Thank goodness for the teachers out there in the world. In Ken’s case, his 9th grade teacher convinced him he should do something with his talent. Also, luckily for Ken, he had a great high school choir teacher that took students to see Rigoletto at The Metropolitan Opera, which is how Nichols found his love of opera. What Mr. Nichols doesn’t mention in his interview here is that he is often chosen to perform and understudy roles at Lyric Opera. He is also quite often chosen to be a fight and dance captain during the run of various Operas at Lyric. This means he oversees the accuracy and safety of both staged fights onstage and dances onstage after the stage director and choreographer have finished their work with the artists and have left the city. He has performed all over the world for prestigious events and yet you would never guess that prior to being a full-time chorister at Lyric, he was both a lifeguard, a UPS driver and worked for a local bottling company. He is exactly the kind of colleague you want to have around not only for his extensive artistic skill set but also for his genuine humble, positive attitude and reliable personality traits.
Q: Where did you grow up?
Nichols: New Rochelle, N.Y.
Q: Did you always know you wanted to become an opera singer? How did you get into the field?
Nichols: I knew that I could sing, but I wasn’t sure that I wanted to, until my ninth-grade teacher (before graduation) called me out in front of the whole class and said, “You have an amazing talent. And if you don’t do something with it, you’re a damn fool.” So, I figured I’d give it a shot. But I did not decide on opera until I was in 11th or 12th grade. It was during that time that my high school choir went to see a matinee performance of Rigoletto at the MET. After that, it was pretty much a done deal.
Q: What is your favorite opera and why?
Nichols: Rigoletto. It is the reason that I’m an opera singer today, so it will always have a special place in my heart. But I’ve since come to realize that it’s just a really well written opera. It takes hold of you from the beginning and doesn’t let you go until the end.
Q: Who is your favorite singer?
Nichols: Wow, I have a lot of favorites. If I had to pick one, I would say Ettore Bastianini…just impressive. It wasn’t the prettiest voice. But man, his recordings would pin you to the back wall!
Q: How long have you been at Lyric?
Nichols: This is my 18th season.
Q: How have Opera and Opera productions and the Opera World changed since you first started out?
Nichols: Opera in general has become a lot more theatrical in terms of what is required of singers. Today, singers must not only be able to move, but in some cases, must be able to dance as well–not to mention, be able to sing from positions other than standing.
Q: What is your favorite opera production/cast/performance at Lyric thus far?
Nichols: So many to choose from …Fidelio was pretty awesome. I believe that it was the first time that Jonas Kaufmann sang here.
Q: What do you do on your days off from Lyric?
Nichols: …relax, or hit the gym. If the weather is nice, I might go for a spin on the motorcycle. I try to reserve my days off to do things that I enjoy doing, not the things that I have to do. Sometimes it’s inevitable that those “necessary things” will creep in, but I make every effort to not allow it to happen. A day off should be just that, a day off.
Q: Do you speak any other languages? Does this help you as a chorister?
Nichols: I speak Spanish, though not fluently yet. Pretty close. It helps a little bit. Spanish and Italian are Latin-based languages, so a lot of the root words are similar.
Q: What school did you attend to receive your vocal training and who was your voice teacher?
Nichols: I attended the Crane School of Music in Potsdam, N.Y. My teacher was Lynn Meyers. A wonderful teacher, and a wonderful person.
Q: I hear you went to school with someone prominent in the Opera World. Who was that individual? Tell me about that experience.
Nichols: Yes. I went to school with Renee Fleming. She was a year ahead of me. We performed together as soloists with the Crane Chorus, and also in a one-act opera by Gustav Holst called “The Wandering Scholar.” A sweet person, a giving performer, and an absolute joy to work with, she was an amazing jazz singer too. I had the honor of replacing her as the lead singer with the Crane Jazz Ensemble when she graduated, though I’m sure I didn’t do nearly as well as she did. I was a total novice where jazz singing was concerned!
Q: If you could sing any role, what would it be and why?
Nichols: …Baron Scarpia in Tosca. It’s a relatively short, but meaty role, and by no means easy. His most difficult singing is in Act 2, where he never leaves the stage, even after Tosca kills him. We have absolutely nothing in common, so I think that it would be an interesting stretch and a challenge to get into the head space required to play that role.
Q: Tell me some of your most memorable moments from your time at Lyric?
Nichols: …hearing “Meditation” from Thaïs live…singing the role of the Undertaker in Porgy and Bess…getting to hear James Morris sing The Dutchman…so many more…sharing the stage with Bullwinkle in Elisir D’Amore.
Q: Tell me about some mishaps onstage.
Nichols: InShowboat in Toronto, the boat was in three sections. It was automated and traveled on a track, which turned upstage. Steel blades attached to the back of each section were used to keep the boat in the track. As the boat traveled offstage, each blade would have to be pulled in order to allow that section of the boat to make the turn upstage. During one performance, the wheel on the carriage that takes Nola and Ravenall off to Chicago got caught in one of the hard legs. The person in charge of pulling the first blade had to go free it, and by the time he got back, it was too late to pull the blade. The boat traveled directly offstage, and pinned one of the crew to the wall, knocking him unconscious. The dog that was being used in that scene was so scared, that it wouldn’t go anywhere near the stage for the rest of the run.
Q: Do you have any interesting stories or events you were involved in from before you started at Lyric or not pertaining to Lyric (related to opera or otherwise)?
Nichols: When I was in college, we had the privilege of being chosen as the official musicians for the 1980 Olympic Winter Games in Lake Placid, New York. We performed at the opening and closing ceremonies, and at some of the medal ceremonies. The highlight was being in the stadium when the US Hockey Team received their gold medals–an unforgettable experience, to say the least.
Q: Tell me about your career before singing at Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Nichols: Actually, I had quite a few “careers” before singing at Lyric Opera. I was in Showboat for about 5 years– Toronto, New York, touring the U.S., finally finishing up in London’s West End. Before that, I was singing with New York City Opera as part of the extra chorus, and touring with their education department…before that, extra chorus at the MET…before that, my first equity musical theater job with Paper Mill Playhouse in Summit, N.J. And before that, I was simultaneously a lifeguard, a UPS driver, and loading trucks at a local bottling company in my hometown.
Q: According to what I have found, you performed with A Night of 1,000 voices for 8 years. These performances range from 1999-2013. I also see that you along with one other individual performed for this celebration at the Royal Albert Hall more than any other performers. Tell me how you were selected to sing for them and more about both the event and the experience.
Nichols: It started with an unrelated event with the same director. While on Showboat in St. Paul, MN, I was asked to participate in a gala concert for Harold Prince in Munich. The person who was singing the role of Joe at the time was unavailable. After that, He would call me fairly regularly. It was one of the high points of my professional career, if not the high point. That first year, we literally had a 1000 voice choir. The sound, as you could imagine, was incredible! But more than that, they sang with such passion and love for what they were doing. These were not professional singers! They were doing it purely for the love of it. We rehearsed with them after the orchestra rehearsal. When they sang the theme song from “Titanic”, and “Do You Hear The People Sing?” from Les Miserables, we “professionals” were in tears, because of the pure joy and love that they had for what they were doing. That night, I said to God that if He was willing, and they kept inviting me, I would go. It was an incredibly uplifting experience and continued to be so through all 8 years that I was blessed and fortunate enough to be a part.
Q: What composer would you want to write the opera of your life and why?
Nichols: I would want a few composers to write the opera of my life. Puccini to write the beautiful and tragic parts, Verdi to write the dramatic parts, Mozart to write the intricate parts, and Rossini to write the comic parts.
Q: What are your favorite hobbies outside of the Lyric?
Nichols: …motorcycles, golf and firearms, though I don’t know that I would call golf a hobby.
Q: As I recall, at one time you had a commercial driver license (CDL). Tell me a little bit about why you got that license and what you used it for.
Nichols: My church has two buses. Every 2 years, we would have our international convention in Chicago, and they needed more drivers. So, I got my CDL.
Q: You are very involved with your church and do quite a bit to help them out. Tell me a little about what you do and how you help them.
Nichols: I currently help in the Audio Ministry. I’ve also helped in the Music Ministry. We also have a retreat center about 140 miles west of Chicago, where I help with keeping the place up, though not as often as I would like.
Q: Tell me a little about your family (partner, children, close relatives) and their significance in your life and career.
Nichols: My family was always supportive, though I’m pretty sure they didn’t understand why I stuck with it, especially during the lean times. My dad had passed by the time I made my Broadway debut, but the rest of the family was there.
Q: If you weren’t a singer, what would you be doing and why?
Nichols: …probably an electrician. I got a taste of working with electricity while helping with one of the remodeling projects at my church. I took to it like a duck to water.
Q: Do you have any performance rituals?
Nichols: …not really…basically, stay quiet, and spend some time in prayer. Other than a morning boxing class, I try to keep it pretty low-key on performance days.
Q: Do you play any instruments? If you don’t, which one would you want to play?
Nichols: …the radio! No, seriously though, I play a little piano and less guitar. I recently bought an acoustic electric guitar, so I could pick it up again, but I have not yet been able to make the time. I played drums when I was in college, but the old time/work continuum has foiled my every attempt to revisit them.
Q: What kind of music do you listen to outside of the opera house?
Nichols: …Contemporary Christian, Jazz, Motown, some Classical.
Q: What do you do in your down time backstage in the dressing room?
Nichols: …read and or check emails. I find that if I don’t check them regularly, they’ll take over my computer.
Q: Do you have a sore throat remedy?
Nichols: I prefer tea with lemon and honey. I hear Throat Coat tea is good too, but I have not tried it.
Q: What advice do you have for young aspiring singers?
Nichols: TAKE YOUR TIME. Keep studying. Take dance and movement classes. Don’t try to sound older than you are. Some of the best advice I have ever received I pass on to you. You’ll sound like you’re 40 when you’re 40. Time alone will take care of the maturity of the voice. Lastly, don’t take yourself too seriously. Life is about so much more than singing. Enjoy the ride, and enjoy life!