Tenor singer Kalil Wilson wouldn't characterize himself as an opera buff, even though he is a hot young star on the scene. Last month, he won the Western Regional Finals of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, which searches the US and Canada for the brightest young opera talents. But the Oakland-raised singer insists his relationship to the medium is that of an apt pupil rather than an aficionado. He can't even corroborate his mother's anecdote about how he came to opera. Wilson's mother, Jackie, says that he approached her as a teenager and insisted that his voice needed "classical training." Wilson doesn't remember the incident.
"I don't even know how I really knew it existed," the tenor, 25, now living in Los Angeles, said about the genre. "I guess it would be a case of my voice leading me, and me not knowing cognitively what my voice was leading me into, but knowing that it was leading into somewhere. I didn't really listen to it outside of the context of learning music."
Still, Wilson always had a preternatural understanding of music. His mother remembers a time when a Latin tune was playing on the radio. "Mom, is that a cha-cha?" asked then-four-year-old Wilson. He'd got it right. "It was eerie," she said.
Wilson was born with perfect pitch, a "very, very piercing tone," according to Jackie ("mothers will know what I mean when I say it was like a nine-inch nail going into your brain"), and a severe case of dyslexia that prevented him from ever learning how to read music proficiently. He can make out basic melody lines and the contours of notes on a page, but he still has to hear something before he can wrap his head around it. Regular reading is hard, too. Wilson said he clocks about 120 words a minute. In a way, though, the disability gave him a jump on other musicians because it sharpened his ear.
Wilson doesn't remember identifying a cha-cha form at age four, but said he probably absorbed a lot of musical terms early on, just from listening to household conversations. He lived in a family of musicians, after all. Wilson's stepdad is Babá Ken Okulolo, founder of the West African Highlife Band, Afro-Groove Connexion, and the Nigerian Brothers. His mother played flute and owned a copious record collection comprising salsa, reggae, soul, jazz, and African music from the '60s to the '80s. Wilson, who listened to KMEL in high school but also started amassing a be-bop and world beat collection, describes himself as "kind of an ethnomusicologist from the jump."
Granted, Wilson's dyslexia prevented him from sticking with any instrument for a sustained period of time. He started off at the piano, then switched to violin. But singing is where Wilson finally excelled. At age thirteen, he joined the Oakland Youth Chorus, which introduced him to everything from show tunes to medieval canter music. During his sophomore year at Albany High School, Wilson joined the Young Musician's Program at UC Berkeley, where he received classical voice training from David Tigner. Wilson forayed into the opera world his freshman year at UCLA, when he was recruited to understudy the part of Don Ottavio in the university's production of Don Giovanni. The audio clips on his web site include arias from Bizet's Carmen, Verdi's La Traviata, and Mozart's Don Giovanni, all sung in an inviolate, swelling tenor, with the precision of someone who's taken elocution classes.
Wilson honed his intricate, exacting tone through drill exercises — "vocaleses," in opera patois — prescribed by his current teacher Seth Riggs, a popular Los Angeles vocal coach who is teaching Wilson pro bono. The exercises require Wilson to sing simple melodic figures up and down the scale, often using different vowels and syllable combinations. Such rigorous training comes across in Wilson's regular speech, too. He speaks in an unerringly patient, NPR broadcaster tone, never stumbles over words, and makes every sentence sound as though it were carefully plotted out.
For Wilson, opera is a day job rather than a form of aesthetic bliss. The young tenor makes most of his bread in the classical music world, but his tastes skew more toward stuff with a folk base; his podcast, WorldMusicPassport.com includes Afrijazz, cha-cha, charanga, calypso, and Congolese playlists, along with Balkan, Mongolian, and Irish cuts, all pre-1990. Having launched the podcast a year ago after spending Christmas break trying to archive his African music collection, Wilson is now a go-to for everything from rare Cuban jazz to ancient religious music. He has access to the kind of "members only" file sharing sites where insiders trade cuts you can't find at Amoeba or on iTunes — a lot of it has transferred from vinyl and cassettes.
"I think my last check I had 120,000 pieces of music on my computer," Wilson said. "It's everything from Chinese opera to what just came out on the Billboard Soul Charts last week."
Wilson still chafes against the elitism in classical music. He's currently recording a soul-jazz demo and fronting a trio. He sometimes listens to hip-hop and popular R&B — even the singers who use pitch machines to alter the sound of their voices. The tenor said he doesn't want to be part of a petrified classical music tradition, or subscribe to the notion — common among conservatory scholars — that "all kinds of music are fine and dandy but only the good, worthwhile, spiritual music is classical." At the end of the day, said Wilson, "very few things are holy to me."
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