Kearstin Piper Brown, who plays the central role of the seamstress Esther in Intimate Apparel, didn’t decide at an early age to be a singer. “I’ve always been in the arts,” she told me, “but I studied ballet as a child.” And her earliest professional exposure was not to opera but to dance. “I grew up in the Washington, D.C., area, and as a Christmas gift my parents would take me to see Dance Theater of Harlem, at the Kennedy Center. That’s where I feel in love with the stage, with performing.”

Her eureka moment, however, came during a high-school-class trip to New York, to see the musical Crazy for You, on Broadway. “I remember watching those performers,” Brown said, “and thinking: I want to do that.”

Yet as an undergraduate at Spelman College, in Atlanta, Brown didn’t major in voice. “I didn’t want to be a diva. I didn’t want to known as someone who was difficult to get along with.”

Eventually, the pull of music was too strong. Brown went to graduate school, at Northwestern, to study voice, and traveled to Italy for further artistic development. There, among other repertory parts, she sang the Contessa, from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, a role which she likens to her current assignment, Esther.

“The Contessa longs to be loved by her husband but doesn’t get that love in the way she wants. Esther wants to be loved by her husband, George, but it doesn’t work out.”

Esther must navigate emotional currents with two other characters: her wealthy client, Mrs. Van Buren, and a fabric salesman, Mr. Marks. “Esther,” Brown said, “makes a wonderful and complicated journey from not knowing what love feels like to having complicated relationships with several people. In the second act, the action moves quickly, and I have to make many turns. It’s an emotional challenge.”

Playing Esther is also a challenge vocally. Referring to Ricky Ian Gordon, the composer of Intimate Apparel, Brown said, “Ricky writes in waves and my voice has to ride them. I’m helped a lot by the text. I let the text do a lot of the work. It’s essential to make sure the text is communicated.”

Performing Esther requires Brown to weave together so many threads it’s no wonder she confessed, “This piece is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And I’ve sung John Adams!”

In the almost two pandemic years between Brown initially doing Intimate Apparel at Lincoln Center Theater and the current run, did the singer keep Esther alive in her memory? “That was a tough one,” Brown replied. “Part of me wanted to keep the role in the forefront of my brain and part of me didn’t: we didn’t know at first if the opera would be returning, and I didn’t want to get my hopes too high by holding on too tightly to Esther.”

But once the show was back on and Brown returned to the show seriously by working with one of its pianists, Travis Bloom, she said, “I was surprised how fast most of the words returned. I still had an Esther within.”

Over the past two weeks of previews, while Intimate Apparel prepares for its opening night, Brown said the job is to go from within to without. “In real life, I’m a mom, and it feels like I’ve been pregnant with Esther for two years. It’s time to give birth.”

Brendan Lemon is the editor of