Vocalist - Baritone, Symphony Pops
Family Affair
'Pearl Fishers' stars find time for home-schooling and fun before the show

The breakfast dishes were still clattering, the vacuum was working up to a ferocious roar and two young boys were scooting about the hotel lobby. None of this was sufficient to fluster soprano Barbara Shirvis or baritone Stephen Powell as they sat and chatted at a nearby table.

Maybe that's because, as a fortysomething married couple who happen to be the parents of said sons, they were occupying familiar territory. In a few hours both singers would head off to rehearse their roles in Bizet's "The Pearl Fishers," which Kentucky Opera is staging Friday and next Sunday at the Kentucky Center. But for now, it was just another interlude in their ongoing family road show.

A couple of days earlier, when no rehearsals were scheduled, Shirvis and Powell took 8-year-old Benjamin and 6-year-old Zachary to the Kentucky Horse Park near Lexington, where Bizet was put aside in favor of Affirmed and similar storied horseflesh. It counted as a "field trip" for the boys, who are home-schooled either in their West Chester, Pa., base or in whichever hotel room counts as home for a couple of weeks.

"We do try to keep the family together," said Shirvis, who as a native of Largo, Fla., was doing her best to deny the chill of a January morning in Louisville ("winter to me is below 60"). "That's why we home-school them." About, for instance, celebrated 19th-century Kentuckians.

"They now know who Henry Clay is," Powell said.

"I don't," Shirvis added with a quick smile. "But that's OK."

In "The Pearl Fishers," she'll sing the role of Leila, the virgin priestess who is loved by two best friends: Nadir (sung by tenor William Joyner) and Zurga (Powell). It all takes place in Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka), where the people dive for pearls, fish and pay close heed to the warnings of high priest Nourabad (bass Stephen Morscheck). The opera is tuneful and exotic, and its beaches are the farthest notion one could imagine from the mid-morning lobby bustle at the Hawthorn Suites. Nothing operatic here -- just domestic reality.

'Look, they're a couple!'
Shirvis and Powell met about a dozen years ago, when both were singing with New York City Opera. She had a degree from the Manhattan School of Music; he began as a pianist who later gravitated toward voice. One day he strode into a City Opera practice room, sat down at the piano and accompanied the blond soprano without so much as a hiccup.

"I said, 'Well, I'd no idea -- I thought you were just another dumb singer like me,' " Shirvis recalled.
Soon they were linked both personally and musically. When you are a singer, Shirvis said, it's extremely useful to have a pianist as a boyfriend, and ultimately, a husband. "I saved a lot of money on coaches," she said with a wink.

These days Shirvis and Powell enjoy performing together with a song recital dubbed "Hearts Afire," though they're careful not to oversell themselves as a package. "I think we're at the point in our lives where people know us separately," Powell said.

Even so, the "Look, they're a couple!" angle still gets attention. "Some opera companies love to point that out from a PR standpoint," Shirvis said. "And some... won't have it."

"There are some companies that have had bad experiences with couples," Powell explained. His wife chimed in: "You hire them a year ago, and by the time you get around to the production they're getting divorced."

Being on stage together doesn't guarantee romantic bliss, at least as far as their characters tend to be concerned.

"We generally don't play lovers," Powell said, acknowledging the tough operatic truth that baritones hardly ever get the soprano.

An unusual education
What the couple does get is around. And when the boys are with them, every stop becomes an opportunity for cultural exploration. In Cleveland, for instance, the family visited the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and at least one large body of fresh water. "They know all the Great Lakes," dad said.

There are some challenges. Both boys take piano lessons at home, which makes on-the-road practicing dicey without an actual piano at hand. Can't they practice on an electronic keyboard? Not the same, Powell answers.

"I am kind of a snob that way," he conceded, "because I was a piano major before I was a singer."
"He's very traditional," Shirvis confirmed.

"Of course," he quipped back in a heartbeat, "I'm also correct."
Asked how their children respond to mom and dad's opera performances, both parents said they weren't always sure. "Who knows what the kids think," Shirvis said, "especially the younger one. One time I put on this cameo brooch, and Benjamin (asked), 'Is that Tosca?' And I said (insert lightly sarcastic tone...), 'You're going to get beat up on the playground.' "

A baby sitter often takes the kids to a dress rehearsal, or perhaps a matinee. Limits are asserted when necessary. When Powell returns to Cleveland in April to sing the role of John the Baptist in "Salome" -- who gets kissed on the mouth by the delirious princess and later has his head cut off -- Benjamin and Zachary won't be looking on.

Powell remembers one recent performance in the musical "Sweeney Todd" where "I was wearing a long wig that went down to my ears. Zach said, 'I don't want daddy to look like a girl.' That's what he was scared about."

Wigs aren't the only potentially strange aspect of an opera singer's life. So is the sound of the voice itself. "At first they thought it was really loud," Powell said. "They would say, 'No singing! No singing!' "

Parenting and practicing can have a hard time meshing when the kids are small. "When I was singing, I wasn't in mommy mode," Shirvis said. "Now they will be playing under my feet when I am at the piano."
And with increasing maturity comes increasing cross-cultural connections.

Mom to Benjamin: "Who else is named Zurg in a story you know?"

Ben: "I don't know."

Dad (in his best I'm-a-patient-father mode): "That's not the right answer."

Ben: " 'Toy Story.' "

Mom: "That was riveting."
Andrew Adler, Louisville Courier-Journal
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