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Composer Kirke Mechem On Realizing What Opera Could Be

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Laura Spencer
/
KCUR

Composer Kirke Mechem grew up in Topeka, Kansas, but he's lived in San Francisco since 1963. He says he still considers himself a Midwesterner: "You can take the boy out of Kansas, but you can never take Kansas out of the boy."Mechem, 87, has written more than 250 works - from choral music to operas - including "Tartuffe," the first opera he composed. This three-act opera, based on Molière's play, premiered in 1980 - and it's estimated it's been performed nearly 400 times in six countries.

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During a recent visit to the University of Kansas in Lawrence (KU Opera presented "Tartuffe"), Mechem said there was always music in his home, but he didn't learn to appreciate opera in his youth.

"There was no opera in Topeka. And there was even no opera in Kansas City then. The Kansas City Opera (Lyric Opera of Kansas City) was 50 years old in 2008 and I predate that quite a bit," Mechem joked.

"The only opera I had heard was (when) my parents listened to the Metropolitan Opera on Saturday, every Saturday. But you can imagine that a kid, a sports-minded kid, isn't going to sit down and listen to people singing in a language he hasn't any idea about."

Mechem studied music at Stanford University and earned a master's degree in composition from Harvard.

His early works, including his student compositions "Make A Joyful Noise" (recorded by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir) and "Give Thanks Until The Word," were written for chorus. But Mechem said living in Vienna - and attending Mozart's operas - really opened his eyes to the possibilities of opera.

"And in those days, 1956, there weren't tourists there...so the only people going to these operas were native Viennese," he recalled. "And they were laughing at all the jokes and just having the best time, and  that's when I finally realized what opera was and could be."

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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