Wilford Kelly ‘20 Wins SF Opera Tenure-Track Chorus Position

Wilford Kelly as Gus O'Neill in SFCM's production of John Musto's Later the Same Evening

In this Q&A, master’s student Wilford Kelly, who studies with César Ulloa, shares his breaking news and tells his personal tale of becoming a musician, shares a turning point in his commitment to singing, and reveals the mantra that has kept him going.

What’s your big news?
Well, I’m excited to share that I’ve just accepted a full-time, tenure-track position with the San Francisco Opera Chorus! I’m so grateful to have won a position that secured my place in this city while being able to do what I love at the same time.

What got you into singing?
While I am the first from my family to make music my trade, my family is very musical; nearly everyone in my family, immediate and distant, has either sung or played an instrument for some period of their life. Growing up, my family always encouraged me to sing in the church choir, but I never truly saw music as the path for me until high school. I was enrolled in both high school and college classes working toward a high school diploma and a Bachelor’s, having completed a good portion of a neuroscience degree, but at the beginning of my senior year, things began to not feel quite right. My choir teacher and my mother convinced me to audition for a statewide honor choir. I didn't think I'd get in, but I did with flying colors! While at the convention where the choir was set to perform, I met my undergraduate voice teacher who encouraged me to apply to the music program there. Something about our short conversation stuck with me. That night, I filled out the application, auditioned, and was accepted the next month. The rest was history!

What does music mean to you?
Oh my goodness, this is such a loaded question! Music means the absolute world to me. I would not be who I am today without the help of music. There were some seriously dark times throughout my upbringing where I felt I had no one else; music was sometimes my only friend. I look at the impact of music; how it's able to bring together so many people from many different walks of life; how it's able to touch and rehabilitate a broken soul; how it's been able to preserve and define so many cultures; its supreme ability to communicate emotion in an impactful way. Music is astounding to me. It never ceases to amaze me. How could I not want to be a part of something so powerful?

Who are your major mentors/influences?
I have so many but I will limit myself to two. First and foremost, my mother is one of the biggest mentors and influences in my life. She has worked tirelessly to make sure that my little sister and I are always provided for. She's the reason that I ever considered music as a career path, and I would not be the musician and the human I am today without her guidance, support, and love. My next greatest mentor and influence is my teacher, César Ulloa. From the first time we had a lesson together before my audition at SFCM, I could tell that we were going to do great work together. Not only does he have an amazing ear and know immediately how to help you fix your vocal faults, but he also gives you some of the best career advice you could ever ask for. He's shaped so much of the artist and musician I am today, and I am so grateful to him for being such a rock in what can be such a tumultuous career path.

Name the most impactful experience you have had as a musician.
It's so hard to choose, but I'll stick to one in particular. The first came when I was a senior in my undergraduate studies. I was asked to sing for a big funeral but was not aware of the details of the service. I had been asked to sing for many funerals before, so I accepted and didn't think much of it. When I arrived, I was informed that the person being memorialized was a 19-year-old woman that had perished in an unexpected car crash. I entered the sanctuary and saw that it was packed out; so many people had come to say their goodbyes to a woman who had such an immense impact on them in such a short amount of time. I sang two songs: “Smile” and “Amazing Grace.” It became clear once I sang the last verse of “Amazing Grace” that something surreal was taking place in the room. Looking at the faces of this girl's family and friends really transformed the way I thought about music. I became aware of just how important the healing qualities of music are. Even though I did not know the woman, I found myself mourning her along with the many people. I truly felt connected to everyone in that room; I could feel their pain. When the song ended, it felt like everyone in the church took a collective breath. While it was clear the hurt would be there for a while, the overwhelming sense of calm was undeniable. I've never felt a more striking emotional response to music in all of my time as a musician. It made me so much more aware of the healing power of music. It also reaffirmed that singing was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

What has been your mantra throughout your time as a singer?
One thing that has prevailed over the years is "What others think of you isn't your business." In an art form based on vulnerability, it's so important to know who you are as an artist and not allow anyone or anything to shake you from it. You can accept constructive criticism without completely changing your identity as an artist. It took forever for me to actually believe that but once I did, the opportunities that I’ve been presented with have taken off. There’s only one you, and you are enough. Own who you are. That’s my mantra.

What are you looking forward to doing at the SF Opera Chorus?
I’m most looking forward to being able to make music with amazing musicians in an amazing house and city that I love dearly! The anticipation is KILLING me!