Q &A: Gregory Kunde on the Royal Opera House, Metropolitan Opera, Opera Education & New RolesBy Mike Hardy
Gregory Kunde is an immensely accomplished tenor on the international stage. Highly acclaimed as being at the forefront of the French and Italian Bel Canto repertoire, he has now established himself as a leading exponent in more dramatic roles, including Verdi.
He has performed at pretty much every theatre in the world under all the great conductors, singing alongside some of the greatest names in the 20th and 21st Century history of opera.
Hugely respected and loved by his peers and colleagues, he only made his Royal Opera debut at an age when most other performers are winding down their careers.
OperaWire caught up with him where he is currently staying and rehearsing in Nice for his upcoming role of Florestano in Fidelio.
OperaWire: So, you have just finished TOSCA, your debut in this role, how did it go?
Gregory Kunde: Exactly, it was my debut, and I had a fantastic time with Tosca. It was a dream role that never got realized, and I finally got the chance to do it in Rome of all places. First week in November, in this really historic production which was based on the first design of the first Tosca ever produced. It had painted drops with very little scenery, but it was beautiful. The lighting effects were incredible, and the costumes were of the original designs. It was just exciting, personally, to do it in Rome, obviously.
Our hotel where we stayed for a couple of weeks, was in the middle of all of this history. The Palazzo Farnese was just up the road; the Castel Sant’Angelo was just across the bridge. And the church itself was just 200 meters away so we got to visit all of these places which was very cool. So I had a wonderful Tosca with Anna Pirozzi who, you know, she’s just amazing.
OW: In reading reviews of your performances and in previous interviews, whilst universally acknowledged to be an accomplished singer on the International opera stage, you are frequently described as one of the industry’s most “underrated tenors.” I personally think of you as being a singer of, not exactly a niche repertoire, but of operas slightly off the ‘beaten track.’ Would you agree with that?
GK: Yes. Exactly. The career started back in the late ‘70’s, 1978 was my first year. So in those days, American tenors, you either sang the standard repertory, or you didn’t sing because there was really nothing else to sing. When I happened, back into Bel Canto in the ‘90’s, it was sort of the re-birth of Bel Canto and not only in the United States but in Italy as well. We kind of brought back….we had the Sopranos and tenors that could sing that repertory. I was very fortunate, I grew up with Chris Merritt, Rocky Blake, and Bruce Ford and I all grew up in the same era, especially the Rossini renaissance. So we got an opportunity to do that stuff and I fell into some good Bel Canto roles, ‘Puritani’, ‘Sonnambula’ and those kinds of roles which were great for me, I really had a wonderful time doing those things and I learned a lot.
OW: So tell me, how did your career develop?
GK: I always loved singing the Bel Canto because it felt very free singing those pieces……you know you could sort of make it your own which is always great. But at the beginning of my career, I did two “Bus and Truck Tours,” one with the San Francisco Opera and one with the Euston Grand Opera. They’re touring groups for young singers…. these very small theatres ….and some of them were big theatres actually. So in 1981-82, I got to sing, back to back probably a total of thirty five “La Boheme’s” in ENGLISH! I also sang “La Cenerentola” and in the Western Opera tour, I did ‘Don Desiderio’ and Don Curzio in “The Marriage of Figaro,” back to back, trading with “Boheme.”
So we were on tour, there were around 12 or 13 singers and we also toured with a small orchestra, another 20 or 25 people and it was a lot of fun. We learned a lot on that tour; how to make it in the business because you were really on your own and had to take care of yourself. We were singing, literally, every night in a different city. So that was a great experience and a learning experience.
So then I did some Regional opera in the United States, you know, I did some standard rep, “Butterfly,” “Traviata,” “Rigoletto” quite a lot, and then at the end of the 80s, again found the Bel Canto repertoire and I was off to the races with that for a long time. Then in the mid 2000s, 2003, and 2004, I could feel that the voice was expanding and that the Bel Canto roles were not as comfortable as they used to be.
I thought about stopping and trying to find a teaching job but unfortunately, I didn’t finish my studies at Illinois State University and I didn’t have a degree. So if you wanted to teach in the United States and in the Universities, and now you need at least a Doctorate or, commensurate experience which at that time, no one knew me, I wasn’t singing in the United States. So I couldn’t even get an interview anywhere for places that were open, teaching, so I thought, “Oh well, I better continue.”
Luckily I started to expand the repertoire and in, you know, 2009, 2010 I started to sing some bigger things.
And here we are in 2023, debuting as Florestano, (“Fidelio”), in about a week and after that Bacchus in “Ariadne, (auf Naxos)” and you know, on from there. I’ve been very ambitious. Always ambitious. I didn’t like to turn down things that were unusual because, I thought, they may have been unusual, but they were interesting to me. Things like “Le prophète” and things that are not very often done. So at that stage, back in those days in the late 90s and early 2000s, I kind of made my career, you know, taking things that no one else wanted!
OW: So, coming from having sung so much Bel Canto, how did you find moving on to other roles, technically speaking, and how were you able to adapt your voice?
GK: So, in the early stages of my career I received some really good advice, I was mentored for around a year and a half, two years by Alfredo Kraus. And Alfredo became my idol, my model in terms of my career. You know, he sang until around four Months before he died. So he sang until he was seventy years old. And he’s taught me, you know, just do what you know you can do, and don’t do any more than that. So I really followed that my whole career and when I was able to establish this Bel Canto technique, you know, which is…..the Bel Canto technique is just really Legato singing, making colors, being free and really….just making beautiful sounds…..and I was able to do that for 25 years.
So when I changed to this new repertoire, I haven’t really changed the technique at all. It’s just that the voice has expanded. So all of the stuff that used to be there……I don’t really have the florid parts anymore, I don’t really do any coloratura anymore….you know…..you don’t need it when you’re singing Puccini or Mascagni but the high notes….let’s say A through to top C….it’s the same technique. I use the same position. It’s just the high notes are bigger and you don’t have to sing NINE high Cs in one night….you just have to sing one or two!
OW: I always thought, anyone who could sing a great “A te, o care” from “I Puritani,” as you did, could probably sing anything?
GK: Well, what you say is absolutely true in that when I sang my first Puritani, my manager said, “If you can do Puritani, you will work as long as you want to work”. Because, you know, it will lead to other things. And if you can sing THAT piece, which is probably the most difficult piece of the Bel Canto repertoire, for the tenor, you can pretty much go on and do anything. And he was right, I got many, many things after that. So when we got to 2010, when I was offered “I vespri siciliani” in Torino for 2011, my Italian manager said the same thing: “If you can do Vespri well….if you can get through that and do a commendable job then you’ll find a lot of other roles that will come to you.” And he was right. I mean, I’ve sung, I don’t know how many Verdi roles, 10 or 11…..she was right…..it’s the longest role Verdi wrote for the tenor….it’s tough. It’s a big thing.
OW: And yet, the Met only seemed to employ you when someone was ill and you never made your Royal Opera House debut until you were 62! How so?
GK: It’s crazy isn’t it? I don’t like to make excuses for people because I’m not them. But this was how it was explained to me, and I sort of understand it…the Met had their people and the first job I had at the Met was in 1986. I was covering Alfredo Kraus actually, in “Manon.” It was with Cathy Malfitano. I was like, the second cover, I was getting a salary, I was there at the Met, it was awesome. It was like, six years, seven years into my career, which was great….and Alfredo finished his run and another tenor replaced him, who was also being managed by my manager. My manager called me up one day and told me this tenor wasn’t going to do the next performance so I was going to be performing….it was going to be my debut. I was like “Wow! Ok.” But I was ready. It was fun, I went out and sang one performance of “Manon” and it went great. Really good…… wonderful review in the New York Times…..so the offer came from the Met, about a week later…….they called my manager and said: “We’d like him to sing Pang in Turandot.”….to which I said: “I don’t think I have any interest in Pang in Turandot!”
I was singing major roles at the time and I had “Puritani” coming up in Montreal.
So we turned down the Met…..so when you turned down the Met in those days….you’re off the radar. So the next opportunity I got to sing at the Met was in 2000, 14 years later and I had to audition for it. I became the cover for another tenor in “La Cenerentola.” I sang the last performance and again, it went great…..no offers, nothing, so that was it. So in total, from 1986 until 2000 I had two performances at the Met.
And then, along came this offer to sing “Puritani” at the Met in 2007; December 2006-January 2007. And we were going to do it with this new soprano named Anna Netrebko. So I figured, OK, I got the contract, I’m singing in four performances, and I knew there were going to be more performances and at that time…I was the only person singing Puritani….Kraus was dead….it was like, I was the only guy. So I was like, well who’s singing the other performances?? And they were like, well, it’s another guy named, (I think it was) Eric Cutler. He was one of the Met’s babies and they were putting him out there and he was doing the opening night. So I was like, ok, I still have four performances, that’s cool.
So you may or may not know this story…..It was sort of a good thing that happened and a bad thing that happened….he didn’t sing any of the rehearsals because he was sick. And he sang a dress rehearsal the night before and he wasn’t well. But he went ahead and did it anyway. The first act he sang most of it an octave down…..this is history, I’m not telling anything out of school here……so in the third Act, I get the tap on the shoulder: “You have to come and sing in the dress rehearsal”.
I didn’t even have a costume at the time, so they fitted me into this costume and I came out and sang the third Act and I nailed it. I sang the high F…….I always do the high F……and the internet was going nuts…….so that was my opportunity and I thought when my performances come I’ll be doing my thing.
So this was over Christmas time and I went home, New York to Rochester, an hour flight…..and I got the call Christmas night…….I needed to come to New York and sing the NEXT night because he (Eric Cutler), canceled the opening night. Great, great opportunity……well, the nerves got the better of me and I did not do well in the first Act. It was OK, it wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t me. Third Act went very well. The reviews came out…..actually Anthony Tommasini for the New York Times actually called the Met and asked if I was sick! Of course, I could have said: “Yes, I was definitely sick” But I said “No. I just had a bad night!” It wasn’t my night. Anyway, he was very kind in his review. Another reviewer in the New York Observer, I think, he just murdered me!
Anyway, I sang my other performances and they all went pretty well. And then I had nothing from there. Again, I was just not one of those people. I wasn’t really in the United States, I was doing my career over here in Europe. So that was it.
OW: So how come it took so long to get to the Royal Opera House?
GK: Well, the Covent Garden thing…..it was really kind of strange because, again, I was not on their radar because I was singing all the Bel Canto things and they had Juan Diego, (Florez), and a couple of other guys and I couldn’t really break in there. And it was very fortunate for me that….2014 I think it was…..and I was in Greece, singing “Vespri (Sicilliani).” And it just happened that Peter Katona from the ROH happened to be in Athens at the time and he came to the performance. He actually came to hear another person but he happened to hear me at the time.
Anyway, we were staying at the same hotel…..I didn’t see him at the performance…..but I was eating breakfast the next morning and he came to my table and introduced himself. He said: “I’m Peter Katona from Covent Garden and I want to tell you, you were incredible last night”. And he added: “I am so sorry…..we’ve missed you all these years. But I’m calling your agent later this afternoon and we’re going to make this happen. We’re going to get you a contract.”
And you know, what a guy! You know….to come out and say, I missed him, but I’m going to make it right. And that was amazing. What an incredible person to do that. And he’s been a good friend ever since. Tony Pappano and I have known each other for years and we had an opportunity to work together and we’re going to do “Trovatore” next May or June…..big production…
Anyway. It’s been a crazy, crazy career but what a blessing.
OW: Crazy indeed. A Royal Opera House debut at 62 years of age?
GK: Yeah but I have no regrets. I can not complain. I’ve had a very good career. I’ve sung in so many places. I think I’ve sung in every major theatre. So, just no regrets. I could have been done 10 years ago so, you know, I’ve had a bonus career the last 10 years and it’s really been great.
OW: So Alfredo Kraus was clearly a big impact on you. Who else influenced your career?
GK: Oh, many people……but Alfredo influenced me because I didn’t know him when I first began because there were not a lot of recordings to listen to. But of course, Pavarotti was a huge influence and I got to meet with him and work with him as well. You know, at the beginning of my career I was working in this opera program in Chicago and I was comprimario at the time, and I worked with everybody. I was just so fortunate to work with all of these people. Jon Vickers was a huge, huge influence on me. Not just as a singer, but as a man. He was just an incredible man and a Christian who wore his heart on his sleeve. He would not be afraid to pray and it was wonderful. He was a wonderful man and he was wonderful to me. I was in three productions with him.
Pavarotti I’ve already mentioned…Domingo…I didn’t really get to know Placido until maybe the past five or six years but in the beginning of my career I always modeled my acting from him, because I always thought he was always so engaged in his character. And I always thought…I may not have the greatest voice, but I want to be engaging, no matter what I’m doing. Whether I’m doing the small, Donizetti opera or Otello. You know, be engaged and let the public see that you are up there, not just barking out, you’re a singing actor and that was very important to me. And it’s become all the more important to young people today. It’s an incredible thing. You’ve got to know what you’re saying and know what you’re doing and know what everyone else is saying as well. Not so easy when you don’t speak the language.
I was in Vienna, rehearsing “Otello,” and Placido Domingo, who was in Vienna at the time, came into the rehearsal. Of course, I wasn’t warmed up and I was like: “oh no…..I really have to sing now!”
We were doing the third Act and he was sitting at one of the tables. We did the whole thing and he approached afterward and said: “Gregory, you have a wonderful voice, such a wondeful tenor….you were really on it.”
And I said: “Well Maestro….I got it from you.”
You know, I was really happy to be able to show him that he’s been teaching me all of these years what it’s like to be a singing actor. What a humble man.
OW: And his repertory is phenomenal, the number of roles…
GK: I’m trying to beat him!
OW: In a recent interview I saw, you stated that you think Opera is something that should be taught in schools.
GK: Absolutely. My wife did Primary school teaching for the past two years. She taught kindergartners through to sixth grade, so that’s five-year-olds to twelve-year-olds. And one of the first things she did was show them “The Barber of Seville.” And you could hear a pin drop. They were so interested. We don’t give these children enough credit. Their brains are like sponges. They don’t know anything. Only what you teach them. And if you say, (opera): “Well, it’s too much for them.”
No its not! It’s not too much for them. Of course, some scenes are where they’re cutting heads off but…Mozart comedies and Rossini comedies….you know…..you need to teach opera in schools. Just show them videos with subtitles. They love it! Just love it. They soak it up.
When my wife taught other subjects the kids were like: “When are we going to see some more of that opera?” That’s kids. Kids today. Take them to the opera. They’d love it. Absolutely.
As a matter of fact, this afternoon during our rehearsal here in Nice, there were probably 150 school children, sitting…watching our rehearsal…they had everything explained to them, the stage director gave them about five minutes and explained everything to them….they were quiet as mice….and they loved it. They were French kids watching a German opera. It was amazing.
OW: That’s “FIDELIO” you’re rehearsing, of course. How are preparations going?
GK: I have to tell you the story. I was due to perform this in concert form in June 2020. In 2019 I was in Israel with Zubin Mehta and he called me into his office and said to me: “Gregory…..I need to speak with you…. Would you like to sing Fidelio with me?”
I said: “Sure!”
He says: “You should do it…..it’s only one Act”
And I said: “Ok. One Act, I can do it….no problem.”
But what an act. No, really, I’ve enjoyed it very much. I was involved with Jon Vickers doing it in Chicago. I was covering the role of Jaquino at the time and I was able to see him, (Vickers), do this piece and it was incredible. An incredible experience. So I knew the piece….somewhat…..I didn’t know the role of Floristan as well as I’d have liked to but…yeah….anyway…..it’s going to be fun.
OW: You mentioned early that you were fortunate to have grown up with people like Bruce Ford and Rocky Blake…..historically, America has produced some sterling opera performers over the years, hasn’t it?
GK: Well, yes, in the ’50’s and ‘60’s you had Tucker and Merrill and Risë Stevens….gosh, you know, Leontyne Price…..Marilyn Horne, people like this.
And then you’re getting into the Rossini thing because we were famous for being Rossini people, you know, we all loved being that….June Anderson as well….Sam Ramey……and coming up now you have Brian Jagde, Mike Fabiano, and Larry Brownlee and the list goes on and on….because…it was so new to us. It was just exciting to be part of.
Fun story about a BRITISH tenor, Freddie De Tommaso….Freddie and I did the Otello tour that Jonas (Kaufmann) and I did at Covent Garden, Freddie didn’t play any part in that but when I came back to do it in 2019 we went to Japan with it. And Freddie was the cover of Cassio, if you can imagine. Now, I had never heard Freddie sing, ever. So, we went out and we were hanging out together and we were inseparable as a cast so we were going everywhere.
So I came back in December to do the rehearsals for the Covent Garden production and Freddie was Cassio. I walked into rehearsal and they were doing the opening scene and Freddie was singing Cassio and I was…“Oh my god!! Why is he singing Cassio?”
I was just blown away by his voice. This guy is unbelievable. And he’s just blossomed into an incredible tenor. His story is amazing also. He has this Corelli quality. It’s just amazing….and the style and the color that he can make at this age. I speak with him very frequently. I tell him: “Take it easy……not too much…..”
OW: So what’s left for Gregory Kunde to do? What roles are left that you’d like to perform? You can’t be fazed by anything?
GK: Exactly. No. You know if it’s interesting to me I want to do it. Bachus next year in Dresden, “(Ariadne auf Naxos)” so that’ll be kind of fun and after that I’m doing “Il Tabarro” in Rome.