Tenor Kalil Wilson, 26, who grew up in Berkeley and Oakland, won the annual New York Metropolitan Opera National Council competition regional finals in Los Angeles on Oct. 30 and will sing on-stage at the Met in February in the semifinals.
Wilson, who now lives in Los Angeles, and is a recent honors graduate in ethnomusicology and vocal performance from UCLA, attended Berkeley Walden School, sang in the Oakland Youth Chorus and is an alumnus of the Young Musicians Program affiliated with UC Berkeley.
His mother, Jackie Wilson, once ran a clothing store on Telegraph Avenue and is a past administrator for the Daily Planet. His stepfather, Baba Ken Okulolo, is the popular leader of West African and world music groups, such as Kotoja and the Nigerian Bros.
Wilson recalled participating in his stepfather’s bands when very young, on stage dancing and playing drums. His first voice lessons were in high school.
The Young Musicians Program “was welcoming, inviting ... it was really good training in the discipline of music, from the ground floor up,” he said. “There was a close relationship with the faculty. And everybody sang with the chorus during first period everyday.”
He credited David Tigner, an influential teacher with the program, as “the first person who got me singing classical music. He was my mentor. A great person who ignited the spark I didn’t know was there.”
Wilson’s interest in opera was “sparked by early music,” he said. “It had a lot of the conventions of jazz--improvisation, sparse scores with a lot of liberties taken, small ensembles and small stages. Monteverdi worked with orchestras of 15 to 20, max. They could see who they were playing for.”
His training in ethnomusicology—with primary focus on West African popular music “and the larger diaspora, over to the Caribbean and America, with early jazz”—finds expression through his podcasts at www.passport.com, which Wilson said is “the flip side of ethnomusicology.”
“I was looking at years in the academic trenches if I devoted myself to a career,” he said. “Singing took precedent. But that part of me manifested itself through the podcasts, the commentary I give on the programs. It’s prototypical music of the people, but maybe not so well-known. I pick it out, give an everyman’s intro, and the listeners’ curiosity takes over.”
His programs, rated through I-Tunes along with other individuals’ podcasts and bigger concerns, like NPR podcasts, “usually place in the Top 50--and have been second in popularity,” earning up to 1400 hits recently.
After recently finishing a demo of jazz and R&B standards, Wilson looks forward to the Met semifinals “with a lot of emotions; I choose the happy, the positive ones. I get to do what most people don’t. So I’m just going up there singing, trying to connect to the audience. Art is relevant if you’re true to it, trying to be part of the score; it’s frozen in time until performed. It’s a temporal form, and I’m halfway proud of myself if I produce something relevant to the moment, to myself and the audience. Then I’ve done the job of an artist.”
The National Council’s competitions offer prizes of $15,000 to up to five winners of the Grand Finals. Unlike their famed pre-1954 predecessor, Auditions of the Air, they do not offer a contract or an audition for one with the Met (Auditions of the Air also awarded a $1,000 prize). Run entirely by volunteers, the competitions draw entrants from 45 districts in 15 regions. Semifinalists sing on the Met stage, finalists with full orchestra.
Wilson’s regional appearance featured arias he chose from Benjamin Britten’s Albert Heering and from Giasone. For the semifinals, he’ll sing “two other baroque pieces: one obscure, from Rameau’s Dardanes, the other from Handel’s Alcina.”
Of singing as a career and the “rap” of opera as “arcane” music, Wilson said, “I grew with chorus, early music, everything from Byzantine chants to modern showtunes and what’s in between. I explored my voice and choral singing. It’s been refreshing for me to unite things, to explore my racial and cultural background, to express unity, not disparity. Music is music; not the universal language, but a language. Popular music finds its way into the classical. Most high musics were once music of the people. For myself, I want to go where my voice leads me, down a number of paths which, so far, are not mutually exclusive.”