Did you know that Gregory Kunde is the only tenor in the history of opera to sing both Verdi and Rossini’s “Otello” within a two-week span?
In fact, only one other tenor, Roberto Stagno, sang both roles, but it took him 10 years to complete the feat.
But that is ultimately what makes Kunde such a special artist. At one point he was the quintessential tenor for singing the repertoire of Rossini and Bellini. And then suddenly, he was the go-to tenor for the toughest Verdi roles in the canon. Most singers making this switch usually implode rather quickly but Kunde’s career has had a second wind.
It has been an unusual career path that he has established as he has cemented his mark in the European stages and has been in demand all over the world. And yet, in keeping with the paradoxical theme that the American’s career has taken, Kunde has not been able to establish a foothold in his own country. He is now in the 39th year of his career and America has been more of a foreign country to him in the last decade.
But this month, the tenor returns “home” for only one performance in Florida before heading back to conquer some of the toughest roles overseas. The tenor spoke to OperaWire all about this upcoming journey and what it means to him.
Making the Change
The last time Kunde performed in the United States was Verdi’s “Otello” in Cincinnati in 2016 in a concert performance under James Conlon. While that doesn’t seem like a long time the tenor has not performed in a staged production in his native country since 2007 when he did the role of Arturo in Bellini’s “I Puritani” at the Metropolitan Opera alongside Anna Netrebko.
That was also a moment in his career when the tenor was about to see a big switch in the roles he sang.
“That was the old repertoire. That was the Bel Canto repertoire. That was a bit hairy for me because I was not scheduled to sing it but I made the effort to do it. The first act was probably the toughest act I did of ‘Puritani.’ I had done hundreds of performances of Puritani at that point but coming in was not great. The third went well and I recovered well. And then the rest of them went well.”
“But that was the last time I sang Puritani. And I basically changed my repertoire. That year was the last time I concentrated on the Bel Canto repertoire and we started to look at things like ‘Damnation of Faust’ and the bari-tenor repertoire in Rossini which was heavier and more serious repertoire. And then I sang my first ‘Norma’ in 2009 and it went from there,” he continued.
Since then a lot has changed.
Kunde has been thrilling audiences in Europe in some of Verdi’s most difficult roles and adding more dramatic spinto works to his repertoire. The change, however, was not something he ever expected. After singing for years Kunde thought it was time to go into teaching and limit his engagements.
“In 2003 or 2004 I could tell that the voice was changing. I was 50 years old at the time and in our era, it was time for a lot of singers to stop. And I thought about it and thought about finding a teaching job and saying ‘That’s enough, you had a good career. You’re not going to get hired to do ‘Sonnambula’ or ‘Barber of Seville’ and what are you going to do?’ And I spent a few years looking for a teaching job all the while filling in the calendar doing maybe 20 to 25 performances a year of things that were interesting.”
But Berlioz was the golden ticket into a new world.
“When I decided to do some Berlioz, things were sort of gap fillers that helped me make the transition. In 2009, my Italian agent made a suggestion that I audition for Gianandrea Noseda because they were looking for a tenor to sing ‘Vespri Sicilianni’ and I happened to be engaged to do ‘La Damnation de Faust’ with Noseda with his orchestra. I did the rehearsal with him and he immediately said, ‘Do you want to do ‘Vespri [Sicilianni]’ with me in Torino?’ That was in 2011. And that is when things started to change. I started to accept Verdi roles and made my debut in ‘Otello’ a year after that.”
Kunde has been astounded that he was able to transition so smoothly from operas like “Sonnambula” to Verdi’s “Otello’ and he even notes that for him this would have been a dream 20 years ago.
But he also knows that thanks to the Bel Canto repertoire none of it would have been possible because his voice began to expand and open up in ways that he would have never imagined.
“After the ‘Puritani’ performances, I was asked that summer to come to Pesaro in the Rossini Opera Festival and do Rossini’s “Otello.” I had never heard it or studied it and I accepted the challenge. It was that bari-tenor role that I should have been looking at. And it went very well and I was able to use the sector of the voice that I had never really concentrated on. It was all about the high notes when we did the Bellini, Rossini, and Donizetti. Of course, there were high notes but this was more about the center and I could feel that the voice was expanding naturally. I didn’t try to do anything different. It was just happening. I was very lucky to have that Bel Canto technique and continued on to add bel canto roles. I did ‘Zelmira’ and I did ‘Ermione’ and I also did ‘Norma’ and ‘Poliuto’ of Donizetti.”
The Return Home
After undergoing that career transformation, Kunde returns to the US as a very different artist for his engagement until 2019. And true to form, he is appearing in Naples, Florida in unexpected musical territory – the recital.
“I don’t like recitals. Being an opera singer we are not used to doing recitals because we are used to being on stage in costume and singing for fifteen minutes and going off stage and waiting for a while and having a cup of coffee and having a glass of water and waiting for our next scene,” he emphasized. “In a recital, you are absolutely naked on the stage with a piano. So it’s probably the most difficult thing a singer does. Putting yourself out there and continuing. It’s just you and if it goes badly you have to continue going. It’s this mentality of knowing that there is no break and you have to keep going.”
So how does Kunde get through these difficult aspects and work to make sure a recital is a success?
“It’s a matter of pacing your stamina. You have to program just the right way so that you don’t give too much in the very beginning and not have anything to the end. And it’s a difficult thing.”
One way that Kunde believes a recital could be more exciting is doing it with another singer because “it allows you to go on and have five minutes to yourself. And also duets are more interesting to the audience.”
However, this time it will be just him.
Making Music With a Close Friend
The Opera Naples performance marks the second recital Kunde gives with the company. And as was the case a few years ago, he is extremely excited about working with conductor/pianist Ramón Tebar, who he considers like a brother.
“Every orchestra absolutely adores him. He is very clear, he’s easy to follow and he has incredible musical ideas. It’s also very rare to have the capacity for opera and symphony works. It’s incredibly rare. A lot of times conductors have a wonderful sense of symphony and when they come to the opera its a little different because you need to have someone who knows what’s happening with the singers,” Kunde raved. “Ramón is one of those people who he has a lot of experience when he was younger playing the piano for Monserrat Caballé and he learned a lot from her. So he is very sympathetic to singers and he loves them. You can tell he loves to collaborate and make fantastic music.”
Kunde first collaborated with Tebar in 2012 when the two did a concert in La Coruña, Spain with Juan Jesús Rodríguez.
“We had just a wonderful time. We hit it off really well and I loved what he did and how incredibly supportive he was with me and the orchestra and you could tell he loved the music and loved to play this music.”
And since then they have worked together on a CD that will be released in May for Decca and they will also be doing Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” together in La Coruña.
So what can American audiences expect from Kunde in his recital? French songs, opera arias and… a few surprises that Kunde had no problem unveiling.
“American music that you’re not used to hearing opera singers sing. That was my first love. I used to sing musical theater before I sang opera and before I was in college I was in a rock-n-roll band. That was my first time on the stage. I was the lead singer. So that’s always been important. Music of the seventies and eighties is my music. It will always be a lot of fun.”
Once he finishes the recital in Naples, Kunde is back on the opera stage for Giordano’s “Andrea Chénier” in Bilbao. It will mark his second run of the role, which he first debuted in April at the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma.
The role is considered a staple in the spinto repertoire and has been considered one of the most challenging to tackle. However, for Kunde, the role is not as taxing, particularly after singing the Bel Canto repertoire.
“Each aria is more beautiful than the other. It’s well paced but again its four arias and two huge duets. But there is nothing else. That’s it. There are few interventions here and there and if you’re prepared for those you’ll be fine. When I compare the arias to when I did ‘Pagliacci,’ to the scenes that I did in Donizetti and Rossini and Bellini, recitative, aria, cabaletta, that’s 10 minutes. And all four arias in Andrea Chenier are 15 minutes total. It’s concentrated passionate, intense singing. I don’t think anyone can singing for 10 minutes the way these are written because they are difficult arias.”
Kunde was adamant that his approach to this music is Bel Canto. It’s not a word you often relate to the verismo repertoire but it’s one that he keeps present when he does these works.
“Coming from that Bel Canto school, you try and do phrasing that no one else has done before. And you try not to imitate anyone who has done the piece before. First, it’s not me. And my approach is different.”
One comparison he draws is the variations and the fioritura in a Bel Canto aria. “You do your own and that’s the whole point. It’s what made Bel Canto what it was in the era. We want to hear the interpretations and interpolations of the singer of the day. If you’re copying someone else then that is what you’re doing originally. We want to hear you. And I bring that to everything I am doing now in this repertoire. Not in any way trying to reinvent the wheel but trying to make it fit my voice.”
Once “Andrea Chénier” is finished Kunde returns to Verdi’s “Otello,” the Mount Everest of the dramatic tenor repertoire. This is a part that Kunde has become celebrated for. As noted earlier, he has managed to dominate the Verdi opera as much as he has the Rossini work of the same title, making for a rather interesting discussion about how they differ and where the similarities lie.
“As far as vocal similarities I really believe that the last scene of Rossini’s ‘Otello’ is quite a bit more dramatic vocally than Verdi’s ‘Otello.’ Of course, it’s huge singing and it’s very emotional and ‘Niun mi tema’ [from Verdi] is an incredible piece to sing at the end of the opera but the duet with Desdemona in Rossini’s ‘Otello’ is incredibly dramatic and probably the most dramatic singing that he ever wrote for a tenor.”
But then things get interesting when you dive into how the two composers define the titular character.
“In Verdi’s there is more opportunity to make the character because it’s more fleshed out. In the Rossini’s ‘Otello,’ there is no love duet so you never really see Desdemona and Otello together except at the end when he kills her. But in the Verdi, you see the whole path of jealousy and going crazy. In the Rossini, you don’t see that. You have a much more dramatic character as an actor and that is really the most important part of playing Otello. You really have to be engaged as an actor.
“Verdi’s ‘Otello’ is very much about listening to what everyone says around you so you can build the drama towards the end. You have to be really engaged every second on the stage. And after having sung the role many times, I understand why it’s the tenor dream role. It is the culmination of everything,” he continued.
But while many say it may be the hardest and most demanding role for a tenor, Kunde thinks it’s tough but far from the hardest vocally.
“The same demands are put on the tenor for ‘Vespri’ and I’m really lucky to say that the first real Verdi role I sang was ‘Vespri’ so after that everything is a walk in the park. When you get through ‘Vespri,’ which is five hours, ‘Otello,’ which is two hours and forty-five minutes, it’s not that challenging. It’s a lot less singing. It is certainly demanding because it is so dramatic because everything that you sing is important. Even in the ensemble, he sings in the quartet in the second act but when you have the ensemble in act three with Desdemona leading he doesn’t sing at all so it’s basically a rest for him. It’s the most demanding dramatically but not musically. The concentration is incredible.”
A Balancing Act
Kunde may now be concentrating on scaling Mount Everest in opera’s toughest repertoire but he is also cautious of how he varies his schedule. Donizetti’s “Roberto Devereux” may have been a stretch for last season but the Bel Canto repertoire will continue to be part of his next few seasons.
“I will certainly continue doing. more ‘Norma.’ It really brings me back and makes the voice fresher so you are not continually singing verismo and heavy Verdi.”
And there is another role he is also reprising: “Poliuto.”
“That is a challenge and it’s a great piece and it’s really heavy, dramatic Donizetti. And that really helps lead into the first part of Verdi’s years. I want to keep some of those things alive and try to do new roles.
The one role he is also looking forward to is “Peter Grimes,” which he recently did in a concert performance with Antonio Pappano. Next season he will do his first staged performances of the role he calls a “dream” and one that he saw Jon Vickers perform.
And speaking of dreams, Kunde harbors yet another one.
While 70 percent of his career is now based in Europe, the 63-year-old tenor hopes that he can get to perform in the United States more regularly as his career approaches its twilight. He has fond memories of his performances and added that even though he has not been at the Metropolitan Opera as a mainstay, he noted: “I hope to get back someday!”
American audiences would certainly be in for a treat.