Lyric baritone Kevin Grace '94 has a passion for telling stories through opera, musical theater, and conversation with friends. His stories are themselves metaphors for the man.
Kevin Grace sits at a corner table in the newly renovated Clewell Dining Hall, with its sky blue walls, white wainscoting, and chestnut brown faux-tin ceiling tiles. Only the thin-planked wood floor remains original. Grace often hung out with friends here during his undergraduate years at Moravian College. The space, though significantly updated, is basically the same as it was in the early ’90s, he notes. But today’s conversation is different: Grace, a lyric baritone with a wide breadth of vocal talent, tells stories of performances at Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, the Kimmel Center—and even in a cab.
“During the 2008–2009 season when the financial crisis hit, I didn’t have much work,” Grace begins. “A friend suggested Babe’s Taxi in Fort Lee, New Jersey, so I drove a cab for about six months. Wednesday is matinee day, and I got a call to pick up a woman at her apartment building and drive her to the theater. She came out to the cab wearing big sunglasses and a scarf. She had an air of elegance about her and looked to be in her 80s. It was her first day out to see a matinee since her husband died a month ago, she told me. They would go to a Broadway show together every Wednesday.”
“On their first date, they saw South Pacific, she said. I happened to be in callbacks for South Pacific at the time. ‘What part?’ she asked. ‘Emile,’ I said. Then she asked if I would sing ‘This Nearly Was Mine.’ I did, and she started to sob.”
“That connection—and it happens on the stage—that’s what I’m passionate about as an artist.”
“And telling stories.”
Big Music and a Little Boy
“When I was 5 years old, I went to the drive-in with my family to see Star Wars. I heard John Williams’ opening sequence, and I immediately connected with the music. I fell in love. As a young kid, I saw this, but I didn’t know what to do with it. It was a subconscious connection.”
“The conscious connection came in fourth grade. Middle school music teacher David Seward held an assembly to display and demonstrate the instruments that students could take up in fifth grade. They brought out the brass instruments, and I sat just staring at them—the tubing, the mechanisms, the sounds. I was a pretty small kid, and what did I choose? The tuba.”
Finding His Voice
“In high school, I met the choral director, Francis. He looked like Ben Franklin and always drove Corvettes. We called him Harp. I don’t know why. He had a knack for connecting with students. Everyone wanted to be in Harp’s choir, including me.”
“One day at rehearsal, Francis had a new cassette tape. It was from The Phantom of the Opera, and he played “The Music of the Night,” sung by Michael Crawford. I started joking around and mimicking Crawford. Then Francis said, “sing it again.” A few days later, he asked if I wanted to enter a vocal competition—the top prize was $1,000—so I decided to do it. I won. And that’s when I realized I might have a future I music.”
An Artist Enclave
“I came to Moravian with the euphonium, and I could sing.”
“I began studying voice with Bronwyn ‘Bonnie’ Fix-Keller, a Philadelphia-based mezzo soprano and pianist, who coached me in the bel canto style. Several of the faculty came from the cities, so we had hands-on side-by-side exposure to professional performers. It was an amazing experience.”
“Perhaps the most profound aspect of studying music at Moravian College was the immeasurable presence of Dick and Monica Schantz [then-codirectors of the music department and music directors of Central Moravian Church]. South Campus was a special place. You walked into Brethren’s, and you somehow felt artistic. It was like being in an artist enclave.”
"I can't imagine not performing. I can't envision not being an artist," says Grace. "So if my voice goes, who knows, maybe I'll revisit the trombone."
“I met my best friend, Erich Joella, here. He’s a very successful music teacher. Erich has endured with me through all kinds of twists and turns in my career. Today, I’m practically part of his family.”
The Beat of His Own Drum
“I was with the New York City Opera in the extra chorus, and I did small roles. I liked it that way because it allowed me to perform as a soloist with regional companies. So when the City Opera asked me to audition for a full-time position—which came with a union contract—I declined."
“Everyone has their own fingerprint of a career.”
[Grace has sung with several opera companies; he’s played Sharpless in Madama Butterfly, Schaunard in La bohème, Count Carl-Magnus in A Little Night Music, and the Wolf in St. Petersburg Opera’s production of Into the Woods, among other roles. He’s done choral work and performed as a soloist with orchestras, and he is the cantor and choral conductor at St. Leo’s Catholic Church in Elmwood Park, New Jersey.]
“As a freelance vocal artist, you have to constantly reinvent yourself and tap into all the skills you have. This past December, the Capital Repertory Theatre did a production of Camelot and were looking for someone for the role of Sir Lionel who could play instruments, so I dusted off my trombone, euphonium, and trumpet. And I got the job.”
“It’s difficult. I have to audition for roles constantly. You have to get used to the word no. And when the gigs don’t come, you have to figure out how to make ends meet. I substitute-teach, sing at weddings and funerals, and do extra work on television shows such as Blue Bloods and Law & Order—I’m always the detective in the background pouring coffee.”
The Next Act
“My passion is about telling stories through operas and musicals. Stories about human experience, the human condition. When I’m singing on the stage, I’m projecting the emotion of those stories, especially with opera. I want to make that connection with the audience that allows them to connect the story to something in their own life or history. I can’t imagine not performing. I can’t envision not being an artist. So if my voice goes, who knows, maybe I’ll revisit the trombone.”
Photo caption: Kevin Grace as Count Carl-Magnus in A Little Night Music, Photo credit: Jeff Lewis