Praised as expressive, dynamic, and vocally splendid, baritone Michael Kelly is widely sought-after for his riveting interpretations of recital, concert, and operatic repertoire. His latest project is starring in a playful and witty musical adventure that blends opera and cabaret entitled The Pleasing Recollection.
Set in mid-1970s, pre-AIDS New York, The Pleasing Recollection is a nostalgic musical memoir based off the show’s librettist Stephen Kitsakos as he navigates the city as a young man. Through the voice of Kelly, the piece retells his adventures, misadventures, and run-ins with musical titans of the era including Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Larry Kert, and more.
Directed by Murphy Davis and composed by Martin Hennessy, The Pleasing Recollection had two preview performances at The Studios at Key West in Key West, Florida, and it will make it’s New York debut on April 5 at Feinstein’s/54. It will then play at Fire Island Pines on May 29, and a national tour is scheduled to begin this fall.
Instinct caught up with Kelly to talk more about the show, having the opportunity to tell Kitsakos’ story, upcoming projects, and introducing LGBTQ inclusive stories to opera fans across the country.
Michael, thank you for taking some time to chat with me! How excited are you for the world debut of The Pleasing Recollection?
I’m super excited! It’s been a long time coming. We kind of dreamed this up mid-pandemic, so it’s great that it’s finally happening. I love doing one-man shows, especially original material like this that sort of lifts you up out of your seat and makes you feel like you’re a part of this man’s journey. I love telling stories like that, and here we are.
Have you performed at Feinstein’s/54 Below before?
No, this is my first time. I’m from New York and grew up on Long Island, so I know and love that venue and have seen so many things there, but I’m more of an opera singer. The opportunity to sing there is not so common for opera singers, so I’m really looking forward to changing it up and feeling out a different scene, a different crowd, and a different audience. It’s going to be great.
Can you talk about what audiences can expect from the show?
It’s very heartwarming, and there’s this sort of nostalgia to the story. We see an older gay man looking back on his young, sexy, exciting life in New York City at a time when promiscuity and opportunity were kind of finding their access point. He was young enough to flit from scene to scene and experience it all with so much joy, fear, and excitement, and I think that audiences will not only be excited by his naivete, but also his willingness, smartness, and the way he goes about traversing all these experiences.
The Pleasing Recollection is a memoir musical based on the life of Stephen Kitsakos, who is the show’s librettist. Why did you want to be involved with this production, and how is Stephen, in your words, ‘a beautifully realized queer protagonist?’
Yeah, that’s a great question. I was reached out to by the composer/librettist team to do a couple songs that they were creating, but they didn’t know what they wanted to do with them. They had gotten together thinking that maybe it would be like a little song cycle, nothing theatrical. When I got them, I was so interested in what they had written. It was very narrative, and in my opinion, very theatrical and worthy of building out into something bigger. So, I requested that they do more with it. This is based on Stephen’s own life and experiences.
I asked if there are more stories, and he said, ‘Of course. This is my life.’ I said I thought there was definitely more to tell, and he asked what kind of story he should write. I didn’t want to tell an AIDS story because this takes place right when the AIDS epidemic was erupting, and we’ve seen that story. We’ve heard it and we’ve experienced it a lot. I don’t think we need to add a voice to another one of those.
I also didn’t want to tell another coming out story. We’ve seen and heard so much from that side of the queer experience. What I did want to tell is a story about success, love, positivity, experience, and human development from the point of view of a queer protagonist. Let’s do something fun and crazy, especially on the heels of the pandemic when we’ve all been bombarded with bad news. Let’s do something that lifts people up.
Is that what you ultimately hope audiences take away from the show?
Yes, and I hope that they feel as content with their experience in the audience as I think our protagonist does with his own life. He walks into Marie’s Crisis Café after all these years, having played there himself as a young man, and this reminiscence is not a sad one. We don’t know exactly where his lover is. Did he die? Did they separate? We don’t know. They’re older men, so anything is possible. For whatever reason, he walks in this night, and all these memories flood back to him, and they’re all wonderful. So, I want the audience to think about their own lives in that way.
Were you at all familiar with gay culture of the 70s before signing on?
Yes and no. I was born in 1982, so it’s not like I experienced it myself, but I certainly have a lot of gay friends that lived through that time, and I’ve watched a lot of movies and shows that take place during that time too. I’m a sort of an advocate and a collector of our history, and with this, it’s been fun to think about location-based experiences during that time for gay men. The whole story of Stephen growing up in Staten Island, and the cultural difference of just leaving that borough and coming into Manhattan and going to the West Village and Lincoln Center and feeling liberated just by crossing New York Harbor, it’s remarkable to think of how far we’ve come since then.
Also, the things that we continue to struggle with as a community. We’re seeing attacks on us again after we made, what we thought, was such important progress. It was important progress, and we’re still benefiting from that progress, but we’ll never stop feeling a sense of isolation and otherness until we get past a certain point. We haven’t gotten there yet.
The show’s first single, “An Evening at the Theater,” was recently released. Do you know how it’s being received?
I think well. I don’t know specifically because I haven’t seen the listenership numbers, but all my friends that heard it say they love it. It’s fun and interesting to hear this kind of circumstance. We’ve heard a lot of stories about Leonard Bernstein, and we’re about to have a biopic come out about him, which I think will be really fascinating. Plus, with West Side Story coming out again, this is a man who was a huge part of our American identity, but what’s interesting is, this song isn’t about what he did. It’s about encountering him in a bathroom peeing next to him (laughs). I think people were tickled to hear that kind of story and experience.
Have you always had a passion for singing and performing?
Yes! I’ve been in the arts since I was four years old. My mother was an amateur ballet dancer, so she brought me to her ballet classes, and I’d be coloring in the back just waiting for her to be done. One day, I got up and started to imitate what I was seeing. I very quickly got snatched up by that dance teacher, so I started dancing ballet. Then I started playing an instrument, I’m a saxophone player, and then I started acting.
When I was in high school, that’s when I discovered that I had a voice as well. As soon as I started singing, that kind of took over. I was very interested in classical music, even as a saxophonist, so opera made the most sense to me at the time, but I have the kind of voice that is flexible and can traverse all these different styles. So, through the years I’ve done musical theater, I’ve done some pop music on top of all my operatic performances.
It’s been an interesting little journey to now combine art forms. I’ve been calling it ‘cabopera’ (laughs). It’s a genre that really doesn’t exist, but I think Martin and Stephen have created something new, which I think is also what’s exciting not only for me as a performer, to be able to tap into all the things that I’ve done in the past in one show, but also to add something new to the canon. That American opera can develop, combine, and attach itself to the traditions that we are known and celebrated for.
You made headlines a few years ago when you starred as Hannah Before in the Manhattan debut of the New York City Opera production of As One, which is about one of opera’s few transgender protagonists. What did you take away from that experience?
Oh, goodness. I am so proud to be a part of that show. At the end of March, there was a big celebration for the opera itself because it’s had 50 productions, and it’s been performed on every continent. It premiered in 2014. For the subject matter to be able to catch that many audiences and for it to be performed in places where this kind of story is very controversial, it’s extraordinary. To be a small part of it, I’ve been in five productions of it since 2019, I feel very honored and privileged to be able to tell this story and to represent the trans community.
I recognize that I’m not a trans person myself, but my hope is that in having done this, I’ve opened the door so that trans people can be more present in the artistic sphere and to tell their stories. That’s my hope. I would gladly step aside, step away, and never do it again so that a trans singer can do it, and there are trans singers that are starting to take on the roles. It was not conceived for trans voices originally, so it’s had this moment of difficulty in including trans performers, and there were also very few trans opera singers at the time. There are more now, which is great.
What I take away from my experiences in doing As One, I feel like I have connected with the LGBTQ community in such a more deep and profound way than I had before. I feel like I’ve made extraordinary friendships because of playing this role, and it has made me grow as a person in terms of inclusivity and understanding the full rainbow that unity is. I’m grateful for that. I’m also very excited about the beauty of the piece. It’s extraordinarily beautiful, and it’s not so much a trans story as it is a human story. Anyone can relate to it. It just happens to be about a trans person and their development.
What are some future career goals you would like to accomplish?
Here’s the thing. Fame is not a goal, it’s a destination. It’s somewhere you arrive. I’m not interested in it if it’s achieved, and I think that’s a wonderful thing because that opens up so many doors for me to create in the way that I want to. As I’ve developed through my career, I’m finding more of those opportunities, like The Pleasing Recollection, where I’m a part of the creative process. I’m doing even more of that now because I’m a writer as well.
I’ve had some poems of mine set to music by John Glover and Ben Moore, and I’m writing librettos for three opera projects right now. I’m excited to continue in that direction, both as a performer and a creator. I think that sort of marrying those parts of my artistic identity is very important to me, and I hope as I do more of that, I can get to a place where I can choose the projects that I participate in and the people that I work with.
You will also be appearing on a new album called Gathering: Songs by Ben Moore, which explores LGBTQ themes. Can you tell us more about that, and when will the album drop?
April 22! I’m so proud to be a part of this beautiful project. The two songs I perform on the album are from a cycle Ben Moore wrote for me back in 2011 called Love Remained. The title comes from the title of the poem that I wrote about coming out to my brother Christmas Day on Waikiki Beach in Hawaii, which Ben set so beautifully. The other song included on the album is a truncated transcription of Randy Roberts Potts’ “It Gets Better Project” video, who happens to be Oral Roberts’ grandson. The text is a letter to his Uncle Ronnie who had committed suicide.
Ronnie was gay and likely killed himself out of shame. Randy is also gay, and the letter is about his wish that he could have saved his life somehow by coming out to him. It was the “It Gets Better Project” that inspired the four-song cycle, which also includes a setting of Joel Burns’ video and a transcription of Harvey Milk’s famous “Hope” speech. It’s an extraordinary song cycle that I’ve always been extremely proud to have created with Ben. Proud particularly because of its personal message of queerness and the power of these texts to inspire and change minds in a myriad of ways.
Ben is just one of those composers that can capture the deepest emotions and make it feel like the best hug you’ve ever gotten, and then turn around and make you cackle with his perfect comedic timing. I just adore his songs. This album features a number of my dear friends and colleagues who happen to be some of the most extraordinary and celebrated artists in the business, including Liz Callaway, Alexander Gemignani, and opera superstars Matthew Polenzani, Janai Brugger, Joseph Lattanzi and Isabel Leonard. Brian Zeger accompanied all the singers for the album, and he also happens to be Ben’s husband. There’s a lot of history here, and this album is a long time in the making.
Before we wrap up, are there any other upcoming projects or anything else you’d like to mention or plug?
I have a solo album with guitarist David Leisner where we recorded Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin with guitar instead of piano accompaniment, which David actually created a new arrangement for, and that should be coming out in the fall. I also have an album with Eric Shore of his own music, I’m on Ben Moore’s new album, and Victoria bond, who is a composer as well, she wrote a cycle of songs for me and I’m on her new album that’s coming out. There’s a lot. I also gave the world premiere of Laura Kaminsky and Kimberly Reed’s new opera Hometown to the World, and we’ll be announcing New York performance dates in November. That’ll be exciting.