Q & A: Alasdair Kent on Mozart, Bel Canto & His Beginnings

By Francisco Salazar
(Credit: John Matthew Myers)

Over the few years, Alasdair Kent has garnered international attention singing at the Bayerische Staatsoper, and the Teatro San Carlo di Napoli, among others. He has become a leading Bel Canto tenor of choice performing some of the most virtuosic tenor roles in the repertoire from Mozart, Bellini, Donizetti, and Rossini.

A winner of the First Prizes in the Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge Foundation Bel Canto Award, the Gerda Lissner Foundation International Vocal Competition, the Loren L. Zachary Society National Vocal Competition, the Mildred Miller International Voice Competition, the Violetta DuPont Vocal Competition, and both First Prize and the Audience Prize in the Academy of Vocal Arts’ Giargiari Bel Canto Competition, this season he makes his debut at the Wiener Staatsoper and returns to the Bayrische Staatsoper. He also makes his debut with Opera Australia on a tour to the Royal Opera House Muscat.

OperaWire spoke to the rising star on his beginnings, his repertoire, and his love for Bel Canto.

OperaWire: When did you first come across opera?

Alasdair Kent: I come from a musical family. My grandmother played the piano, my mother sang and played guitar in a folk group, my brother is a guitarist and songwriter, I have cousins who sing, play the drums etc. My aunt is also an incredible professional musician, in multiple genres and on multiple instruments. She’s composed, she’s played basically any instrument that has a keyboard, including classical concert piano, and now she’s one of Australia’s pre-eminent accordionists. So there was always music around, and it was something that everyone did and could do.

I was singing as far back as I can remember, maybe with Disney movies and musicals. When I was about 4 or 5, I ran away from my parents one evening on a family camping trip to go sing a karaoke contest. When I was about 10 and changed schools, the music director of the school asked if anyone wanted to join the choir and, by chance, I did. It went on from there. At 15 I was singing Handel’s “Messiah” and “Don Giovanni’s” Act Two serenade for my exams. At 16, I sang Tony in “West Side Story” in our high school musical. I was sort of thinking about studying medicine, but in my last year of high school, I decided I would audition for the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, got in, and started seriously learning about opera. I remember, in the first six months of studying music at university, I was assigned the Act One quartet-quintet from Cenerentola for our first opera scenes concert. So parts of that opera have been with me since I was… 17!

But my earliest memory of opera actually was from a film. I loved stories and reading as a kid, mythology, but also Shakespeare. I saw the Michael Hoffman adaptation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” sometime after it came out in 1999, and a lot of opera is used in the soundtrack. There’s one scene where Titania and Bottom are falling asleep in the boughs of a tree, and a particular aria is played. This aria was so intensely beautiful, it really stuck with me after seeing the movie. I was too young at that point to know that you could stick around through the credits and find out the name of the songs used! So I had this beautiful melody in my head but no idea what it was. It wasn’t until I was two or three months into studying at WAAPA, in the recording library with a friend of mine tracking down an aria she had been asked to sing at a wedding, that I heard this song again. It was “Casta diva,” from Norma. So maybe my love for bel canto started before I even knew much about opera, I don’t really know.

OW: When you started singing, were you aware that you would be a tenor? Was that what you always wanted to sing?

AK: I have sung forever and I have always had a high voice and quite easy access to the high notes. I remember before I left high school, I was easily singing high Ds and Cs. It was normal and I did not find it difficult. When I started my studies, I was really obsessed with technique and technical things. The recordings that fascinated me were Callas singing “Norma” and Sutherland singing “La Traviata” and “Lucia di Lammermoor.” Hearing the type of things that that type of soprano has to be able to do, fascinated me and it is the ultimate extension of the voice. That is why Bel Canto fascinates me. It is the ultimate extension of what is possible for the voice.

I took what my teachers, what I was hearing, on these recordings, and what I did naturally and that is what really inspired me. The combination of the technical obsession and also my voice mentally being a high tenor just led naturally toward Bel Canto and Rossini as well as Bellini. It was a bit fortuitous. It was very natural.

OW: When you started singing, were you aware that you would be a tenor? Was that what you always wanted to sing?

AK: I always had a high voice – I was a boy soprano – and had quite easy access to the high notes. I remember before I left high school, I was easily singing high Ds and Cs. It was normal, and natural, but totally green and unschooled. When I started my studies, I became obsessed with the technique of singing. I did spend a lot of time in that recording library at university, listening to Callas singing “Norma,” Sutherland as “La Traviata” and “Lucia di Lammermoor.” Hearing the crazy things that that type of soprano has to be able to do, it fascinated me. It remains, to this day, the most extreme extension of what is instrumentally possible with the human voice. That is why bel canto fascinates me.

The combination of the technical obsession and also my voice naturally being a high tenor just led toward bel canto, to Rossini, Bellini etc. It was very natural, but I was very lucky that all the elements came together as they did. I combined what my teachers were telling me, what I was hearing on these recordings and learning from reading about other singers, and what I did naturally, let it cook for several years of performances and experience, and now, here I am.

OW: Who are some of the singers that you listen to that you have learned from and who are some of your mentors?

AK: Well, having heard Callas and Sutherland so early on, I can’t deny that a lot of my ideas of coloratura singing come more from sopranos than from tenors. I still sing along with recordings of Gruberova in the shower! But the tenors singing with those sopranos, for example, Franco Corelli and Luciano Pavarotti, I mean, talk about quality of sound. Any tenor who wants to learn how to cover properly need only listen to Pavarotti. From there, I started listening more to other tenors, Cesare Valletti, Luigi Alva, and Fritz Wunderlich. And of course, what I do is necessarily related to what the great Rossini tenors of the last decades do and have done, Juan Diego Flórez and Lawrence Brownlee. With Flórez, I’m literally walking in his shoes- we’re more or less the same height and size, so whenever I do a production he’s done or he’s created, like the Barbiere I’m currently singing in Vienna, I’m usually in his costumes.

As for my mentors, I have had a lot of incredible teachers along the way – Megan Sutton from back home in Australia, and Bill Schuman at AVA – and too many great coaches and conductors to mention. Now that I live in Europe, I don’t have a regular teacher or coach that I work with, but I record everything and I have some ears that I trust. Finally, the stage itself becomes the great teacher, you learn what works and what doesn’t. When you’re up there doing it, you’re adjusting things in real time, and there’s no one holding your hand. Eventually, you have to leave the nest, trust yourself and your technique and fly as best you can.

OW: Tell me about this season and what you are singing.

AK: I’m at the Bayerische Staatsoper for two different productions. The first one was “La Cenerentola” in the historic production of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle with Antonino Fogliani & Diego Matheuz conducting. The second will be my role debut as Belmonte in “Die Entführung aus dem Serail”. I love “Entführung,” I think it’s Mozart’s most melodious opera, so I’m really looking forward to that debut. I just made my role debut as Ernesto in “Don Pasquale” at the Teatro Petruzzelli di Bari and sang Bach’s Christmas Oratorio in Norway with the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra.

At the moment, I have my house debut with the Wiener Staatsoper in “The Barber of Seville” with the outstanding Michele Mariotti conducting. It’s a dream come true, really. I also sing “Barbiere” with Cincinnati Opera at the end of the season. I do “Così fan tutte” with Opera Australia on tour to the Royal Opera House Muscat in Oman, and I sing “Carmina Burana” with Opera Philadelphia, which will be lovely. I was an Emerging Artist there when I was still at AVA, and I always have a wonderful time working at OP, the whole company is full of fantastic people. To round out a busy season, my partner and I are creating a trio for tenor, bassoon, and piano, and we’re hard at work programming our first concerts at the moment.

OW: Tell me about your voice type and how you go from Rossini, Donizetti to Mozart.

AK: I consider myself, first and foremost, a high tenor. You could say lirico-leggero, but certainly, the instrument remains more leggero than lirico. How you classify a voice is always tricky because there are different techniques and different ways of singing. Every singer even within the same fach has a different approach, a different technique and therefore different aptitudes.

I find Rossini almost mechanical, you have to line up the voice in such a particular way to run up and down the scale. You have to move through these really huge ranges and you have to have very easy, secure high notes, so you need a technique that utilizes your instrument in the most efficient way. There’s no room for dead weight when you sing Rossini. At the same time, a lot of the writing can be quite low. There are parts of Barbiere, the beginning of the Act One finale for example, that are really very low for a high-tenor voice. With Mozart, you have so much more lyric singing. Each role is different and each composer is different and you adapt exactly how you sing to the demands of the role.

With Donizetti, it is lyrical but in a different way from Mozart. It’s lyrical in an Italian way because the lines spin on and on and you have to give it a fatness of sound. With Mozart, it can be angular and if you overfatten the line, you cannot sing it. It is very difficult but a lot has to do with how you approach the changes in registers and how you approach the high notes. But it’s not just the composer, it is different from role to role too. For instance, Cenerentola is very different than Barbiere. The writing makes different demands. It may be the same composer and similar voice type but it is a different evening.

OW: Rossini is categorized into one voice type. You said that each opera varies. Tell me about this.

AK: It’s a curious thing because, for example, all the high Cs in Cenerentola are written. They are ‘mandatory’, so to speak. And actually, they have to be heroically sung, the aria is one of triumph, determination, and strength. However in “Barbiere, the high Cs are mostly interpolated- especially if the theatre decides to cut “Cessa di più resistere”. So it’s different evening. Or, for example, Lindoro, I’ve sung many performances of L’Italiana in Algeri and that again is written quite differently. Almaviva sits mostly in the middle voice, but Lindoro sits very high for the entire evening. “Languir per una bella,” has an awful lot of B-flats, but the aria is plaintive, defeated but still hopeful, and full of longing, so the notes have to sound very different. You have to have a really easy B-flat to be able to sing that role beautifully. And, unlike Ramiro, you don’t need to have a heroic high C, you just touch that note a couple of times in the Act Two quintet, maybe an interpolated note in the second aria if you sing, “Oh, come il cor di giubilo.” So, again, it’s a very different evening for the tenor. Part of it will be because Rossini was writing for different singers, but part of it is also because the characters themselves are very different. Dramatic situation affects the vocal writing, colors the voice, affects the technique. It’s opera, after all!

OW: Mozart is said to be very instrumental in comparison with Bel Canto. Tell me about your approach to Mozart.

AK: That’s funny- I don’t think of Mozart as instrumental! Johann Strauss II, that’s instrumental, those are not vocal lines they are violin melodies! As for comparing Mozart and bel canto, where the bel canto is more comfortable, more instinctive, with Mozart you have to be very smart with the way you approach these roles. You are walking a technical tightrope. I would say that Mozart is certainly more cerebral, where much Italian music is more visceral, and is more physical. Mozart is more wit, bel canto is more romance.

OW: How do you maintain your high notes when you sing Mozart since the repertoire is mostly in the middle of the voice?

AK: During the rehearsal period, you sing the piece and it comes into your voice more. And, of course, I prepare the “vocalism” of the role before I arrive, especially when rehearsals are short. The voice itself moves around a bit, it grows depending on what food you feed it, what repertoire you sing. When I sing a lot of high music my voice starts to slim down in the middle, and vice versa, if I sing a lot in the middle voice then it starts to fatten out. If I oversing in the middle, I start to carry weight upwards that often isn’t necessary or helpful. The technical work you have to do to balance that is to come back to the middle voice and keep it round and keep the breath moving, restoring the “natural” dimensions of your voice. I have heard a lot of singers say the best thing you can do is move between different repertoire because it forces you to maintain the technical aspects of your voice. I would agree with that, I find it healthy. As to how you do it, it is technical practice, it’s understanding your voice in the long term and the things you do from moment to moment during the performance. You really have to be very attentive to the details. It becomes an instinctive process. Plus, a good singer can diagnose their own errors pretty quickly when listening to a recording, I think. I hope!

OW: How do you pace yourself when you have so many role debuts? What is your process for learning new roles?

AK: Last season I think I had one role debut. This season, two, “Don Pasquale” and “Entführung.” But in both of those cases, I have sung a lot of this music in excerpt before, “Don Pasquale” I covered when I was at Merola some years ago. So learning Ernesto or Belmonte is more about filling in the gaps. I don’t have a set process, and I rarely have to set myself a strict schedule. I read through the score, each time taking note of some new detail, correcting an error that I didn’t maybe realize I was making. I start to sing, putting the melodies into my voice physically. Eventually, in a way I still don’t understand, the piece becomes more or less memorized, with just a few details that need to be carefully checked during rehearsals or before performances. Even after fifty-plus performances of Almaviva, I still have to check some of the words each day before I sing a show of Barbiere.

More interesting to me is learning how a role grows, or rather how I grow in a role, with repeated performances, with input from different conductors and colleagues, and with different viewpoints provided by different productions. This is a very personal journey and is much more pleasurable than memorizing dots and dashes. Part of it is pacing, learning where you can or want to or need to give more, and where you can reserve, and recharge. Or maybe you learn the precise notes or bars that need your maximum attention, or you find that phrasing a particular passage in a certain way turns an impossible phrase into quite a comfortable one. I call it the “road map,” the composer gives you the terrain and you have to find your way through it.

OW: What do you find most challenging when you are learning a role?

AK: Mmm, learning a role is not so challenging. Musical writing is mathematic, with enough time you can study and memorize anything. What’s challenging is trying to understand what undefinable musical beauty the composer is implying through musical language that suggests subtleties that cannot be explicitly stated. For example, understanding style, that’s challenging, and it comes with time, experience, and from working with great colleagues, and conductors. What I find perhaps most challenging in performance can be, as with Almaviva, remembering words! If I have a few days off between performances, you can guarantee I’ll spend an hour or so going through the score to check over the words. Onstage, your body and your voice can often remember the vowel sound that it’s used to making, it’s somehow connected to muscle memory, but it’s always a good idea for me to go over the words. It’s one of the very few rituals that I have on performance day.

OW: What are some of the roles that you are excited to sing in the future?

AK: I love the repertoire that I sing now, and I hope I can continue to sing Almaviva, Lindoro, Ramiro, and the Mozart roles for a long time to come. Of course, the voice changes with time and use, so we’ll see. These first years of my career have been dominated by Rossini and Mozart, but my managers and I are kind of widening our scope at this point. I have some debuts in the next couple of seasons with several roles in the French Baroque, which is a natural fit for a high-voiced tenor too. Some comic things, and some very dramatic things, Rameau, Gluck, which will be interesting to explore on stage. I’ve really just started adding Donizetti and Bellini roles to my repertoire, and that will continue too. Singing Bach’s Christmas Oratorio in December reminded me how much I enjoy the intellectual and the vocal challenges of this composer, so perhaps I’ll include more of this. I love Richard Strauss and would love to sing his roles for high tenor, “Die schweigsame Frau” for example, but it’s almost never done. Maybe a Strauss Liederabend is more realistic. Further ahead, maybe a Roméo, we’ll see.

OW: And what do you like to do outside of singing?

AK: I obviously travel a lot for work, so when I’m not singing, I enjoy my time at home in Basel. By nature, I’m quite a private person and a bit of a homebody. I’m not great at keeping in touch and I don’t care much for social media, but I do love spending time with my friends when I can. My partner, Benedikt, is principal bassoonist with the Sinfonieorchester Basel, so on the occasional evening when neither of us is working, you’ll probably find us drinking a bottle of champagne at home or at a bar. We’re both passionate champagne drinkers and collectors, and we’re thinking about opening up a bar in the future. I think champagne and opera have a lot in common- this reputation as being something for the elite when really they are for everyone. Ben is a great cook (and I have a great appetite!) so the two of us opening up a bar makes sense in that regard too. It’s lucky I enjoy weight-lifting and running, to try and counteract some of the calorie intake from my other hobbies!



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