The young man at the corner table is plugged into his iPod, sipping a cup of coffee, oblivious to the jazz filling the room at Busboys and Poets on DC’s 14th Street, Northwest. He might pass for a pro basketball player—six-foot-five, 235 pounds—except for one thing: Spread out on the table is the musical score of the Benjamin Britten opera playing on his iPod, the bass line highlighted in yellow, the beats numbered in pencil.
Kenneth Kellogg is back home after two years in the young-artist program at the San Francisco Opera. He’s preparing to make his hometown debut in mid-August with the Wolf Trap Opera Company, singing the role of Quince in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The day after that finishes, he begins rehearsals for his debut with the Washington National Opera on September 11 as Count Ribbing in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera at the Kennedy Center.
At age 31, Kellogg has a promising career as an operatic bass—the result of talent, fortuitous mentoring, hundreds of hours of voice and language training, three university degrees, dozens of auditions, and thousands of low C’s, all interspersed with doubts and struggle.
Unplugging from his iPod, Kellogg explains that learning a role always begins over coffee: “As a musician, there’s no office you have to report to. So when I need to study the technical side of the music—the language, the diction, the rhythm—I always come to a busy coffee shop because I focus better when I have something to ignore.”
Busboys and Poets is a favorite place of Kellogg’s because it’s not far from where he grew up—a two-story brick rowhouse in Brightwood Park, a working-class neighborhood just east of Georgia Avenue. The house was owned by his grandparents, and he lived there with his mother, who moved back home after separating from his father while Kellogg was a preschooler. His mother’s two sisters eventually moved there as well; he refers to the trio as “my three moms.”
Kellogg wasn’t exposed to classical music as a child, nor did he sing in a church choir. But at his neighborhood school, Rudolph Elementary, music teacher Carolyn Glover discovered his gift for music and became the first of several mentors. She taught him to play the recorder and cast the skinny kid in plays—he played the giant in Jack and the Beanstalk—and in little musicals, including one celebrating the life of civil-rights icon Mary McLeod Bethune.
Glover offered him free piano lessons during recess, but they lasted only a month because the sounds from the basketball court outside were too alluring. As he grew older, his CDs mostly featured gangsta rap, rhythm and blues, soul, and a little jazz.
Though Kellogg played sports in school and on the playgrounds, he had so much fun singing that he heeded Glover’s suggestion and went to summer music camp between sixth and seventh grades across town at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Georgetown, the public school for visual and performing arts created in 1974.
Two years later, Kellogg’s mother, an employee of the National Mediation Board, pushed him to audition for a spot in Ellington’s vocal-music program, partly to get him away from the drugs and violence in their neighborhood. He had prepared no songs to sing at the audition, but choral director Sam Bonds remembered him from summer camp and gave him a break. Bonds asked him to sing “Happy Birthday” and admitted him on the spot.