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Portland Opera’s New Artistic Adviser Talks Starbucks, YouTube and Wanting to Be a Rapper

Karen Slack: My Essential Seven.

Karen Slack is an opera star who secretly wants to be a rapper.

"My husband says I'm the worst rapper on the planet," she says. "[He] keeps saying, 'You are ridiculous, you need to stop.' It really takes a brilliant mind to be able to put words together in that way—the flow, how they do it, the clever hook."

If there's anybody who knows about musical flow, it's Slack, a soprano with a singing voice as smooth as glass and as rich as gelato. At 18, she became the youngest-ever winner of the Rosa Ponselle International Competition for the Vocal Arts at New York's Alice Tully Hall, which is just one of the many accolades she has accrued. Her incandescent talents have also illuminated Tosca, Aida and Porgy and Bess, and she recently accepted a new role—serving as an artistic adviser to Portland Opera.

Slack, who lives in Philadelphia, has plans for PDX: "I hope to help [general director] Sue Dixon and the organization move into the 21st century, and to be reflective of what the community would love to see on the stage."

WW spoke to Slack about her on and offstage passions, covering everything from poetry to caffeine.

1. My husband

He was my childhood sweetheart. We grew up in Philadelphia together, literally around the corner from each other. He's like, "I knew you were going to be my wife." I'm like, "Oh please," but I guess he was right. I love him, of course—I'm in love with him—but he's also my best friend. He's the greatest guy I've ever met outside of my dad.

2. YouTube

YouTube is the very first thing I turn on in the morning, because I get to catch up on all the political drama that I missed during the day—MSNBC, CNN, PBS, whatever. I get to catch up on all my reality shows, because, of course, when I'm working, I don't get to see everything. I like it all…all the trash. I love it, because it's not my life.

3. The ocean

I love the sea. Through my travels, I've been able to put my toe in the Mediterranean Sea and been able to swim in the Caribbean. My birthday is Sept. 22, and so that's way after Labor Day, when all the beach bums from Atlantic City and Wildwood are gone. I just like to sit on the beach for my birthday and reflect on my year and feel fall in the air. It's very reflective of how we should think. We are all one. We are all connected, just like the water.
4. Museums

Everywhere I go, I try to visit a museum. I love history. That was always my favorite class in school. Being an opera singer, it all makes sense now. You'll be thinking of going to a town and just singing with a symphony, and then you get there and you learn the history of the place and go to these local museums, and you get a better gauge of what that place meant—and means—to people.

5. Live opera and hip-hop

There's nothing like live music, and I think that that's why so many people are mourning the time that we're in—we can't get together, we can't sing together, we can't perform together, we can't be together in that space. There's nothing that can replace the sound of a human operatic voice coming out, pouring out from somewhere—the stage, the orchestra. We must get back to the theater.

6. Black female poets

Nikki Giovanni, Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, Lucille Clifton…I mean, I could just go on and on. I feel connected to them and I feel proud. Specifically, because of the kind of world that we're in right now—with Black Lives Matter and all the movements and Say Her Name—as a community of women, we need to be uplifted. And when I read poetry and words by Black female poets, it helps me understand who I am, what I want to say and have the courage to speak truth—my truth—and to speak freely.

7. Starbucks Caffè Verona coffee

It's essential. It saves lots of lives. It complements chocolate cake, and that's exactly what I love. My day's not going to go well unless I've had a little bit of Caffè Verona. You say you like Starbucks, it's like sacrilege to many people…but there's something about Verona I like.