HearTOGETHER Podcast

“If I’m not what you want, go find what you need…" with Karen Slack

November 04, 2022 The Philadelphia Orchestra / Khadija Mbowe Season 3 Episode 2
“If I’m not what you want, go find what you need…" with Karen Slack
HearTOGETHER Podcast
More Info
HearTOGETHER Podcast
“If I’m not what you want, go find what you need…" with Karen Slack
Nov 04, 2022 Season 3 Episode 2
The Philadelphia Orchestra / Khadija Mbowe

New host Khadija Mbowe is joined by esteemed soprano Karen Slack for a no-holds-barred conversation about excellence, expectations, and self-esteem. 


[03:25] Fairytale love story

[05:19] Music in the household

[07:29] Veterinary dreams

[8:27] Journey into classical through CAPA (Creative and Performing Arts High School)

[14:11] Undiagnosed learning challenges

[15:07] The double-edged sword of winning the Rosa Ponselle scholarship 

[18:45] Approach to mentorship

[27:09] See the need, fill the need 

[29:03] #KikiKonversations

[33:14] Who heals the healers; unrealistic expectations placed on black women

[36:49] The struggle for self-care 

Music from this episode:

  • Hannibal, Healing Tones, Karen Slack with The Philadelphia Orchestra  
  • Bizet, Habanera, Denyce Graves Price, Bewilderment  (with text from Langston Hughes), Michelle Cann and Karen Slack
  • Barnes, Taking Names,  Karen Slack

Links from this episode: 

The Philadelphia Orchestra’s HearTOGETHER series is generously supported by lead corporate sponsor Accordant Advisors. Additional major support has been provided by the Otto Haas Charitable Trust.

Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

New host Khadija Mbowe is joined by esteemed soprano Karen Slack for a no-holds-barred conversation about excellence, expectations, and self-esteem. 


[03:25] Fairytale love story

[05:19] Music in the household

[07:29] Veterinary dreams

[8:27] Journey into classical through CAPA (Creative and Performing Arts High School)

[14:11] Undiagnosed learning challenges

[15:07] The double-edged sword of winning the Rosa Ponselle scholarship 

[18:45] Approach to mentorship

[27:09] See the need, fill the need 

[29:03] #KikiKonversations

[33:14] Who heals the healers; unrealistic expectations placed on black women

[36:49] The struggle for self-care 

Music from this episode:

  • Hannibal, Healing Tones, Karen Slack with The Philadelphia Orchestra  
  • Bizet, Habanera, Denyce Graves Price, Bewilderment  (with text from Langston Hughes), Michelle Cann and Karen Slack
  • Barnes, Taking Names,  Karen Slack

Links from this episode: 

The Philadelphia Orchestra’s HearTOGETHER series is generously supported by lead corporate sponsor Accordant Advisors. Additional major support has been provided by the Otto Haas Charitable Trust.

INTRO MUSIC (00:07) Hannibal, Healing Tones, Karen Slack with The Philadelphia Orchestra 


Hello. Hi, and welcome back to the HearTOGETHER podcast from The Philadelphia Orchestra and Kimmel Center, Inc. This is a space where we hope you'll find home in this art we all love. I'm your new host, Khadija Mbowe, and I describe myself as a sociocultural content creator, classically trained soprano—though I have been known to sing some jazz— and loving provocateur and I'm here to facilitate some heartfelt, engaging, disruptive conversations with artists, activists, and everyone in between. That's you! 

That heavenly sound you heard in the intro was our guest today, esteemed soprano, Karen Slack, giving the world premiere of Hannibal's Healing Tones with The Philadelphia Orchestra in 2019. I first met Karen in 2020 through the BANFF Opera in the 21st Century program, a summer program that connects young artists with some pretty fantastic mentors, Karen, of course, being one of them. Now, because it was during peak pandemic isolation, we never got to meet in person.


But as you'll see through this episode, we've managed to find a pretty good bond. Either way. I like to think of her as my rich auntie with a career in life that I aspire to. She travels the world performing in operas, giving recitals, and mentoring the next generation of singers. She's been the artistic advisor for Portland Opera. She was in the Tyler Perry movie For Colored Girls and has a bunch of her own interesting solo projects like #SayTheirNames and #KikiKonversations. We'll get into those a bit later. Basically, this woman is booked and busy, but she always ends up home in Philadelphia where she was born and raised, *pause for laughter*, and where she attended the creative and performing arts high school, lovingly known as CAPA, at the same time as famous alumni Quest Love and Black Thought of The Roots and the members of Boys II Men.


Today, Karen balances her very glamorous career with a pretty regular home life. She lives with her two cats and her husband. And though you might expect that she'd end up with a fellow musician, his gift is in visual arts. But there's no question that these two are soulmates. They literally grew up together, became friends when they were eight years old, and have still been together to this day. It's so adorable. And look, this episode Karen and I are gonna talk about some big topics, music, education, artistry, the state of the world. You know how this goes. So first I thought it could be kind of cute to take a teensy moment to highlight their love story. Here we go.


What do y'all do for fun? Like human people?

KAREN SLACK (03:29):

We love wine tasting. We go to hip hop concerts, underground hip hop concerts a lot. We go to a lot of live music. Um, my husband is a definite, as you call 'em, dirty backpacker <laugh>.


They're like, Oh, they call it a dirty backpacker?

KAREN SLACK (03:46):

That's what I call 'em. Yeah, cuz they all look grungy and like, you know, cuz it's not about the whole shiny, it's not the shiny hip hop cult. It is like real grimy, kinda like the beats of grimy, Like everything just pure essence of what hip hop is. It's like, you know, spitting and free styling and ciphering and like, you know what I mean? Like, and I, I enjoy that because I'm still in music, like I'm still doing it. But it's, it's more of like who I am where I come from, like the culture. And so that's something that we enjoy to, to do together. And then nobody cares that I fancy schmancy whatever. Like, I just go and I'm like everybody else and just spending time together. He's my best friend. He knows me better than anybody.


Ugh. You've come full circle too then, cuz it's, you're still doing all the things. You have all this career, all this, but you're right back with your best friend since you were eight listening to hip hop. Oh, it's so beautiful. I just got chills. That was so lovely. <laugh>. Yes,

KAREN SLACK (04:47):

Yes, yes, yes, yes. I'm really lucky.


Walk me and those that don't know you through the initial timeline of you beginning music and going in through that. And then starting to find your own sort of voice as you got into classical music, if you can, if that makes sense.

KAREN SLACK (05:07):

Sure, sure. I mean, I grew up in North Philly. Um, I always call it the center of Philadelphia, universe. All good things come from North Philly. So


I grew up in a, in a very supportive family. I never thought I'd be an opera singer. I played the violin in the fourth grade for like three or four months. I absolutely hated it. <laugh>, you know. But I, but again, like back in those days, all the schools had orchestra string programs, choir, art. You know, and I had, I took all of them and I always had this voice, this big kinda loud voice. But because I didn't grow up necessarily in a, in a religious household, I didn't grow up like going to church every Sunday, singing in the choir. Didn't have that background cuz my parents were like much more liberal, you know, that's a bad word now, but, you know, very open and free and kind of like, you know, you'll find your way cuz they grew up in more strictly religious backgrounds and they didn't want me to have that kind of experience. Um, so there was always like jazz, blues, r & b, hip-hop. I grew up in the golden age hip-hop, like always music in my life. But I remember listening to like Beastie Boys and Straight Outta Compton and knowing every single word,


<laugh>, Straight Outta Compton, crazy name, Ice Cube <laugh>. No. Oh, I remember when I first,

KAREN SLACK (06:31):

My parents were just like, close the door, you know, I mean this is like pre-Biggie, pre-Nas and Nas is my favorite rapper or whatever. But you know, like that's my, that's my background. So anyway, so I'm in the fourth grade and not really liking work string. I wish somebody would've given me a cello. I think my life would've been different. Uh, but I, my music teacher, you know, I could always count like solfeggio, re recite, read music and do all this. I had a great ear. And so he let me lead The Star-Spangled Banner in the sixth grade because I had this big voice. And I still never think about, I would go into classical music or any kind of music at all. ‘Cause I always wanted to be a veterinarian cuz I love cats and dogs and pets and all that.


Yes, you have two cats, you do <laugh> always

KAREN SLACK (07:16):

To, in rotation. Like, you know,



KAREN SLACK (07:19):

Oh yeah. When one goes on to glory, we get another one. So <laugh>,


Well, when one goes on to glory, I love that <laugh>. So you wanted to be a veterinarian.

KAREN SLACK (07:29):

Yes. I wanted to be a veterinarian and my father worked at University of Pennsylvania at the hospital in the security department. So I could go to UPenn for free, which is one of the leading, um, veterinarian medicine schools. And so I always had my idea that I was gonna, that I was gonna go there until I got into the seventh grade and my music teacher was like, Karen, you gotta take the singing thing seriously. You have a beautiful voice, you have a great ear. And I was like, No, I'm not trying to sing. Cuz singing was something that I just did cause I loved it. And I wanted to be Whitney Houston and Anita Baker. You know, growing up in that era of, listen, my, I listened to whatever, my parents listened to Motown. And so my voice wasn't like those beautiful artists, but I loved to like sing to the radio. Um, and so anyway, she twisted my arm to audition for the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, which is our big arts high school here. And I got in on the spot,


Come on, got in on the spot. Ooh

KAREN SLACK (08:31):

<laugh> singing a Whitney Houston song, The Greatest Love of All. Like, I think every, every black girl sang that


<laugh> or Hold on, let's clarify. Tried to sing that <laugh>. So when you got into the high school, this performing arts high school, was it a lot of choir? Was it when you started to get introduced to classical music as well? Or is it still like, well it's Quest Love and, and Boys II Men and all them are here, so we're in the hallways singing acapella and just harmonizing Like <laugh>.

KAREN SLACK (09:00):

No, well it was that too. But, um, Mr. David King, he was the man, he was the person that he would play opera every morning at 7:30. He would blast it. And like before, before we started class, I mean Jessye Norman, and Maria Callas, Franco Corelli, like all the greats. So my ab so my um, palette for opera singing was always very, very high. Right. And when he played Maria Callas singing “Casta Diva”, I heard her and saw her and I was like, Oh my God, I wanna be able to do that. And then was sealed the deal for me was him playing Jessye Norman singing, uh, “Liebestod”


Ooh, don't talk to me about Jessye Norman singing “Liebestod”. Because I do not appreciate Wagner's antisemitism and I know a lot of us don't. Yes. Hello. That's just facts. Yes. And I try not to indulge in him too much because of that, especially cuz I'm not in classical music. But that recording with Karajan doing the conducting? Yeah. I can't not watch it.

KAREN SLACK (10:07):

I know it's, it's everything and yeah, it's transformative. You're right. It's just, you're like, how is it that possible that that is happening that moment that that two human, all the humans on the stage, everybody in the theater, cuz this, it's a whole experience. It's not just two people. It's not just a singer and a conductor. It is the entire orchestra. It's the audience. It is a participatory like art form in order to make it magical. You know, like I think that we don't talk, talk about that enough, um, because we like to put people on God status and in the ivory tower, but that's a whole other conversation. Like


We, we'll get to the parasocial <laugh>. We can, if we have time, we'll talk parasocial relationships. But you're in this school, you have this teacher introducing you to opera all of this rich, luxurious, dramatic, expansive sound. Especially for someone that's told your whole life, Oh, you got a big voice. And then also someone who knows you have a big presence. Like you just know that about yourself. Like, is that, is that what drew you to it after a while? Or what was that initial like? Okay. I think if there was an inciting incident, let's say.

KAREN SLACK (11:21):

Yes, it was, well it was those two women. And then, you know, we were learning all the big choral pieces. Mr. King, we sang Brahms “Verity”, Mozart “Requiem”. Like that was our education. Like he was taking all these kids who were from the inner city or Philadelphia and wherever, wherever you were a part of, you know, in the city. Most of us not having had the background of, of doing anything classical operatic. And we, he was training us in, you know, how to breathe, how to read music, you know, how to, how to, um, speak these languages. Like all, all this stuff. Like he never, he never was like, ‘Oh, you're, you're a a black kid from the inner city. You can't do it.’ No. The expectation that we had to be great. And so that was, that was from day one. Like Mr. King didn't play around and you know, and also I think my class was the first year that opera company of Philadelphia back, it was called Opera Company of Philadelphia back then.


Now it's Opera Philly. Um, I was a part of the Sounds of learning. My year was the first year that they opened up the rehearsal, the dress rehearsals, now it's standard. And the year that I did it, Denyce Graves was singing her Carmen, I think she might have been debut in the role or about to go and sing it at the Met or something like that. And I was 16 years old and I said, that's, I wanna do that someday. So that was the moment for me that solidified cuz I saw this beautiful black woman up there, title, role, command, this stage. I didn't know, I didn't understand, of course cause didn't have the education to understand what I was witnessing. But I knew that I want to be, to be able to do that someday.


Now after a description like that, I couldn't not include a clip of Denyce Graves performing something from Bizet’s Carmen. I'm not cruel. So here is Denyce Graves singing “Habanera” at The Richard Tucker 20th Anniversary Gala in 1996.

MUSIC (13:14): Bizet, Habanera, Denyce Graves 

KAREN SLACK (14:11):

I always struggled with reading in math all the time. And not that I was ever diagnosed with any kind of like learning disability, cuz I was always really, um, always worked really hard. But I did have some kind of, some learning challenges. So I didn't score always high on my tests because I had this thing, whatever this was. And I slightly dyslexic a little, um, because I always per persevered and pushed through like if things were harder, I just studied a little bit more and never thinking that I actually really had some kind of, some challenges. But I think it's important to speak about that because I have to learn these massive scores and memorize and do all of these things through whatever challenges that I have. Like, I've been able to continue to do that. But, um, but again, I didn't score very high, so I didn't always get, like all the big scholarships and stuff.


I always had the talent, the voice. But the other things, of course they put more emphasis on. So I needed money to go back to school and I auditioned for The Rosa Ponselle International Competition for the Vocal Arts, um, big competition back in the nineties. And I won $50,000. I won the competition to move to New York and study privately. So that was really where I like got the real taste of what, what an opera career. And I was 18. Like what the heck, <laugh>, because they were kind of training me to be the next Rosa Ponselle. Ponselle made her big Metropolitan a debut at 21 in La Forza del Destino, which is a big girl role. Like that is they, people don't do that anymore. That was very early 1900 way of training, um, of singers. We don't train singers that way anymore. You know, where you live with your maestro, you learn all your roles or they put them in your throat. Like there's no time for that anymore. But, um, so the way I was being trained in the repertoire that I was singing did not fit in with, with my age and what I should have been singing. And so I did know that part. And then when I got to Curtis, um, I instituted music then that was where I learned, oh, you can't, you're not supposed to sing all these big grand operatic arias. Learn a art song <laugh>.


Like the, that's cause that's a trap. I wanna just quickly as a tangent, when you're a young singer that has a big voice, especially, I can only speak from my experience of being a black singer with a bigger voice. Sometimes people get a little too excited about what you can do or what you're capable of doing before you even know. Like when I tell you I didn't start to get Mozart, I should have sang Mozart way earlier than I did. There was little bits here, but there weren't enough. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>,

KAREN SLACK (16:49):

That's a real thing. I'm, I'm glad that you said that because they hear the color of the voice.



KAREN SLACK (16:56):

And the si and the size and weight of the voice. And then they go, Oh, you should be singing Puccini and Verdi and what else other stuff. And it's like, no, no, no, no, no. That's the trappings of, of, you know, of modern day, you know, training. You know, it's like, yeah, well the voice probably will develop into that. But when I'm like 40, not when I'm 22 or 23, you know, and again, the training of artists, how we train artists in 21st, in the 21st century for a old art form. How are we doing that?


Do you have any, any uh, any observations, any critiques, any suggestions?

KAREN SLACK (17:37):

I do. I, I think that, um, I don't think we're always doing it well because of course profit is a gloomy cloud over the art form. It's that they have to get so many students into a school in order to, to pay for the education, for the functioning of the place, the whatever that is. And so we're having quantity over quality. We're training so many people for a couple of spots and, and that returning out artists who are not all, all the way, are not given all the attention that they need. It takes a long time to build a technique. It is tedious. It is every day. And in that way I will say that the system of educating artists needs to be blown up. Now the industry is something different because if you blow it up, it's very difficult to try to, to try to build it back up. But the institution of how we train artists? Absolutely. Blow up the curriculum and start over again cuz it ain't working.


I Yeah. Someone who came through that curriculum. I understand what you mean. Would you say that that's also why you've gotten more into, or have always been into mentoring as well for other artists, especially like young black artists that might be coming up that don't really know how to navigate the space necessarily?

KAREN SLACK (19:06):

Yes, absolutely. I, I am definitely, when I mentor, I leave from a place of ‘What is it that I wish I had had when I was that age?’. Um, I want you all to be able to ask the questions because you are even more informed than I was. Cause I started so early, you know, I just started so young. Yeah. It is all very important to me. The, the mentorship, um, the ‘keeping it real’, being real, speaking about my own successes, and I don't wanna say failures, that's not what I wanna say. Or choices that I could have made and done differently. But because I didn't have someone to be able to bounce ideas off of or to be too afraid or ashamed to express that I wanted a career more than what they had told me I should aspire to. Like, I, I, I, that's how I mentor everybody from those spaces of like, ‘Tell me what you want and we'll figure out how to make it work’.


And it doesn't have to look like the way that your teachers said, you know, I want to be able to blow up the idea that there's only one way to be successful. Like, you have to sing in all the A houses, you have to sing it all with all the best orchestras and all the things. And that's the only, the career is the only career that we acknowledge as having arrived. And I just, I I think we should be better than that. Like we should do better. We should be better. Yes, absolutely. Those careers are, it takes a lot to get there, right? It takes a lot of sacrifice, a lot of commit. But that, but just cuz you don't have that doesn't mean that you lack anything. It's just the luck of the draw. And I think that we need to, we need to talk about those things more.


It's like, again, the whole idea of like, that is a part of like the supremacy of the whole situation is that we only see the international as the career. Like, and we, I think we should do more. We should do better. We should be better. And also to fill a need, fill a void, a need. I don't wanna be a mentor like everybody else. I wanna be Karen Slack-mentor style. Nobody can do that except me. So I'm just gonna be me and I'm gonna give it to you the way you, I feel like we've come up with together. And if it works, fine. If it doesn't, we'll figure something else out. Or you can find another mentor that's <laugh>. I'm never, I'm never ashamed of me. Like, if this is not what you want, go find what you need.


That's, I mean, that's fair. But I wanna say then speaking to that need, cuz you're, I, I think about that a lot. Like, okay, even with my siblings, like my older siblings weren't there for me the way I needed someone. So I'm gonna try that with my younger siblings. But going back to when you were 18 mm-hmm. <affirmative> thought, I forgot, but I didn't <laugh>

KAREN SLACK (21:56):

Love it.


What did you think that you needed more than anything when you were that age? You're 18, you win this big competition. And then I understand that your mom had passed away, but I don't know if that was, it was before, it was around that time as well, wasn't it?

KAREN SLACK (22:14):

Well, yeah, my mom was sick. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> the whole class, high school. And then I went to competition in ‘94. My mother passed away a year later, so yeah. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>.


So you're in this city, <laugh> where I'm assuming you don't know anyone No. In this competition, you were just like, well, I'mma just try this and see what happens. I need money for school. Here's $50,000 and here you go. Oh wow. Okay. Thanks. And then they kicked you out for wanting to take space, Is that correct?

KAREN SLACK (22:48):

Yes. Well, I was sitting in the offices of, um, a very big agent at the time at Columbia Artist Management. And she told me I was gonna do these roles and this role and this thing. And I was like, I have no idea what this woman is talking about because that is not how I was being trained and this program, you know? And, and also I just knew that I was like, I don't even know what she's saying. I think it's, I think I need to at least know what it is that she's saying that I'm gonna do, you know, moving forward. And so I just realized that it wasn't, I wasn't ready for the career. And so I went and told the, um, the woman who was running the foundation that I did not wanna make my Lincoln Center recital debut at Alice Tully Hall, which was the, like, after the year and a half of being in the program, I was supposed to make my big debut. And I said I didn't want to, I didn't feel ready. And so she kicked me out, <laugh> kicked me out of the, um, of my program in New York, sent me packing back to Philadelphia, which thank God wasn't very far. But, um, yeah, but again, it is all a part of my journey, right. Who would, how would I know that I wasn't right? Why didn't I just go, Okay, you really doe-eyed and just went along with what they said. 


Because that's 18, like 19, even just, especially like losing a parent, you're 19. Like, I don't know how, if I would've been brave enough to quote unquote ‘let people down’ in that way, if that makes sense.

KAREN SLACK (24:15):

Right? Absolutely. And my, and that, I think by that time my mom hadn't quite, she hadn't passed away, but she was, you know, very, very sick. So I was really dealing with, I don't know, I'm just like, who is that girl? I need her back. Like sometimes I'm like, I, I <laugh>, I know too much and I need that girl that's like, ‘um, well I don't think’, you know, but also I think that that has also held me back in certain ways too. But that, but later on in the career. But yeah, maybe that was a 19 year old was like, ‘Yeah, I don't know what this lady's saying and I think I should know a little bit and yeah, I'm just not gonna do that.’


Instead, Karen enrolled at Philadelphia's most prestigious music school, The Curtis Institute of Music from which she graduated in 2002. Coming up is a clip of her performing with fellow Curtis alum and faculty member Michelle Cann. This is “Bewilderment” by Florence Price with text from Langston Hughes.

MUSIC (25:49): Price, Bewilderment  (with text from Langston Hughes), Michelle Cann and Karen Slack


There are a lot of things to love, appreciate, admire, and just obsess about. When it comes to Karen Slack, the creative diversity of her career is probably top five. When opera houses were shutter during the peak of the covid 19 pandemic, restless artists used the time to experiment. For Karen, this looked like a lot of different projects on her popular Facebook Live talk show, #KikiKonversations, or #KikiKonvos for short, Karen invited fellow concert music industry insiders, like five-time Emmy winning composer Laura Karpman and jazz legend Terrence Blanchard to share their experiences through candid, lively, heartfelt, hilarious and meaningful conversations. Karen also developed #SayTheirNames, a virtual song-movie, presenting songs and readings, highlighting the brave, sometimes forgotten women at the forefront of social movements like emancipation, civil rights, and of course say her name. And the ball has only just started rolling.

KAREN SLACK (27:09):

I took on a new manager, uh, an additional manager who is able to push these projects that I wanna do. I'm starting to speak about the things that I wanna do, and I hope Philly Orchestra comes. And cuz I got lots of ideas and lots of things that I, that I wanna do that are relevant for the time, that are all the things that check off all of their boxes of, of all the mission statements that everybody said that they were gonna do. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, but also excellence, high art, um, are artists who's passionate about pushing more narratives in so that more people can see themselves and not just seeing themselves like, Okay, I'm this person. Like I check all the boxes for this character. No, the stories are impactful because they're human, right? Human-centered stories, but there, and there is more space to do that kind of work.


So I don't know how I got here, but again, it's that kind of like that fearlessness that I have that ki- well -ish that kind of like the truth, right? Always just, if I'm leading from that space, I never feel apologetic about being that person and seeing what the need is and seeing where things are not. I'm very good at that. My, my friend calls a, you're a great manifestor. I'm like, No, I can assess a space and be able to know what, and maybe that's a gift and know what, what, what needs to be filled. Now it's somebody else's responsibility to support me in that, but I'm always good at knowing when to come. What, what is missing somewhere. I have that gift. I, I lean, I definitely claim that


There's been a lot of stuff that you've been doing on your own that are still adjacent to opera and music, but are also your personality. So I kind of wanted to talk about some of those things. Firstly, just the quick, the fun #KikiKonversations, because you were doing those for a while. How did that start about, What was, what was the goal for that for you?

KAREN SLACK (29:07):

Wow. Well, it was just to have fun. I wanted to take you back to how we, how we are when we're on a gig. Not necessarily like interviewing people just as fun. And so I called a couple people and was like, Hey, I have this idea. I wanna do this thing, this Facebook Live. And people were like, Okay, great. I, I'll do it with you. And then J’Nai, who's my dear friend, Bridges and I did the first combos and everyone was like, ‘Oh my God, you are so amazing in that space.’ I'm like, I don't know what the heck I'm doing. <laugh>, I don't know. But I said, okay. And then Terence Blanchard, everyone knows Terence and his wife Robin, also manager was like, We're going next, we're gonna go next. And I was like, I don't even know what I'm doing. Like I, I was like, I'm not even good yet.


And they're like, Robin's like, you're amazing. You're great, you're great. And so I just kept cranking him out. And then when George Floyd was murdered on national television, it changed everything because the conversations that I was having privately with my fellow artists, the black artists specifically, we, we were forced to have in public. I just felt like, I think it was like that the, the um, video was on television and then like convos was supposed to come on like two days later and I'm like, we cannot drink and laugh and Kiki and not, and, and the whole world is imploding. Like I was just not gonna do that. So I just was like, I'm gonna go full first in to talking about, um, what it's like to be an artist of color, specifically black. I'm gonna be specific to my, to with my fellow artists when, when I have the platform to do that.


Because it also, like, the thing that I think I appreciate so much about you beyond all the other things I've mentioned is that it doesn't seem like you're someone that's afraid of trying new things, and the truth <laugh>, like I <laugh>, like, it just seems like even if it's not necessarily what you're quote unquote ‘supposed to do’, like this activism that you started kind of accidentally falling in, I guess maybe as well, just by having these conversations, What was that like for you? Like all of a sudden going not just from artists, but also artists and now I'm speaking for a lot of people and a lot of people wanna hear what I have to say about this specific moment.

KAREN SLACK (31:32):

You know, at first I was just like, cuz again, the naivete, like not really knowing, just going in and not having all of the experience, right? Because experience and also means baggage. It's all the stuff that has happened to you. All the things. And so I was just going and like, I don't have any fear because I always, I'm always living in a place of truth. And so I just live with that honesty and truth. Um, because that's my truth. You can't tell me my truth is a lie when it's my truth. That's why I'm living it every day. Like, and so, um, at first it was great and then the notoriety was great because I was getting the attention of people that may, I may not had, had their attention before, or people who were not watching me or people who didn't really see me in that way just saw me as a voice, as a soprano, you know, or someone that they didn't hire. Okay. That's a whole other situation of like now having the attention of people who ignored you and wanna be on your platform because they


Say that part,

KAREN SLACK (32:31):

Right? Cuz they know that that's the place to be and #Konvos. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> was and still is cuz people want, still want me to bring #Konvos back. But then what happened was I was realizing that I was starting to take on people's trauma and every time somebody came into my space to this space, I didn't realize that I was, I I was living with them and breathing with them and kind of like all of the things. And I'm not trained, I wasn't trained in how to be a therapist or a psychologist or anything like that. So I, one day my husband looked at me, he was like, You don't look okay. And I'm like, I'm, I'm not okay. And I, it just started to just wear so heavily on me and I had to, I had to pull back.


Well, I wanna talk about that too because I find like, and I use the words racialized, but also still black <laugh>, when you are a black woman, an older black woman, and you are older in quotes, we're putting that in heavy quotes. But <laugh>, any one of adult figure, anything like that, even if we joke around about big sis, auntie vibes, whatever, do you like, I don't know, I I I struggle with this sometimes too of like getting dumped into this savior sort of thing of like, this ‘black women can heal people’, you know?

KAREN SLACK (33:51):

Yeah. I was, and I think I was supporting some of that. I was supporting that. And I don't need to support that. Everybody's not worthy, everybody's not, um, deserving of those things. But of course that, that it's that need of wanting to, wanting to be needed, wanting to feel like your health, that place of service. Cause I come definitely from a place of service, but also, yes, the world, the what black women have been saving the world since the beginning of time. We the world, I mean, read your, read your history books. If you don't know, you better find out. You know what I mean? We are the first mothers of the earth. So there, so we carry that in us, but the, the world doesn't always give it back. So as we are giving and open and you know, and being needed, it doesn't always feed us in a way and support us in a way that is necessary. So there was a lot of that. But also I'm responsible too, for my not protecting my own self, you know? So it is a, it is a, in knowing the fact that people not gonna come save you and knowing the fact that people expect you because you're a black woman to solve all the problems, we still are responsible for our own health,


For putting up those boundaries.

KAREN SLACK (35:05):

Abso-absolutely. You know, not, not, I mean, I gained my weight, all those wonderful weight that I had lost, you know, right before the pandemic



KAREN SLACK (35:15):

leading it back and like, just all of the things, the mental, the physical, the emotional, and we were all going, going through it together. But once we started talking about the real issues in classical music, it was only the black artists who could say, Well, these things happened to me. This happened to me. This, this is what's going on. The micro aggressions to speak. Well, we were the only ones doing it. And then after we all bled and died on the frontline, other communities who were marginalized started maybe speaking, but we had already been doing all the bloody work. I'm sorry. Like if someone's offended by that, I then you're not tuned in.


Well, it's apart from opera, it's also a thing of history. Um, there's a lot of history, or not a lot of history, I shouldn't say this, but I'm thinking of recent history. Even when the Civil Rights Movement started, it gave permission to, for a lot of other movements, the Women's Liberation Movement, like all of these different movements coming after it because it's like, hey, there's one group that's saying, I'm not, I don't have to stand for this. I'm gonna say what I need to say. And unfortunately, a lot of times if you've got a lot more melanin, <laugh> on this earth, the darker you are, the more you're like tasked with doing that. So, I wanted to ask you actually, we talk a lot about self-care in on the online spaces. We talk a lot about hashtags, self-care. Yes. I wanted to know, how are you caring for yourself now? Especially after realizing all of those things that were, when your husband looked at you and said, Mm, I don't know you. How are you caring for yourself now? How much more intentional are you with it?

KAREN SLACK (37:04):

I'm, uh, saying no more and not being like nervous, like, I'm gonna lose something if I say no, <laugh>. Um, I, you know, I'm always open to suggestions. You know my husband says I don't take care of myself enough. Like, ‘oh, you don't get, you don't go and like do the things that you need to do in order to make yourself feel better because you're always so fun worried about other people, making sure you stay and do one extra panel, right. Making sure you, you do one extra email, two extra email’, whatever that is. And so I'm learning that it can wait, it can wait. And so for me, that's the self-care thing is that I've been learning to stop at six o'clock. Not necessarily the practice part, but the administrative part. Like clocking out at a certain time, um, not responding to everything that comes my way.


Like, it's okay for people to wait a couple days. Like it really is okay, I'm not very good at getting massages and all those things to self-care. So you, you burning candles or, you know what I mean? Doing the things that make me feel good. I, I don't have a hobby. Like what's a hobby? Everything that I do is centered around music or opera or, you know, that multiple streams of income coming from the one thing is like a real thing for me. So I'm trying to learn how to take care of myself better.


I mean, listen, we're all learning self-care, so it's a work in progress. But I appreciate that you're saying it's a process and that you're still figuring it out because a lot of people are, especially if you're an artist, I think you're kind of in that mindset of your brain is always going. Yeah. So <laugh>, it's hard to turn it off.

KAREN SLACK (38:42):

Yeah, it's, it's always in process.


It was honestly so much fun talking to Karen. If you couldn't tell, we really like to yuck it up together. So I hope y'all had as much fun listening to this as I did talking with her. If you'd like to hear even more from Karen, check out our episode bonus where I'll be asking her a handful of light questions. Like, ‘What song do you wish you'd written?’ and ‘What's your cataclysm sentence?’ Tune in to find out what that means. Until next month, I'm Khadija Mbowe and this has been The HearTOGETHER  podcast from The Philadelphia Orchestra and Kimmel Center, Inc. As we close, I hope you'll enjoy a bit of Karen Slack performing “Taking Names” composed by Jasmine Barnes, the core piece of the #SayTheirNames Women of the Movement Project.

MUSIC (39:35): Barnes, Taking Names,  Karen Slack 


MUSIC: Hannibal, Healing Tones, Karen Slack with The Philadelphia Orchestra
Fairytale love story
Music in the household
Veterinary dreams
Journey into classical through CAPA (Creative and Performing Arts High School)
MUSIC: Bizet, Habanera, Denyce Graves
Undiagnosed learning challenges
The double-edged sword of winning the Rosa Ponselle scholarship
Approach to mentorship
MUSIC: Price, Bewilderment (with text from Langston Hughes), Michelle Cann and Karen Slack
See the need, fill the need
Who heals the healers; unrealistic expectations placed on black women
The struggle for self-care
Barnes, Taking Names, Karen Slack