The following interview was conducted in the Santa Fe Opera Cantina, with the much-appreciated facilitation of the Santa Fe Opera:
[Below: Bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen; edited image of a publicity photograph from kylek.net.]
Wm: I have a question that I ask all my first time interviewees: What are your earliest memories of music?
KK: I come from a musical family. My parents sang and my mother played violin. My father was a piano prodigy but never continued past childhood. I played viola and trumpet and also sang. I was exposed mostly to pop, rock and folk music, but classical was in the mix.
We all knew Neil Diamond, Billy Joel, the Beatles, John Denver, and Loggins and Messina. I had learned to harmonize at young age with the Beach Boys. I would be singing one part, and my mother would say something like “switch to tenor”.
I’m passing this musical heritage through to my own family.
Wm: What are your earliest memories of opera?
KK: One day I heard a cassette tape called Opera Goes to the Movies which was comprised of some pretty well know excerpts, such as Nessun dorma from Puccini’s “Turandot”, the duet between Zurga and Nadir from Bizet’s “The Pearlfishers”, and the Ride of the Valkyries from Wagner’s “Die Walküre”.
I was maybe 13 or 14 when I was starting high school. We had a prominent choir director and a rich musical tradition for the band and choir. The choir director also led a community choir in which I sang.
Some of my greatest choral experiences were in that high school choir. For state solo competition I sang a Sarastro aria from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”. I didn’t know it was opera. I got a top rating for it, but at 16, I didn’t know that it was opera or anything about the story.
At that point, nothing more more came from it. It was several years before I decided to concentrate on singing.
Wm: What caused you to change from indifference to singing to concentration on it?
KK: When I was in high school, I wanted to go into the army and fly helicopters. However, I went to the University of Iowa. I was more interested in basketball or video games than I was in singing. I was still just an immature kid.
I was in my third year there and didn’t have a declared major. It was then that I sang for the university’s voice faculty and was told that the faculty felt that I should become a voice major. There are singers who talk about their parents having discouraged them from pursuing voice careers. Mine were delighted when I decided to become a singer.
[Below: Mephistopheles (Kyle Ketelsen, in top hat) is surrounded by dancers in the 2014 Jon Philipp Gloger production of Gounod’s “Faust” at the Zurich Oper; edited image, based on a Tanja Dorendorf photograph for the Zurich Oper.]
Wm: Then it was out of your vocal studies at the University of Iowa that caused you to choose opera. What happened there?
KK: I studied with Albert Gammon, the legendary University of Iowa teacher who was a prominent member of their voice faculty for 35 years. He left a huge footprint on the singer world.
He had a fascinating background. As a member of U. S. Army intelligence, he had gathered evidence for the Nuremberg Trials.
Wm: What was Albert Gammon’s contribution to your vocal education?
KK: He gave me good technique and diction. Towards the end, he told me: “There is a man I want you to sing for at Indiana University, Giorgio Tozzi.”
Wm: And you connected with Tozzi!
KK: I looked into it and discovered that Indiana University was quite a prominent music school, with 400+ voice students. On Gammon’s advice, I decided to go there to audition. It was the only school for which I auditioned, but I got in.
I had always heard that a student and teacher have to speak the same language. A student needs to find a match with his teacher’s style of teaching. I was the kind of guy that Tozzi could influence. He collected art, was interested in politics and finance. He was very big into positive thought. He was famous for hypnotizing colleagues to help with many things like stage fright.
Wm : What did you learn from Giorgio Tozzi?
KK: During my first year at Indiana University, Tozzi opened up the top of my voice. He taught me vocal placement, working on both my mask resonance and nasal resonance. I studied a lot of works and pieces. I grew into my voice and he helped me discover what I could do, guiding the strength in my voice.
Wm: You are well-known for the roles of Escamillo in Bizet’s “Carmen” and Leporello in “Don Giovanni”, both of which I’ve seen you perform in different venues. However, a few weeks ago, I was reviewing your role debut as Golaud in Debussy’s “Pélleas et Mélisande” at the Zurich Opera [Review: Imbrailo, Winters and Ketelsen Effective in Dmitri Tcherniakov’s Psychoanalytic Take on “Pelléas et Mélisande” – Zurich Opera, May 8, 2016.] Golaud is quite a departure from these other roles.
[Below: Golaud (Kyle Ketelsen, left) is employing techniques of psychotherapy on Melisande (Corinne Winters, right) in the 2016 Dmitri Tcherniakov production of Debussy’s “Pélleas et Mélisande” at the Zurich Oper; edited image, based on a Toni Suter photograph, courtesy of the Zurich Oper.]
KK: Golaud is a such a dramatic role. He is bipolar, violent and full or neuroses and psychoses. It is a lifetime favorite of my friends Rod Gilfry and Russell Braun. When I spoke to them about their attraction to the role, they would say, “wait until you do it once”.
Coaches and singers who knew I was planning to take on the role, would ask me if I had started preparing for it. They said to give myself more time than I normally would a new role.
I began to work on it in Orange, France, a year ago, studying with a French coach. I found that it took hours to get through 30 pages. I would remark that the range is o.k. and that French in my favorite language, but I would ask, why is this so difficult?
The real difficulty is that it is not strophic. There is no rhyming. The text seems like a stream of consciousness, but this adds such depth to the piece.
It reminded me of the experience that I had preparing the role of Nick Shadow in Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress”. I had given myself only two months to learn it, since it was in English. But it was in W. H. Auden’s English. It is so confusing. That was the one time that I showed up for rehearsals without having the role totally memorized. It was the most frustrating rehearsal period.
Wm: At Zurich, you were reunited with Russian director Dmitri Tcherniakov. What is it like working with him?
KK: He never arrives at an opera without an entire backstory on every character. He is very big on television acting, and he wants opera acting to be as carefully developed as if you were preparing to film a scene. When I was Leporello in Tcherniakov’s production of “Don Giovanni”, my Madamina scene with Donna Elvira took four hours to rehearse the first time. He wants very specific ideas to come through.
Once I did “Don Giovanni” with him, I felt that I was growing in that role that I’d done so often.
Wm: His conception for staging “Pelléas” was extraordinary, with Golaud a contemporary psychotherapist who has taken Mélisande on as a patient. However, his Golaud totally disregards patient confidentiality, taping their sessions then putting them on the home HDTV for Pelléas, Arkel and Yniod to view whenever they wished.
[Below: Golaud (Kyle Ketelsen, standing right), has videotaped his session with Melisande (Corinne Winters, television image, right) and displays it on his home HDTV; edited image, based on a Toni Suter photograph, courtesy of the Zurich Oper.]
KK: I have a son who is the age of Damien Göritz, who played Yniold in the performance you reviewed. It was quite disturbing to me, in the opera as written, how abusive Golaud is toward his son. In that production, Golaud was a terrible psychiatrist. He would have lost his license.
Wm: Your Escamillos include the Barcelona performances of Calixto Bielto’s version of “Carmen”. I reviewed Bielto’s production in London and San Francisco with three different Escamillos, but I wish I could have seen you do it.
KK: I wasn’t in the best shape for the Barcelona performances. I had had knee surgery recently which, of course, was not helped by having to hop from car to car in the third act fight with Don Jose.
Wm: Those Escamillo-Don Jose fights can be pretty high octane.
KK: A lot of conductors want to do the long version of that scene. I always ask if they mind doing the shorter version, since Escamillo’s money notes are after the fight.
[Below: Kyle Ketelsen is Escamillo in the production of Bizet’s “Carmen” at the Lyric Opera of Chicago; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
I have to give myself a strict reminder when we rehearse that fight. “Breathe each time you strike.”
Wm: I think a lot of operagoers fail to recognize how demanding a role Escamillo is, nor how difficult his big Toreador aria is.
KK: The vocal range of the Escamillo role goes too high for many basses and too low for many baritones. It suits me though and I’ve performed it over 130 times.
Wm: Leporello seems to be your signature role.
[Below: Leporello (Kyle Ketelsen, right) shares a moment with Donna Elvira (Ana Maria Martinez, left) in the 2014 Lyric Opera of Chicago production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”; edited image, based on a Todd Rosenberg photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
KK: There are some who joke the opera should be called “Leporello”. I’ve performed Leporello with a good bunch of Giovannis, including Simon Keenlyside, Russell Braun, Rod Gilfry and Gerry Finley.
I had great fun with Mariusz Kwiecien in the Robert Falls production, which we will be repeating at The Dallas Opera in a couple of seasons.
[Below: Leporello (Kyle Ketelsen, left), reluctantly disguised as his boss, pretends to woo Donna Elvira (Keri Alkema, right); edited image in the 2016 Ron Daniels production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” at Santa Fe Opera, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
Wm: Which of your roles do you look forward to performing again, and what roles would you like to add?
KK: There are lots of roles that I enjoy repeating, such as Mephistopheles in Gounod’s “Faust”. Of those that I haven’t done very often that I’d like to do again would certainly include Golaud, Nick Shadow, and Mephistopheles in Berlioz’ “Damnation of Faust” which I’ve done previously only once, in Saint Louis with Matthew Polenzani.
I’ll be doing the King of Scotland in Handel’s “Ariodante”. I’d like to do Bluebeard in Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle”, the title role of Verdi’s “Attila” and another Enrico in Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena”. I would like to study some of the lighter Wagner roles.
Giorgio Tozzi performed the role of DeBecque in Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific” on Broadway. I got a call from my agent asking if I’d audition for DeBeque, for which I think I’m seen by some as physically too young. But I am interested in the musical theater from the Golden Age of Broadway, such as the Fred Graham/Petruchio role in Cole Porter’s “Kiss Me Kate” and Judd in Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma”. What concerns me is the dialogue, as well as the multitude of performances that Broadway musicals have each week.
Wm: Many of the vintage musicals are moving into the opera house without the “eight days a week” expectation that the Broadway theaters expect. Perhaps this is where opportunity lies for you.
I appreciate spending this time with you.
KK: Thank you!