This powerhouse mezzo-soprano is not only one of the kindest people you will ever meet, but she is without a doubt a true operathlete. Finding the balance between staying physically fit and strong while maintaining an opera career is no easy feat, but Kirstin Chávez has mastered it through hard work and dedication. Perhaps most widely known for her riveting portrayal of Carmen, Ms. Chávez works tirelessly to prepare her instrument–both vocally and physically–for this iconic role and the other dream roles she regularly portrays around the globe. It is truly an honor to interview such an impressive athlete, compelling performer, and wonderful role model for OPERATHLETIC!
Kirstin Chávez has performed both leading female roles and pants roles from Baroque to Modern at opera houses including the Metropolitan Opera, San Diego Opera, Central City Opera, the Royal Opera House in London, Tulsa Opera, and more. She has also won a myriad international competitions, including the Sullivan Foundation, the George London Foundation, the Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation, the Opera Index Foundation, the Gerda Lissner Foundation, the Jensen Foundation, and the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions (National Finalist). To learn more about Kirstin Chávez, visit her website at http://www.kchavez.com/.
As an athlete, Ms. Chávez is an avid runner and weight lifter. To date, she has run five half marathons, and never fails to find a gym where she can continue to lift while on a gig. It is a true honor to be able to feature such a well-rounded, talented, dedicated artist and athlete on this blog. Thank you, Kirstin Chávez, for sharing your story and wisdom with OPERATHLETIC!
Q: When did you begin your fitness journey? What inspired you to start?
A: I have been ‘into’ athletics since I was in high school, and I found particular pleasure on the Badminton Court which was a big national sport in Malaysia, where I grew up. I am sure that that experience led me to my next great love, which was racquetball, which I started playing in college. And, because I have always tended to gain weight very easily, I knew that I would have to find a way to try to stay in shape, even when I had to start traveling around for my operatic career but, I also knew that I would need to find a sport that was more portable than my precious racquetball!
Running was always something that I found exceedingly difficult and painful, so it was not an obvious choice, but it quickly became clear that that was pretty much the only thing I could take almost anywhere! So, I began. . . at first, running a full 30 seconds without stopping seemed a truly impossible task! But, I stuck with it, and kept trying to improve, and I learned the importance of getting good gear. After lots of trial and error, I did finally find a running bra that could help make the effort less painful, and I learned more about my natural gait and the shoes that would help my feet through the miles. For years, I probably never did much more than 2 or 3 miles at a time. Then, in late 2007, my second dad called me from the course where he had just run a half marathon in Big Sur, California, and I heard the surf and the seals barking in the background, and I decided right then that, a year later, I would be on that same course. So, I trained, even while I traveled. I still remember running 7 miles for the first time in Hannover, Germany, and learning that that was maybe not a smart thing to do on the day of a performance!! But, since that first half marathon in November of 2008, I have run 5 and I will run my next one in Plano, TX in September this year.
Q: How would you describe your weekly exercise routine?
A: Typically, I will work out 6 days a week. Sometimes, this is simply impossible because of travel or because of rehearsal, etc, but, whenever possible, I stick to that basic schedule. With that schedule, three of those days are longer running days, and three of those days are short runs followed by weight training sessions. When I am training for a half marathon, my longer run days will be 6, 7, or 8 miles for a while, and then I move toward 10 and 11 as the race approaches. I don’t care much about speed, but I do tend to average a 10 minute mile, provided that I spend at least a mile warming up at a slower speed.
My weight lifting sessions are variable, because it is important to not allow the body to get “used” to your exercises. By keeping it guessing, it is easier to stimulate muscle to grow. So, I will spend some sessions using a combination of weight machines and free weights, and some sessions doing combinations of body weight exercises. I try to do at least some of my sessions as High Intensity Interval Training, whereby I perform 4 to 6 exercises one immediately after the other at high intensity for 30 seconds each, and do these sets 4 to 5 times in one session. It’s pretty exhausting, but it is a great muscle work out and it also provides some additional cardio.
Q: Do you follow a specific diet or nutritional plan?
A: Since the age of 18, I have been an ovo-lacto vegetarian, and I love it. It has served me very well, and I will never return to a meat-eating life, but I would like to move more toward a vegan lifestyle, and I plan to do that when I stop traveling as much. Fortunately, unlike when I began my vegetarianism, it is so easy now to be vegetarian, even as I travel around the world. Oddly enough, though, the two places where I found it most difficult to eat as a vegetarian were China and Japan. Part of that was due to a language barrier, but a lot of it was because, although they love their vegetables, they almost always include some meat or fish, at least in the cooking or the sauces. Best to surround yourself with local friends who can help you to meet this challenge!!
Q: What advice would you give to a performer who is just beginning their health & fitness journey?
A: I urge all our young singer friends to accept, as soon as possible, that one of a singer’s primary daily goals must be to care for his body. Most young singers probably already know that the voice does not function as well when the body is sleep deprived or dehydrated, but the body also cannot function at its very best if one eats low quality foods and does not move the body in dedicated exercise. I cannot stress this enough. What we do is extraordinarily athletic. I think this is a concept that is a bit difficult for young singers to fully grasp because we are trained to try to make singing look easy, and we have to try to act and move and dance at the same time. But, simply creating an operatic vocal sound is an extraordinary act of athleticism, and if the body is not strong, for any reason, the voice cannot possibly reach its full potential.
Also, as many young singers are learning, our industry is skewing terribly towards model-like physical appearance, and those who do not make efforts to keep their bodies in shape will have a far more difficult time getting engaged for work.
So, with all of this in mind, it is important to find some physical activities that you LIKE to do!! If you really don’t like running, then find something else! Do yoga, or zumba or bicycling; whatever floats your boat, but find something and make it your own so that it will be something you can be motivated to do most every day. Singing Opera is not a JOB. It is a Lifestyle. And, for better or for worse, it demands a great deal of us. But, the good news is that it demands that you take excellent care of your body, and that will serve you well your whole life long.
Q: Do you believe that your health & fitness journey has had a positive influence on your operatic career? How so?
A: There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that my health and fitness journey has had a remarkably positive effect on my operatic career. I am strong, I am fit, I have managed to (mostly!) maintain a healthy looking body. I believe that, when it came time for people to imagine me as CARMEN, it was not a tremendous stretch and now, as I embrace some of the big Verdi roles, I can continue to be competitive because I have a healthy appearance, and I am strong enough to sing some of these bigger roles.
Additionally, I have been truly amazed in the last few years at how often directors will ask us to manage physical feats simultaneously while we sing. I did a “Così fan Tutte” where we ran around in a big circle during the entire Act I finale; the baritone and I spent our entire duet crawling on our hands and knees (go ahead! Try crawling and singing beautifully at the same time! I dare you!); and my second aria was fondly referred to as ‘The Football Aria’ because I had to toss and catch and kick and run during the whole piece. This sort of crazy staging is not so unusual anymore and, believe me, if you are not in good shape, you can not manage such activities while still making a good sound with your voice!
Also, of course, because we travel so much now, sometimes even arriving somewhere on the same day on which we must perform (!), the best way to stay healthy enough to avoid catching everyone’s cold and flu is to have a super healthy body to begin with.
Q: What is your favorite mode of exercise (running, cycling, weightlifting, yoga, etc.)?
A: I really do like to shake it up when I can, so when opportunities present themselves to try something different, I go for it. Yesterday, I spent a couple hours in a kayak and it was a great break from my regular running. When I am home in Dallas, I try to work in weekly yoga sessions with my sister at the studio she really likes. Sometimes, I get a chance to go for a long bike ride, and I love that, and sometimes, I get to hike up a mountain. Whenever I get the chance to break out of my routine, I take it, because the body really responds well to changing things up. On a typical day, though, I will either run, lift weights, do yoga or do all three.
Q: Favorite exercise gear?
A: Sports bra: CW-X Womens Ultra Support Bra II (serious control!)
Running shorts: CW-X Womens triathalon running shorts
Running Shirts: UnderArmor Semi-fitted Heat Gear Shirts
Shoes: Adidas Ultra Boost (these are brand new, super cushioned, wonderful!)
Socks: Nike Running Hyper Elite no show (my feet tend to overheat, and these keep them cool)
iPhone arm band: ArmPocket
Weight-Lifting gloves: Harbinger
Sports energizer drink: Vega Sport energizer sugar free
Sports hydrator: Ultima Replenisher Grape
Protein Bar: Clif Builder’s 20g Protein–Choc Peanut Butter
Q: Who or what inspires you?
A: My second dad has been a runner for most of his adult life, and he is the reason I finally embraced that as my cardio of choice. I am very grateful to him for that, because I never would have come to it without his example to follow. My other chief motivator was my career. I love what I do more than anything else. I love it with all my heart. And, I want to be good at it, I want to be an obvious choice for people to hire, and I know that being fit is critical to my success. So, I keep moving forward!!
Q: How do you find the balance between leading a healthy lifestyle and keeping up with your performance career?
A: Well, I have had to learn a few things along the way. For the present, I know that running more than 5 miles on a performance day is not really a good idea for me, so I have yet to plan a half marathon during a performance run or too soon thereafter.
I have learned, too, that without solid discipline, the level of fitness I want is not possible. That means that, I don’t provide myself too many excuses for not working out. When I am getting ready to travel, I locate a viable gym before I leave, even if I am going to be in that location for only a few days. If I am choosing a hotel for an overnight, I choose one with internet and a gym. I make working out a very high priority, even when other singers think it’s okay to just wing it and figure things out when they arrive to their destination. Many times, fellow singers will be flabbergasted that, even though I am in a location for only 2 or 3 days (say when I am touring with an opera company) that I have already located and communicated with a gym so that I am certain that I can work out when I need to, rain, show or shine. And, what I find is that, when I work out regularly and eat healthfully, I enjoy my rehearsals and performances much more, and I am able to perform at a higher level. So, it has simply become part of what I do every day, and I am dearly grateful for that. I also learned early on that, if you take the decision out of the process (ie, decide the night before what time you will get up to go work out) then you are much more likely to be successful in building a good and long-lasting habit.
Q: How did you discover your passion for singing?
A: My dad was a singer. From before I was 5 years old, he was teaching me the Spanish/American folk songs of his heritage. From there, of course, I explored lots of other kinds of music, and just kept building on my joy of singing. Being an opera singer has been the most difficult thing I have ever tried to do, and I think that is one reason why I will never want to stop. The challenge is a great part of the reward and then there is the great JOY of being able to express the smallest and biggest secrets of the soul with song. I consider it an immense privilege to get to spend my life as a singer and I am truly, truly grateful.
Q: What is your advice for those trying to pursue a career in opera?
A: For those young singers considering a career in opera today, I say to you: search your soul long and hard before you embark on this path. If you truly believe that, at this time, it is the only way that you can find true Life Satisfaction, then commit to giving it your ALL. Don’t wait for someone else to “Discover” you or open the doors for you. Open them yourself! Forge your OWN way, just like a pioneer. This business has changed so drastically since I began my career in 1999, and if you do not continually seek ways to make yourself a viable and effective performer, you will not succeed for long. Be creative and think of new angles, be willing to try new things, if it feels right, and never skimp on your effort or your work; always show up the most prepared, and always be a joy to be around so that, when you DO need help or you DO need to try to influence the direction of things, the people around you will be much more likely to WANT to accommodate and help you.
Be Energetic, Be Strong, Be Kind and share your heart as much as you can.