more final fun question: When you need a break, when you’re not in the opera house, what do you do?

Golf and motorcycles. I rode out here [San Francisco] from Chicago. It was amazing. You really see the country from a different perspective. You could fly, but you wouldn’t get to see the things you see just riding and experiencing this beautiful country that we have. 



Listen to the complete conversation—which includes more about Nichols’s background and his defining moments—here!



Photos: Provided by Kenneth Nichols 


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