The thoroughfare between the kitchen and living room is elevated. Here, a dividing wall was removed to create space for what passes for a tiny performance area in the Kennett Square home of opera singer Stephen Powell. “All the world’s a stage,” he jests, quoting Shakespeare.
A two-time Grammy nominee, Powell is set to release Archetype: Arias for Baritone, his third solo album and first with a full orchestra. He’s now in his fourth decade on national and global stages as a leading baritone with opera companies and orchestras.
The make-do home stage is reserved for family members. His wife, Barbara Shirvis, is a soprano who had her own singing career. She now teaches from home—both music lessons and wellness classes for singers and artists. Their college-aged sons, Benjamin and Zachary, are singers and jazz musicians.
A West Chester native, Powell began performing for a living full time in the mid-1990s. His goal was never to be a household name, and he wasn’t interested in spending a ton of time in Europe to advance his career. “It wasn’t worth it to me—I had a family,” he says. “I couldn’t just think of myself. For me, it’s always been what I did for a living, and not who I am. I could’ve had a huge, gigantic career. But who knows if I could have?”
Wearing a blue pullover, jeans, socks and no shoes, Powell is staying put at home today. His speaking voice is appropriately baritone deep—but like his buddies who work in IT and home improvement, he’s a regular guy. He’s never missed one of his boys’ high school music performances.
Once Powell returned to West Chester from Chicago and New York in 1998, he and his wife spent 10 years in the borough before moving to a property in the shadow of Longwood Gardens. Powell doesn’t do much locally, though there have been appearances with Opera Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Orchestra. “I came back here to live, not perform,” he says.
Opera is hard work—long road trips, weeks of rehearsal, then maybe four performances. “(Former Metropolitan Opera GM) Rudolf Bing always said a singer’s career is at stake every time the curtain goes up. That’s dramatic but true,” says Powell. “The challenge to meet that expectation every time has driven me. It’s always fed me, but I also needed to make a living, so it’s had to be a continuous feeding.”
Among Powell’s favorite opera characters is Rigoletto, the Italian hunchback. In musical theater, he’s enjoyed performing in Sweeney Todd. In concert, it’s been Carmina Burana and, of course, Handel’s Messiah during the holidays. Powell can sing in English, French, Italian and German. There’s a certain high that comes with performing. With an orchestra, the vibrations on stage rise through your feet, offering “a particularly religious and spiritual feeling,” Powell notes.
But at 58, Powell knows he must slow down. “I’d like to leave town with another purpose—to get to a place Barbara and I both want to be and not have to work when I get there,” he says.
He hopes to reduce his long-stay opera productions to one or two a year, instead of five or six, opting for shorter-stay symphonic works—mostly oratorios. “He’s choosey,” says his longtime agent, Kathy Olsen, of New York City’s Encompass Arts, which represents a diverse roster of 200 artists. “He’s been there and done that. He doesn’t need to do anything for the experience, so he’s more selective. I don’t blame him.”
Olsen recalls the first time she heard Powell sing. “My jaw dropped. I thought, ‘They do really produce talent like this?’” she says. “He’s a brilliant artist, an incredible musician and crazy talented. He’s also a great human being, and his humanity and warmth come out in his wonderful singing. What you see is what you get. There’s no pretense.”
A “journeyman baritone,” Powell’s sense of balance and his adherence to family life have kept him grounded. “In many ways, that’s made him a better artist,” Olsen says. “He just wants to work—to do good work, to feel musically fulfilled and to end each day around nice people.”
During his youth, Powell’s father played saxophone and clarinet in big bands. A lover of classical music, his mother played piano—and her parents had season tickets to the Academy of Music. Powell’s older brother and sister had the full complement of ’60s and ’70s rock. The home buzzed with a “fantastic swarm of musical influences,” says Powell. “And good music is still good music.”
Powell began on the piano at age 6, learning the music of Beethoven, Bach, Chopin, Schumann, Mozart and Brahms. He sang in church and school choirs. He had roles in musicals at Stetson Middle School and Henderson High School. He was also in a rock band, singing and playing saxophone and piano. “I wanted to be Billy Joel,” he admits, also mentioning Elton John and Barry Manilow. “We had the same trajectory, but I certainly couldn’t write songs like they could.”
As a student at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, Powell discovered he didn’t have the temperament to practice piano eight hours a day. Other students were already better pianists who didn’t mind the grind. Voice teacher Norman Gulbrandsen was the one who convinced him that singing could be a vocation. He graduated in 1986 with a degree in music theory and composition, then spent four years gigging, recording, coaching, launching a Christmas caroling business and basically “staying in music,” he says.
At 25, he enrolled at Chicago’s DePaul University, where he earned a master’s degree in music and later a certificate of performance. He eventually headed to New York and found an agent. He met Barbara when both were singing at the New York City Opera in 1995.
Arthur Levy was Powell’s second voice teacher and a teaching colleague at the New School’s Mannes School of Music in New York City. He describes Powell’s voice as “naturally magnificent”—one that’s found its balance, brightness, warmth, depth and height. “When the quality of a voice reflects the human being, the audience falls in love with that voice and that persona,” Levy says. “The warmth and golden glow of Stephen has always reflected who he is as a person. I’ve seen his own boys cry they’ve been so moved by his singing.”
Powell’s new album was recorded in Nashville. It features 13 arias—two new for him. “It turned out beautifully,” he says. “I couldn’t be happier. I’m excited. The orchestra sounds fantastic.”
Powell’s debut solo album, American Composers at Play, was nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best Classical Vocal Soloist category in 2020. His second nomination came that same year for Best Opera Recording—Norman Dello Joio’s The Trial at Rouen, in collaboration with Odyssey Opera and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. “Neither won, and I didn’t win,” he says. “That’s too bad, but it’s all right. Getting a Grammy nomination is a cherry on top, but winning a Grammy isn’t on my bucket list.”
Why isn’t Powell more well-known? Levy partially blames his start in the 1990s, which predated social media. “His name was never bounced around the way others are now,” Levy says. “People are told who they should like based on social media. Today, the audience decides who the star will be, but maybe Stephen will have the last laugh. He’s still singing—and singing better than ever. Someone might hear him and say, ‘We have a 35-year-old who can’t do that. How could I have missed this guy?’”
Powell’s next album will focus on musical theater. It’ll be recorded with Barbara and the boys, maybe by next spring. Perhaps they’ll even practice at home on that makeshift stage. “We experiment,” Powell says. “But they’re in tune—and you’d want to hear it.”
To learn more about Stephen Powell and his music, visit stephenpowell.us.
Summer flash sale ... subscribe and save 50%
Limited time offer. New subscribers only.