In honor of tonight’s opening of The Touchstone, I offer this interview with our lead Rossini tenor, who is quite a thoughtful guy. Grab a cup of coffee, sit back and learn a little more about his journey to becoming a professional opera singer!
Which experience(s) most influenced your decision to become a professional singer? What’s the earliest point in your life that you can identify in pointing you in this direction?
Well, strictly speaking, I won a singing competition at the tender age of 4! My parents were at a work conference, the type that you take kids along and they do adventure activities during the day. One of the evening events was a large outdoor karaoke concert, so, young Alasdair Kent runs away from his parents and takes the stage! I sang “Twinkle, twinkle little star,” and took home First Prize.
Can you tell us an anecdote or story from your training or career so far that will give us insight into what makes you tick as an artist?
I don’t know how much this says about me as an artist, but it’s nonetheless true. I enjoy searching out vocal colours and exploring a variety of musical expressions for any given phrase, but sometimes, practical matters really are the only concern. I was rehearsing Gianni Schicchi for performances at AVA, singing the part of Rinuccio. The show is a lot of fun and the aria and final duettino are impassioned and impressive, but the role also has a lot of very low-lying conversational writing. It was one of these phrases that the conductor, in one of our last musical rehearsals, was asking me for a certain kind of vocal colour or expression, and because the phrase was so low, I really only have one or two options vocally, so I had to stop him mid-sentence and say, “I’d really love to do what you want here, but this low in my voice, I have maybe two colours to choose from, and one of them is ‘Off’.” He chuckled and seemed to be satisfied with the final result!
If you hadn’t chosen this career, what would you have pursued instead?
I had a wide range of interests as a young person. I remember that I considered medicine, architecture, acting, writing, cooking, astrophysics, and I’m sure a whole host of other things. Though nothing is further from my mind, if I were to give it away now, I’d either look at going into opera administration, starting a house-cleaning company back in Perth while importing certain products I’ve discovered here in the U.S. (the Italian markets in Philadelphia have opened my eyes to the most extraordinary variety of flavoured balsamic vinegars and olive oils, and I know the foodie culture in Perth would go crazy for them), or perhaps moving to Spain or France and living completely off the grid.
Do you have any artistic heroes? People whose careers or artistry you particularly look up to?
I have to say, I think that anyone who manages to sustain a career in opera or indeed in the entertainment business is a hero. The demands on your personal resources, the 24/7 nature of the job, and the strange half-life that accompanies travelling around the globe and, in our case, singing for your supper, this is a great joy but requires immense sacrifice. On top of this, I have a great many singers I admire and some I try to emulate. Outside of opera, my favourite musicians are Jascha Heifetz, Martha Argerich, Vladimir Horowitz and Claudio Arrau.
What are you most looking forward to this summer?
Reconnecting with friends, colleagues from last summer, and the dream team of Kim, Lee Anne and Morgan, working with Maestro Walker again, and enjoying some time with my fantastic hosts Ron and Judy Wilgenbusch! And exploring a Rossini opera that’s new to me, that is always fun.
We’re giving you a time machine: What period, or moment in musical history, would you travel to and why?
I’d love to see the premiere performances of either Bellini’s I puritani or Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots. These shows are two operas that are well-known for requiring, in the first case, four stars and, in the second, seven stars, just simply to do what’s on the page! It would be particularly fascinating for me to hear Giovanni Battista Rubini live – Rubini was Bellini’s favourite tenor and premiered many of his most difficult roles, including Arturo in I puritani with the infamous high-F. A lot is written and said about the use of falsetto or head tone by tenors of that day as opposed to the chest-dominated technique we’re told is popular today. I’m not convinced, frankly, semantics being what they are, and without surviving recordings we’ll never know.
What’s the most exciting thing you think is happening in the opera industry today? The most discouraging/challenging thing?
I actually think the most exciting thing, in a roundabout way, is the collapse of the subscription model of ticket sales. Opera companies are being forced to think outside the square and work a little smarter to increase audience involvement. Larger companies are having more trouble selling tickets to oversized houses, while smaller, more flexible companies are producing sell-out hits in repertoire that might otherwise never see the light of day. In terms of diversity and artistic health, to me, this is a good thing, though I understand how difficult it can be for the bottom line.
The most challenging or discouraging thing is the obsession with star casting. So much more import is given to public relations as opposed to vocalism. This is not artistically healthy.
If you were talking about opera with someone who has never experienced it, what part(s) of it would you be most excited to explain to them?
The beauty and immediacy of the unamplified human voice. I think this is the reason opera has such a powerful impact to the people it does. Opera is an expression of our shared experience of life, communicated through the one instrument we all play, in some way or another.
What non-operatic music do you enjoy? Do you dabble in performing/playing/singing any other genres?
I really like solo piano music – Chopin Préludes or Nocturnes, Debussy Images or Préludes, Ravel, Gaspard de la nuit, Balakirev, Liszt Hungarian Rhapsodies. I enjoy the solitude of it. Opera is such a collaboration at every step of the way, so solo piano music feels like a completely opposite experience. Don’t get me wrong, I really love the collaborative element of singing, but I recharge my batteries by spending time alone. There’s nothing more relaxing for me than going for a walk on a dreary autumn day in my sweatpants with Claudio Arrau playing some Chopin in my ears. Sometimes, when I have a lot of music to study and I’m in rehearsals for multiple projects at the same time, my ear can become almost fatigued with the sound of the human voice, so it’s very pleasant to escape into an equally complex musical language with no words and no voices. And Chopin, specifically, is very much a bel canto composer for the piano.
What’s your favorite part (or parts) of the preparation/rehearsal/performance process(es)?
I love discovering new old music, if that makes sense, so a role that I don’t know or an opera I haven’t heard is always going to be an interesting project. But I think my favourite thing is that random day in a staging rehearsal where one of your colleagues, another singer, or the director or conductor proposes something to you that you completely didn’t see coming, some insight into the way they hear the music or the way they see your character, something that splits open the side of your head with the realisation that we each think so differently to one another, that our experiences of what we might like to call an objective reality are all coloured totally differently.
What aspect(s) of this career do you find the most challenging?
Increasingly, I have to be exceptionally well-organised in my personal life, disciplined with regard to things like sleep, exercise, eating, budgeting, scheduling etc., and avoiding the various vices that have a negative effect on my instrument, of which there are many. Elite singing is not so much a career as a lifestyle. For me, therein lies the real challenge. In any operatic role, provided you’re in good health, there are usually only a handful of moments over the course of an evening where you’re required to give 100% concentration to the task of vocalising or ensuring a certain gesture is executed well. Actually, the business of expression takes up a lot more mental effort than just vocalising, particularly when you’re trying to achieve a specific rendering of a musical or textual phrase while at the same time sounding quasi-improvisatory. But things like getting enough sleep at the right time, eating well, enough but not too much, and doing the right kinds of exercise often enough, those are constant demands that reoccur on a daily basis. The more I sing, the more I realise that those areas are the lion’s share of the work I have to do in order to give a good performance. If I’m well-rested, my body is fit and fed etc., then arriving to the theatre on the evening of a performance is really the most relaxing part of my job!
Do you have any “hacks” that make your job easier/more enjoyable?
Benefiber & rinsing out my sinuses twice at the end of the day. Singing opera, it’s a glamorous life.
What’s your dream role and why?
Welllllll…there’s no one dream role, there are lots of dream roles. Maybe there’s a dream career..
I’ve been very lucky, over the last four years I’ve managed to add to my repertoire a lot of the operas I dreamed about in years past, and that I hope to keep singing over the next five years and beyond – Barbiere, Cenerentola, Italiana, Don Pasquale, Schicchi. At the moment, I have my sight very firmly set on Bellini’s I puritani, though hopefully not sooner than four or five years from now. It’s a natural progression from the repertoire I’ve already sung, and though the role is not especially long, it’s a little more heroic than your standard leggiero fare. Arturo is a pinnacle for a bel canto tenor, because of the variety of musical writing. He’s first ardent, then inflamed, desperate, longing, pleading, exultant, exhausted on the verge of breaking, and finally, jubilant in both his vindication and in reuniting with his beloved. It’s a great musical journey, and one that has to be trod in an exact way, as Bellini writes the highest written note for the tenor voice, a high-F, in the last six minutes of the opera. But there are a couple of operas I’d like to sing before I add Arturo, for example La sonnambula, Elvino.
Then further down the track, much further, I’d love to look at some of the more full French roles, Raoul in Les Huguenots for example, or the more dramatic Donizetti, especially Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor. Edgardo is a fascinating role for me because it’s a little ambiguous, the writing is not as varied as Arturo but, if you sing it come scritto, it does demand almost as great an extension as Puritani, and it was a product of those years in the lifetimes of Donizetti and Rossini when fashions of technique for tenors specifically were changing drastically. Depending largely on the soprano, it can be cast more heavily or lighter, but whatever weight of voice you go with, the singer has to be pretty fearless as the last four or five pages of the score are very, very intimidating. But this all depends on how (and if) I’m singing in fifteen or so years’ time. If you want to make God laugh…
Speaking of Les Huguenots, I’d really love to sing Urbain, the page, and preferably sometime soon while I still sort of look the part. Such a fun role, and I don’t think it’s ever been done by a tenor before.
In the meantime, there are plenty of Rossini roles I want to sing again or add to my repertoire, Le comte Ory and La donna del lago for example, and I’ve always got a shortlist of other projects to headhunt – Lakmé, Lucrezia Borgia, Falstaff, some Haydn, The Merry Widow, La belle Hélène…..
If you could travel back in time to meet any composer/artist from a former time, who would that be and why?
Again, there’s a lot to choose from, and I can’t tell you my first choice because it’s the answer to a security question for my bank account, ha! So, off the top of my head, maybe Jean de Reszke. De Reszke, for those reading who don’t know of him, was an internationally renowned tenor and then pedagogue in the late-19th and early-20th Centuries. He made his debut as a baritone at 24, but shortly thereafter withdrew because he was unsatisfied with his technique, and reappeared at 29 as a tenor. He was the Met’s first Otello, and his retirement actually paved the way for Caruso to make his career. I’d love to sit in on his lessons, watch him perform, and see some of the roles he premiered. Herman Bemberg, another forgotten composer, had his opera Elaine premiered at Covent Garden and then repeated at the Met, starring Melba, de Reszke, his brother Édouard and Pol Plançon, and a cursory glance at the score reveals some material of interest. Though it’s probably a little heavier than I’d like to sing (Jean de Reszke excelled in French grand opera but also Wagner), how fascinating to see some of only a handful of performances of this piece that was considered great enough for the talents of four of the most lauded singers of the day, only to be forgotten in a matter of years.
Which non-classical musician would you love to work with and why?
Adele, hands down. Forgetting for a moment that her voice is one of the more impressive instruments working outside of opera at the moment, she manages to do in three and a half minutes something that I’ve seen great classical ensembles fail to do in three hours. She speaks directly to the human condition, and I think her popularity is testament to her expressive gifts. I’d love to work with her on a 21st-century song cycle.
What do you sing in the shower or in the car? (Or in a karaoke bar?)
Coloratura soprano arias. All of them. I’ll put on my iPod and sing along. I joke that I’ve had more singing lessons from Joan Sutherland than from anyone else!
What’s been your most memorable live music experience as an audience member?
It was a graduation recital of a soprano who studied at the same conservatory as me at about the same time back home in Perth, Australia. She sang Barber’s Knoxville. It was the most personal performance of a piece of music I’ve ever seen. It’s strange, she was graduating as I was beginning, she was one of the best students in the school and certainly one of the most expressive, and I doubt that nowadays I would ever cross her mind. But every time I listen to that piece I’m reminded of her recital, and in that sense she gave me a gift that will stay with me probably until the end of my days. To me, that’s what singing, at its best, should really be about – touching your audience’s hearts in such a way that they’re forever altered.