Kirsten C. Kunkle has been praised as the “leading Native American soprano” of our times and her career has blossomed within a vast realm of creativity and advocacy. She is also a librettist, composer, artistic director, and educator. A fervent promoter of women and indigenous people, Kirsten is trailblazing her way forward, establishing an esteemed, inspiring role for herself in American music culture, building a remarkable legacy, and furthering representation and inclusion. We had the opportunity to speak as she prepared the upcoming West Coast premiere of Girondines, an opera for which she wrote the libretto and in which she plays a famous woman of the French Revolution, Charlotte Corday.
Please tell us about your heritage and how it has shaped your multifaceted career.
My Muskogee heritage is a maternal link. My parents got my brother and me our Muskogee citizenship when we were children, but I am not from where my tribe lives, which is primarily in Oklahoma. I’m from Ohio. So, I’m Muskogee, there’s also Chickasaw heritage as well but you have to choose a tribe to get your citizenship and my family is more ingrained within Muskogee heritage. The famous poet Alexander Posey is my great, great, great uncle. He’s very well known in indigenous poetry but also in American literature. I grew up wanting to be more invested in the heritage than what I was able to be, not living close to the tribe. Nowadays it’s much easier because of Zoom. We can be much more involved, and I take online Muskogee language classes.
Kirsten C. Kunkle (Photo Credit: LaVonda Josett)
When I was doing my doctorate in voice performance at the University of Michigan, we had three dissertation recitals that we had to perform and then defend; they usually ask you to find a specialty, so I decided to commission works based on Alexander Posey’s poetry. That opened a lot of doors for me to be doing work with my Native background. My first idea was to do a Native American art song recital, but I didn’t know if the repertoire existed, so I thought I’ll create it with poetry. At the time, I never considered myself much of a composer. I had one poem by Posey that no one wanted to set. It was in a hybrid dialect, very Oklahoman based, and he wrote it to try to convey how things were actually said, like what you can find in Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn. I took it upon myself to set the poem to music. My brother played slap bass, so I wrote a piece for piano, voice, and slap bass for this recital, never thinking I would ever do it again. But then the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian wanted the work, and from there, I met many people who were interested in classical Native music. I also met the composer and pianist Jerod Tate, who is Chickasaw. He is now one of my biggest collaborators and I work with him on a regular basis. We support and promote each other. We first got to work together at Intermountain Opera Bozeman when we did a concert called “Circle of Resilience” and Michael Sakir who’s the artistic director asked me to bring back that dissertation piece, so I got to do it again. This led to Shane Doyle commissioning me for Mountain Time Arts to write a piece for Yellowstone’s 150th anniversary.
Now people are interested in having me compose as well as write poetry, and it all started from my heritage. All my dreams have come together in this remarkable, fantastic way because I’ve always embraced my heritage and wanted it to be a bigger part of my life. Jerod is writing an opera right now that I’m slated to be in, called Shell Shaker, in October of 2024 in Oklahoma City. I’m also doing other works by him, like a piece called “Kokothena” with CityMusic Cleveland in May 2024. At the same time, I’m doing a lot of my own things and I’ve been commissioned to write music. Being also a librettist and an artistic director, I’m changing hats on an hourly basis sometimes, but it’s been so exciting because I’ve had this incredibly unconventional career. Had I won the Met competition at 22, I never would have had all of these amazing, fulfilling, wonderful things happen. I think if you follow who you are, it’s fascinating what can happen. I’ve just been so appreciative and enjoying the ride really.
Kirsten C. Kunkle in “Pirates and Mermaids Gala”, Wilmington Concert Opera (Photo Credit: Julie Smith)
So, you’re learning the Muskogee language right now?
I am trying! It is very difficult. It has its own written language but there are discrepancies, there’s not an “official” way of doing something. My teacher is wonderful, she is a native first speaker who then went to school and learned English. She always says that if you don’t know, ask the Elders and you might have three different answers; it’s all so based on where you live. What is also fascinating to me is that she always emphasizes that, despite the intent to ruin the culture and the heritage, despite the Trail of Tears—because my tribe was one of the Trail of Tears tribes that was forcefully moved from the Georgia, Alabama area to Oklahoma primarily—our mothers were able to retain the language. They carried it all this way through blood, sweat, tears, toil, trauma, so it is her personal goal to keep the language going. If that means one person learning one word, that’s still a kernel of what we had as a society and as a heritage.
So, I’ve taken it upon myself to make sure that my daughter hears it. She’s almost four but she does know more than I ever did as a child, and I think that that is a win in itself. The first word that she picked up was “owa” which means water, and I thought that was just so profound because as indigenous people in America water has been something that we have had to fight for. You hear it all the time in native societies that water is life. I’ve told her that water is life, and her hair is sacred and when her ancestors couldn’t have their water, they couldn’t keep their braids. I want her to grow up knowing that what she has is invaluable, that her Elders are important, and she can learn from them.
Kirsten C. Kunkle – “Yellowstone Revealed” with Mountain Time Arts (Photo Credit: Jason Dick)
Do you draw on your heritage in your approach to life, in terms of being in harmony with existing on this planet and with nature?
That’s a very big question! Absolutely, I think so. You know, we all go through phases in our lives where certain things are important and then we mature and other things become important. I’ve always been very focused and driven. I was 39 when I had my daughter, and it gave me a perspective where it wasn’t about me. It made me see that I can’t control everything because you have to be flexible when there’s a child, you have to be able to drop everything and take care of the child. As for living in harmony, the piece I wrote for Yellowstone is called Reclaim the Land. There’s the Land Back movement but I wrote this piece for Yellowstone as a National Park. To me, it is much more about sharing the land, so that everything benefits, and the people are not taking away from what already exists. It’s about sharing the land with the flora and fauna and being able to cohabitate, to exist peacefully among everything so that we can all get the best experience possible.
It’s about looking at life more holistically and asking how we can leave things better and give back. This is something that influences me because I don’t want to be bitter about the history. The history has been terrible for the Native people. But I like the idea of being a little bit more optimistic moving forward. Right now, we finally have some recognition that we never had when I was a child. Indigenous Peoples’ Day actually exists; we also have an Indigenous Heritage Month. It’s still mind blowing to think that we’re in 2023 and that, as a whole, representation is slowly happening both for women and for indigenous people. Both of those things are very important to me because that’s who I am, and it has become a part of my life’s work to bring attention in positive ways to women and to Native people. I grew up admiring the prima ballerina Maria Tallchief and I wanted to be to opera what she was to ballet. I’m not singing on the Met stage but that’s okay, because what I’m doing in many other ways is important. I am providing representation.
Kirsten C. Kunkle and Nicholas Provenzale in Dido and Aeneas, Wilmington Concert Opera (Photo Credit: Jason Dick)
Tell us about your company, Wilmington Concert Opera.
We founded it in 2016. Marisa Robinson is the co-founder and executive director. Like most things in my life, it happened because I happened to be in the right place, at the right time, and with the right mentality and right people. We decided to produce a concert of Puccini’s Suor Angelica. We knew a lot of women in the Philadelphia area who needed some project; there are always too many fabulous singers and not enough work going around. I found a great pianist to work with us for donations. We made the opera free and open to the public, and the audience and singers said: “Well, that’s wonderful, we loved it so much, what’s next?” We thought we better do something, so we did a gala and that became our first season. Ever since then, every year we perform a full opera in concert in the original language, and a gala, for free.
Of course, we got incorporated and Marisa is the queen of working on grants, so we are grant funded and take donations. We joined Opera America last year and through the pandemic we went completely online. We scrapped our plans to do what is now our current season and we ended up doing a virtual Dido and Aeneas. We also started doing a virtual recital series and continued it. We focus on trying to mostly promote local talents, but we’re also open to everyone. That’s part of the goal: to make it accessible as much as possible, and we have started doing a lot more outreach and programming. Last year we did a whole bunch of Great American songbook concerts; this year we added La serva padrona just to have as an outreach piece. It’s a lot of work for Marisa and me. During 2020 my husband, my daughter and I moved from Delaware back to Ohio, and Marisa has stayed as the constant physical presence in Delaware. I go back about two or three times a year depending on what the projects are.
Girondines, Wilmington Concert Opera, l. to r.: Kirsten C. Kunkle, Marisa Robinson, Annie Gill, Tracy Sturgis, Alyssa Brode, and Alyssa Maria Lehman (Photo Credit: Julie Smith)
On October 28th, you have the West Coast premiere of your opera “Girondines”. Tell us about it.
I’m so excited about this! It has been a whirlwind. We were approached by Mission Opera’s general director, Josh Wentz, about two and a half months ago to see if we could pull this together to be their season opener. Our original production was done by Wilmington Concert Opera in October 2022 and then we did a recording. Girondines tells the story of six real women during the French Revolution, not quite aristocrats but also not commoners, who happened to have more or less the same political leanings, thus the title. Three of them live and continue the legacy of all six, and three of them are killed by the guillotine during the Reign of Terror. I play Charlotte Corday. Sarah Van Sciver, the composer and the most wonderful collaborator, had approached me in the midst of the pandemic. No one was seeing anyone or doing anything other than trying to get by and I said, okay, let’s write an opera! Sarah sent me between 50 and 100 names of historical women, and this got me down the rabbit hole of the Internet, and thinking about Charlotte Corday in whom I was always interested. I also knew that there already existed an opera about her. I started doing research and I found all these other women who happened to live at the same time. They could have all been friends as they had similar ideals, and some of them actually were friends. We know that, historically, that Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun did visit and paint Germaine de Staël in Switzerland; there are these ties that do exist.
So, I wove together the true stories of these six women. There’s nothing in it that’s false except for the fact that they may not have all known each other as well as they do in the opera, but their friendship is specifically what makes this so interesting to me. It is an opera featuring six women in ensemble roles, meaning that they all have an equal amount of stage time, which was very intentional on my part. They each had this visceral connection to their homeland, their families, their careers, their politics. It wasn’t about nuns and religion, and it wasn’t about men. Yes, men are mentioned, we talk about Robespierre, Marat, and Bonaparte, but that is not the overall story. These women do have husbands and sons and they love them, but we don’t spend the time on that; we spend the time on who they are as women. In the opera, Charlotte Corday does murder Marat and gets executed.
Kirsten C. Kunkle (Photo Credit: Rachel Mascari)
It’s a short work, only about 70 minutes; it sounds accessible and is very hummable. There is one piece called “My dear Marie Antoinette” that Elizabeth Vigée Le Brun sings because she’s friends with Marie Antoinette, she was her personal portraitist, and the theme is such an ear worm, among others. That’s a good problem to have! Sarah and I are both very proud of the product and here we are now taking it to the West Coast. I am stage directing as well as choreographing. Sarah is doing music direction; she’s been production manager and she and I worked on ideas for visual projections for this. They are the most amazing visual projections you’ve ever seen, and she put them all together with her beautiful graphic design skills that she has in addition to all of her music skills. She’s also playing piano for the orchestra. We’re all hands on deck and it’s a lot of work. We have two full casts again, twelve women who get to have these roles; five of them are from the original casts.
This makes me think of the famous French Revolution/Reign of Terror opera “Andrea Chenier” but there you have the love story as well, and the protagonists die for their beliefs and for love.
That was such a turbulent time! The sad thing is—and you and I have talked about this before with Sarah—that it resonates with us today because so much of it has not changed for women. Throughout the world there are people trying to fight for their freedoms, and they are not being heard, they are completely disregarded, and the minute they try to speak up they’re considered treasonous and they pay for it with their lives very often. Watch the global news and you see that happen every day. We struggle in this country as well because women are still fighting for a voice. I think both Sarah and I really understood why it’s important to tell this story and we have plans to work together more. I imagine the idea of arts as activism will probably play a major part in what we do.
What other projects are coming up for you?
Right after Girondines, I go straight into Hansel and Gretel and I’m playing the Witch with my company. We’re going to incorporate some things like gingerbread house-making and costumes for kids. I have a Messiah coming up in December. I’m also currently an artist-in-residence for Firelands Symphony. I live in Sandusky, Ohio, and Firelands Symphony is a regional symphony in Huron, Ohio. We’re doing a world premiere by Matthew Kennedy with their choir as well as other pieces. Then I have “Kokothena” with Jerod for CityMusic Cleveland and then we’ll be going into our next season for Wilmington Concert Opera which is called “Voices of Home.” I’m really excited about the gala this year: it’s going to feature singers of various backgrounds, heritages, ethnicities. I’ve been curating the program for all of them, including me and Marisa, to make sure that the pieces speak to what we each want to bring forward about our own heritages. We have a Filipino singer, Jewish singers, Indigenous singers, African American singers, a Chilean mezzo-soprano; we have a lot of different people involved.
Kirsten C. Kunkle and Jonathan Spuhler in Die Fledermaus with Opera Tennessee (Photo Credit: Reggie Thomas)
Our opera for next fall is Die Fledermaus, a comedy, to mix it up. I also had my very first instrumental commission, for flute and piano, premiering at New Music Chicago in February. It’s a consortium. The piece is about the nine muses, and I play with modal harmonies. It was a challenge for me, and every time I take on something and say I may make mistakes but I’m going to try it because I think I can do it, it has usually been a very good decision that opened more doors. If anyone wants advice, this is mine: be willing to try new things and see where it goes; be open to new possibilities. All of the really amazing things that have happened in my career have been because I’ve said, let me try and see what happens.
Did you ever imagine you would have such a career?
Never in my wildest dreams! My mother was my very best friend and she passed away when I was 25 and she was 59. She was the one who cultivated the artistry in me and took me to voice lessons at age 12 and got me to do piano and ballet at a very early age. She was the one who really encouraged me toward opera. At some point I told her that I’d rather write, and she said: “I think you’re in a place where you’re struggling right now and you’re trying to get over this hump of vocal issues. Don’t throw it away just yet; you can still write but why don’t you get through the next two years?” Basically, she told me not to quit before I started. In addition to being my best friend she prepared me so well; she was also my pianist, until she died she played for me all the time. So I ask my husband a lot, can you imagine what my mother would think of this or that? I hope that what I do will spark young people, young Native American children to think outside of “this is what you do, this is what you’re OK to do and ever get to do!” When you’re scared about being pushed to try something new, don’t ask yourself “Why me?” Ask “Why not me?” If I reach one person, that’s wonderful, it’s one person more that I’ve done something for. It comes back to the holistic approach that we were talking about earlier: you want to leave things better than how you found them, whether that’s the Earth or a better life for your children or improving your community or helping the next generation of singers.
Top: Kirsten C. Kunkle (Photo Credit: Rachel Mascari)