OKMULGEE, Okla. – Dr. Kirsten Kunkle is a gracious subject. With the steady focus needed for a doctorate in musical arts and the energy required to sustain a career of performing, teaching, and producing, it is no surprise the successful Mvskoke multi-hyphenate stays busy. Currently based in Ohio but with continent-spanning jobs, Dr. Kunkle took time out to speak to Mvskoke Media about her upcoming projects, how she stays rooted in her heritage, and motherhood.
Dr. Kunkle earned a Doctor of Musical Arts in Voice Performance in 2007 from the University of Michigan. The kind of rigorous classical education that involves training to perform in a variety of languages. Very much like the Italian of Giacomo Puccini or the German of Richard Wagner. Dr. Kunkle’s repertoire includes scores of languages: English, Latin, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Czech, and Russian. As the leading Native American soprano, however, Dr. Kunkle’s repertoire also has grown to encompass Indigenous languages, a skill that makes this MCN citizen unique in her art. She has sung in both the Mvskoke and Cherokee languages in the past. She is currently working on singing in the Chickasaw language in “Shell Shaker”, a full Chickasaw opera written by Native composer Jerrod Tate (Chickasaw). That production is set to premiere in Oklahoma City in October of 2024.
But in her own new work, “Inspiration of the Muses” Dr. Kunkle transposes this skill into writing not for voice, but for flute and piano.
A composition for flute and piano, “Inspiration of the Muses” focuses on the nine Greek muses. It will premiere in Chicago at New Music Chicago this winter on Feb. 24, 2024. In ancient Greek mythology, the muses were nine daughters of Zeus and were responsible for the inspirations of art, literature, and science. The piece was commissioned for Dr. Kunkle to specifically get more works by Native American women composers written and highlighted.
Dr. Kunkle’s writing process for the composition started with her own poetry, a process not unfamiliar to her. Her 2022 song, “Reclaim the Land” premiered at the All Nations Teepee Village during Yellowstone National Park’s 150th anniversary. It was originally first written as a poem. However, this is the first work the singer has written that is not for voice.
“And it’s been very interesting to finally write a work that was not for voice. So I approached it as if I were writing a song, because I’m very textually driven. A lot of my work is poetry and libretti and things like that,” Dr. Kunkle said. “So I wrote a poem, and I said it as a poem that a flute would play if it could sing…And then I took the text out at the end so that it would give me motivation and drive to compose for the text I was hearing in my head. But I’m a singer and I am very driven by text. So that is how it worked for me. That was my specific process.”
As per the subject matter, Dr. Kunkle was given free reign in topic and style to compose. Her interest in mythologies and belief runs deep. “I have been interested in mythologies from a very early age. I am fascinated with mythologies. All mythologies to me resonate with most people in some form. That’s why people are fascinated with religion is because they are all something people can relate to on some level.” Dr. Kunkle said.
She is very aware and clear on how her subject matter relates to identity as a Native American working in a western artistic tradition. She shares that her heritage is always part of who she is, therefore it’s always part of what she does.
“One thing I always tell people and I hope it resonates at a tribal level as well is that sometimes what I do, whether it’s the French Revolution, or Lady Macbeth, or something like “Inspiration of the Muses”, people will say, ‘Well, is that really grounded in your heritage?’ Whatever I’m doing is grounded in my heritage because it’s coming from me. It’s my take on whatever the topic is. I’m multi-faceted, and I hope that that plays out in what I’m doing as well.” Dr. Kunkle said.
“These stories transcend time”
Featured on past coverage of Live Wire, Dr. Kunkle also spoke about co-writing “Girondines”, a story based during the Reign of Terror period of the French Revolution. Presented by Mission Opera, “Girondines” will have its West Coast premiere Oct. 28 and 29 in Santa Clarita. Directed by Dr. Kunkle, the English language opera is based on the lives of six women who did the ordinary and the extraordinary.
“These stories transcend time. And unfortunately the horrific things these women went through…that just brought down these specific women isn’t really any different than what women are dealing with today…I hope that there will come a day where that is not something people resonate with, but at this juncture, I think it’s something that women and men can relate to because it’s something that they see every day on some level, which is not good…basically it comes down to the human element as opposed to an historic element. And that universal pull that we were talking about with great mythology and all mythologies. And that’s something that I just – it really is important to me.” Dr. Kunkle said.
In her co-writing of the opera, it was important to tell the story of women that wasn’t a love story. She says, “Why are we only telling love stories? Or why are we only telling stories of nuns? You know, there’s more, there’s more. We are full people within ourselves. We’re doing a lot more things than that.”
And Dr. Kunkle is doing a lot more things. Ever busy, her November looks full. She will be playing the part of the witch in upcoming performances of “Hansel and Gretel” produced by her company the Wilmington Concert Opera in Wilmington, DE. She will be a guest vocalist in “Songs of Thanksgiving” for Firelands Symphony Orchestra in Sandusky, OH.
Rooted in Mvskoke
Dr. Kunkle wears many hats as a producer, writer, singer, wife, and mother. While the topic of work-life balance did not come up, she did speak to how the two are integrated and rooted in connection to her tribal heritage. She states,
“I grew up in Ohio, I did not grow up on tribal lands at all. But I’ve always had this drive to be more active with the tribe than what I physically can be. And nowadays that makes it so much easier because of things like Zoom language classes and my daughter…She’s three and a half and she recognizes more Muskogee words than I ever knew in my life. I repeat them to her and she hears them in my class and that’s so exciting to me because I can take what I’m doing and she sees me do this every day and she sees me go work at the piano and compose pieces and she sings the melodies back because she hears them all the time. And slowly but surely she’s seen what I’m doing and it’s starting to become part of her story too. So it has become multi-generational. ”
When asked if she enjoys the work she does, Dr. Kunkle gave a simple, clear reply, “I absolutely love the work I do.”