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DISTINGUISHED ARTIST RECIPIENT, 2017 GOVERNOR’S ARTS AWARDS

Kallen Esperian
Photo by Haily Willis

Kallen Esperian, regarded by many as one of the greatest operatic sopranos of our time, catapulted to the world stage as a winner of the Luciano Pavarotti International Voice Competition in her early twenties. Since that time, she has sung leading roles in every major opera house in the world, including the Metropolitan Opera; the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden; and La Scala in Milan. She has been paired with tenors such as Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo and Jose Carreras, both in opera and in concert.

Raised in Illinois, Esperian began ballet lessons at the age of three and piano lessons at the age of ten. Although she always loved to sing and sang in her school’s choruses, she did not begin private voice lessons until after turning sixteen. She attended the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, where she earned her bachelor of music degree in vocal performance. Esperian has lived in Memphis, Tennessee since 1982, having deep Southern roots. Her mother was from Mississippi and returned back to her home state in 1981.

Esperian had her first professional engagement in 1981, while still attending the University of Illinois, with the Opera Theatre of St. Louis. In 1984 she won the Mid-South region’s Metropolitan Opera Competition. In 1985 she won the Luciano Pavarotti International Voice Competition. As part of the competition, she was then cast as Mimi to Pavarotti’s Rodolfo, in the Philadelphia Opera’s production of Giacomo Puccini’s La Boheme. The production toured, traveling to both Modena and Genoa in Italy, and to Beijing, China, as part of an Italian and Chinese cultural exchange. The documentary Distant Harmony, directed by Dewitt Sage, was filmed to record this historic trip.

Esperian made her La Scala debut in 1987, in the title role of Giuseppe Verdi’s Luisa Miller. Later that same year, she made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Mimi, in Puccini’s La Boheme, opposite tenor Placido Domingo as Rodolfo. Over four hundred people traveled from Memphis to see the performance.

Esperian was one of The Three Sopranos, the soprano counterpart to The Three Tenors, both being produced by Tibor Rudas Theatrical Productions. She holds the distinction of being the only one of The Three Sopranos to have performed individually with each one of The Three Tenors.

Esperian has recorded for both Atlantic and Decca Records, and has also produced several recordings on her own label, Goose Hollow Productions.

Giving to hospitals, charities and other organizations associated with children is at the core of Esperian’s heart. She has given benefit concerts for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, among others.

Esperian received an honorary doctorate degree from Rhodes College in Memphis. She has received numerous awards, including the Dorothy B. Chandler Award, the Mafalda Favero Award, the Arts and Humanities Award from the Germantown Arts Alliance, the Amphion Award from the Memphis Symphony, 2010 Emissary of Memphis Music, and the Distinguished Achievement Award from the University of Memphis.


Special thanks to Steven J. Ross and the Memphis Opera
Editing by Christie Caldwell; Directed by Suzanne Lynch.

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