GREGORY KUNDE: “It is extremely satisfying as an artist to know there are friends in the audience.”
Since this is quite recent (and unusual), I want to ask you about your Samson in Valencia. Your participation in the performance being jeopardized by an injury, Davide Livermore and his team made significant changes to the whole setup so you can be on the stage for your public. Did you expect that? Was this a first in your career?
Well, when the injury happened, Davide visited me in the hospital and told me they would do everything to make it possible for me to continue in the production! I certainly didn’t expect everything that they did, though! It was quite an elaborate plan which actually worked very well in the Fura Dels Baus concept of the production.
And yes, it was absolutely a “first” in my career!!
Talking about opera productions, there are singers complaining that we live in “the director’s theatre” (regietheater) era and music comes second nowadays. What is your own experience?
I have been very fortunate in my career to not have had very many “regietheatre” experiences. I think that there are certainly too many producers and productions that ignore the composer and librettists’ wishes. Our opinions as singers (and conductors as well) are much less asked for in these days, and that concerns me. But most of the stage directors I’ve been fortunate to work with have been very collaborative and more often than not, respect my opinion and do as much as they can to help make me comfortable in my work on the stage.
You worked with a lot of conductors. What were your most memorable encounters and what would you say are those things that are important to you in order to have a great experience working with a conductor?
Well, there are so many!! Some that come to mind happened early in my career as a comprimario working with the great French conductors Michele Plasson and Georges Prêtre during my time as an apprentice in Chicago at the Lyric Opera. More recently, doing many concerts with the great Charles Dutoit, working at La Scala under Riccardo Muti was an honor and my relationship with Alberto Zedda and our work in Rossini continues to be as strong today as it was some 24 years ago.
But there are three conductors today that have influenced me greatly in the past 5 or 6 years. Working with Antonio Pappano and the Orchestras of Santa Cecilia and La Scala has been a great joy. I’ve known Sir Tony since our days together in Chicago and it has been a real pleasure to be working along side him again.
Second, Gianandrea Noseda is responsible for giving me the opportunity to prove myself as a Verdian. His offer to me to sing I Vespri Siciliani in Torino in 2011 changed my career path. He has shown great faith in me and continues to be at the top of my list as a preferred conductor and collaborator.
Lastly, Zubin Mehta. A living legend. I only began to work with him in 2012, but every experience has been amazing. He is so supportive, so generous and loves singers. I am fortunate to have been able to do some great works with this Maestro of Maestros.
To be able to have a great experience with a conductor, there needs to be mutual respect. There needs to be collaboration. It’s also incredible helpful when the conductor understands singers and singing. Knowing when a singer needs to breathe, when the line needs to move, etc. are the basic things. But they have to enjoy accompanying singers. It’s not an easy thing. The three I mentioned above are, in my opinion, the best today.
You have been singing belcanto repertoire for most of your career approaching roles with humanity, free of vanity. Belcanto can be tricky for artists who can sing spectacular high notes and coloratura: vocal show-off is tempting. How did you manage to avoid this?
Being a tenor in a soprano world (as most protagonists are in fact, sopranos) was humbling. Again, I was very fortunate to have sung with many of the great bel canto sopranos of the past 30 years. Serra, Anderson, Gasdia, Devia, Gruberova to name a few. But I always knew that my job was to support them not only vocally but dramatically as well. Being a partner onstage involves listening and reacting. When you support your partner onstage as they sing by listening to every word and reacting when necessary, it creates a relationship that helps create the drama. When you have your moment ( your aria/cabaletta) you try to take full advantage of it, but normally the soprano has the last word (except in Lucia). I was always very satisfied as the tenor in bel canto. But I was lucky to have such wonderful, collaborative and beautiful partners!!
You have a large group of fans following you all over Europe. I remember Milan, after “Les Troyens”: you stayed long into the night talking to a lot of people who were there for you. How does it feel to see all those familiar faces everywhere you go? Do you sometimes discuss your performances with your fans?
It is extremely satisfying as an artist to know there are friends in the audience. I personally feel honored that these fans and friends travel quite long distances to come and hear performances I’m singing. We singers know how important the audience is. Without them, we have nothing. We perform for them. I feel that those who make the effort to want an autograph or to take a picture deserve our time after the performance. I have made many friends over the years of fans who continue to support me. I have some people I discuss my performances with, but I don’t normally like to do that. Of course, if someone wants to pay me a compliment, I would never stop them!!
It’s been a couple of years now since you started to sing a totally different repertoire along with belcanto roles. Among them, a lot of Verdi. Has any of these roles taken you by surprise in terms of an instant connection & chemistry with the music, the character and the dramatic development?
Two of them, actually. First of course, is Otello. It was a role I was familiar with as I had sung Cassio on a few occasions, but I didn’t expect to make an instant connection with the character and his inner struggles. I still enjoy finding new things to play when I sing this part.
The other is Des Grieux in Manon Lescaut. I didn’t know the piece at all before I began to study it 6 months ago. And I didn’t expect to be completed taken with the music. My first try at it took place this past February in Bilbao and it has become a my favorite role next to Otello. The music, the relationship with Manon and her death in the end struck a chord with me. I can’t wait to sing it again.
I must confess, looking at all the new roles you added to your repertoire within the last couple of years, we always wonder: what is Gregory Kunde going to sing next? Do you plan any new roles in 2016?
Well, here in Valencia, I’ve made a re-debut (after 6 years) of Idomeneo. It is one of only two Mozart roles I sing (the other being Tito) and it is a real pleasure to sing it again. Nothing new until next year (2017) which will bring Andrea Chenier, Calaf in Turandot and perhaps Peter Grimes.
When theatres & directors propose new roles to you, what are the main things that you consider before accepting of refusing them, besides being suitable for your voice?
As we discussed before, the production is quite important when you choose what to sing. So, I like to know who will be the producer, what is his or her idea for the production and who are the other singers and conductor.
Preparing this interview I challenged a young singer friend of mine: if you met Gregory Kunde, what would you ask him? There it is: what is your advice for young singers having rather particular types of voice while seeking to start a career? (i.e.:dramatic coloratura, falcon, contre haute etc.)
That is a difficult question in today’s world. Why? Because there are sooooooo many singers, good singers and so few opportunities. But, in any case I would say to stay focused on your voice. Know what you are capable of doing. Stay patient. Try to sing as many auditions as possible and find a teacher and a coach you can trust. You should also not be afraid to make opportunities for yourself. Stage a recital, put videos of yourself on the Internet, promote your website/YouTube channel and learn to use social media to your advantage. But be patient and do the work. This career doesn’t happen overnight.
Reading your Twitter short profile, we learn that you are a “sports fanatic”. Following some sports myself, I realized that there are many similarities between opera singers and athletes in terms of challenges, career paths, discipline, success and struggle. Have you ever been inspired by an athlete?
Two in particular.
First, Michael Jordan. His philosophy is simple. “Don’t try to be a 10 immediately. Be a 1 first. Be the best 1 possible. Then be a 2. Be the best 2 possible. And continue that way till hopefully you reach a 10.”
We never will be a 10, but it’s a good goal to have.
Second, Lance Armstrong. His struggle with cancer and his comeback was an inspiration to me. I was struggling with the same disease at the same time. We both made it back. It’s now 21 years cancer free for me.