Conniving, murderous empress one week. Naïve flower child the next. It’s all in a day’s work for Jennifer Kee.
While the master’s vocal student at Western University’s Don Wright Faculty of Music juggles the demands of her final academic year, she is set to play two roles on the stage within days of one another: Octavia in Monteverdi’s Baroque opera L’incoronazione di Poppea and Sheila in Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical.
First performed during carnival season in Venice in 1642-43, Poppea is a tale of adultery, manipulation and murder. It was a game-changer for its time, redefining the boundaries of musical theatre.
Days after performing in the opera, Kee jumps into the role of Sheila, and out of her clothes, in Hair at the Grand Theatre. Like Poppea, Hair changed the musical theatre game by defining the rock musical genre. It also focused on the events and issues of its time: the Vietnam War and hippie counter-culture.
Obviously, the music of each show is very different, and so are Kee’s roles.
“It’s a complete flip,” she said. “The songs are totally different. And doing eight shows a week is a huge challenge. Some people say opera is harder. I absolutely do not agree. Opera is challenging, but not as hard as musical theatre, especially the rock style. I have to find a balance so I don’t blow up my voice.”
To prepare for the opera, Kee studied at the Tafelmusik Baroque Summer Institute last year. To prepare for Hair, she is practicing her vocal exercises and going to the gym daily.
Last year, Kee performed in the Grand’s opening of The Hobbit. During that time, she got a hint of things to come.
“I heard they were doing Hair so I talked to John White (marketing director) and he connected me with Susan Ferley (artistic director),” Kee said. “She came to see me at Starbright in Sarnia.”
David Hogan and David Rogers, Starbright artistic directors, also gave her good advice: Put yourself out there.
Kee also sings for a local church, and a member’s letter of reference helped secure an audition last October. “It went well,” she said. “I sang something from the show and a Janis Joplin song and got them to sing along with me. Two months later I got a callback for Sheila, the lead – and two days later I had the role.”
Kee performed Hair with a community theatre group when she was in high school.
“At 30, playing a naïve but passionate 20-year-old is different. I take the experience I’ve had and put it into this girl. Her songs are great, too,” Kee said.
Unlike Octavia, Sheila is an innocent. “All through the play she’s talking about love and peace. She doesn’t address the war, although she’s aware of it. She wants everyone to hug. It’s a huge journey for her,” Kee said. “At the end, someone she loves is sent to war and it devastates her.”
Although Kee grew up listening to her parents’ vinyl version of the original Broadway production, she prefers the revival’s polished pop style. “I’m a big hippie at heart. I love the show. The rock operas are perfect for me. I have that raspy rock voice.”
Kee sings in a band, plays guitar and has gigs lined up in the Maritimes and Ottawa this summer. She is also performing in Country Sunshine for Starbright. “I’m strapping a guitar on my back and heading east. Being versatile is not crazy in my life,” she said. “It’s never dull.”
IF YOU GO
What: L’incoronazione di Poppea
When: March 16-17
Where: Paul Davenport Theatre, Talbot College, Western
What: Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical
When: April 10 – May 13
Where: Grand Theatre, London
Tickets: 519-672-8800 or the Grand website