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As printed in the June 2007 issue of Classical Singer Magazine.

An All-American Star
Bass-Bariton Kyle Ketelsen

by David Kubiak

“I think you’re going to be very impressed with the bass soloist I’m bringing up from Giorgio Tozzi’s studio.” William Jon Gray—music director of my chorus, the Bach Chorale of Lafayette, Ind.—made that remark to me when we were preparing the Verdi Requiem as the centerpiece of our 1997-98 season. The singer’s name was Kyle Ketelsen, and I was both impressed and excited at our first rehearsal with the quartet. The sound was large, but bright and forward, well-focused throughout the registers, and it rolled out with an innate sense of legato line that is rare among young singers today. The young man also projected a strong sense of confident virility in looks and manner. When I met him after the performance I congratulated Ketelsen on his voice and theatrical charisma, and predicted that one day soon I would surely be greeting him in major opera houses.

Fast forward to the winter of 2004 and a performance of Don Giovanni, the opening production of the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s season. Backstage, after the performance, I walked past the dressing rooms of Bryn Terfel as Giovanni, Karita Mattila as Donna Anna, and Susan Graham as Donna Elvira until I found and knocked on the door of the evening’s Masetto, our own Kyle Ketelsen. He was in good spirits, as well he should have been, since he had more than held his own that night, both sonically and dramatically, with the world’s most famous bass-baritone. I reminded Ketelsen of my prediction, which had turned out to be spot on, and asked if he would be interested in talking to Classical Singer readers about how he had developed his career so successfully. He liked the idea, and we met one evening for dinner in Madison, Wis., where he lives with his wife and children, and then talked again earlier this year on the phone. His story shows that making a career in opera takes more than a natural vocal gift—it takes the determined will of the soldier he once was.

“Originally I’m from Clinton, Iowa,” Ketelsen told me. “Everyone in my family sings. I’m just the first to do it professionally, but that can probably be said for the majority of professional singers. It was Albert Gammon at the University of Iowa who thought I had a voice and suggested that I study seriously. He gave me an excellent technique, and I haven’t really had to change anything basic about it.

“I also served in the National Guard from 1990-96, which is something not many singers do, I imagine. I have to laugh now when colleagues talk about how hard we work rehearsing and performing, or insist on taking cabs rather than walk a block in the rain. Once you’ve been through basic training, nothing seems all that hard, ever again. When I finished those nine weeks, it was one of the proudest moments of my life. My unit was on alert, but thankfully didn’t enter the Gulf War—but eventually went to Iraq. I joined with the intention of becoming a helicopter pilot, and my life could have turned out very different.”

I have known a number of Giorgio Tozzi’s students over the years, and sang in one of his masterclasses—so I was especially interested to hear about Ketelsen’s experience with the Indiana University Music School’s celebrated faculty member. (He can do an affectionate, deadpan imitation of his teacher’s voice.) Ketelsen’s tone became especially warm when he began speaking of Tozzi. “IU was definitely the right place at the right time for me in 1995. Mr. Tozzi began as a baritone in the late ‘40s, and I think if he were starting today he would call himself a bass-baritone, which I do.

“As I said, my basic technique was sound, and he didn’t have to correct much there. His goals were the classic ones of the Italian school: getting the voice out of the throat, open and forward with a bright, ‘pingy’ sound, using nasal resonance. I told him, ‘I feel like a tenor when I sing that way.’ It felt too bright, compared to how I’d been producing the tone. He told me that that is what cuts through the orchestra—and that’s the way I continue to sing today.

“He believes in relaxed breath support, which I think is important in developing a legato line. If you squeeze too hard, like a lot of singers do, the line suffers. What Mr. Tozzi gave me really freed up my top voice, too. When I arrived in Bloomington after college the F was iffy. Now I warm up to A and have a solid G in performance [such as in his brilliant interpolation at the end of “Le veau d’or”]. He told me that 30 is the magical age for male singers, when everything is settled physically, the timbre gains warmth, and you achieve your mature sound. It’s worked exactly that way for me.”

When I mentioned Giorgio Tozzi’s unfailing kindness to colleagues and students Ketelsen was eager to agree. “In his own career he could never understand bitterness and jealousy in other singers. He tells people that he likes to enter a room smiling, because it makes his friends happy and his enemies nervous. That kind of advice has been worth as much to me in my career as his vocal coaching. We keep in touch, and it meant a lot when he told me recently: ‘Kyle, my sources are reporting some very good things about you!’”

The good things started early for Ketelsen—when he thought about it he realized that from the time he began he has never been without work.

“You might think that winning the Met National Council Auditions in 1998 would be the ticket, but truth to tell it didn’t really immediately open any doors for me,” he said. “Another day that same year in New York was when things started to happen. I sang for and was signed by Tony Russo at ICM, and was offered Escamillo at the New Jersey State Opera on the spot. Then I went uptown for the Opera Index Competition, and when I walked off the stage I was asked to do the Haydn Creation by the Oratorio Society of New York at Carnegie Hall! When I returned to my apartment, I received a call telling me I’d won first prize in the competition. That was one of those magical days you remember always.

“Another interesting opportunity came about as the Herald in the famous OONY Otello in 2000, where Carlo Bergonzi had to stop after the first act. I remember him coming past me in the wings and murmuring, ‘Ho finito.’ It was sad, but to be in the same cast with him and have such luminaries in the audience as the ‘Three Tenors’ was an amazing experience for a singer in his 20s.

“Speaking of [Plácido] Domingo, the most significant event for me has had to be competing in his Operalia in 2000. I didn’t win, but as the two of us were waiting to walk on for the final concert, he asked me to do Escamillo with Washington Opera. While there, I was heard by Simon Goldstone of IMG, who would then become my European agent. In addition, one of the judges in Operalia was Peter Katona, casting director at Covent Garden, which has really become my home theater.”

It seemed to me that all this success had to have some source besides good luck. When I inquired further, Ketelsen described a discovery he had made that led him to change his strategy at auditions.

“At the Met Nationals I came out and sang ‘Il lacerato spirito’ just the way singers always have presented the war-horse arias in these big competitions. I won, but pretty soon it dawned on me that to get work I was going to have to jazz things up, both in terms of repertoire and style. So I started singing more out-of-the-way music, like the arias from La Jolie Fille de Perth, or Susannah, or Tchaikovsky’s Iolanthe—and I gave up the ‘park and bark’ approach and began to do my auditions as theatrical scenes. Leporello’s ‘Madamina’ worked perfectly that way, and management got an idea of what I could do dramatically as well as vocally. They liked what they heard and saw. If you look at Leporello, I started with the part at the Madison Opera in 2001, took it to other regional companies like Kentucky and Michigan, and this year will sing it at Covent Garden, where I made my debut as the Sprecher in ‘Zauberflöte’ in 2005.”

“I’ve come to think of Covent Garden as my European home base,” Ketelsen added. “The management is very warm and friendly and makes a kind of family atmosphere when you’re there—and it doesn’t hurt that the London critics like me. Of course, it’s very expensive to live there, but you do get paid in pounds, which is an advantage when you exchange them for dollars.

“Covent Garden reminds me of a good story from my Chicago Masetto. After the last performance I was sitting with my back to the door of the dressing room, and was sort of irritated to hear someone more or less barging right in. When I turned around it was Bryn [Terfel], who wanted to say goodbye. He had heard that I was making my Covent Garden debut and had some tips to give me about dead spots on the stage. What a great guy.”

On the American scene, I felt I had to ask Ketelsen about his Metropolitan debut as Angelotti [Tosca] last year. The question was potentially awkward—he has not sung in the house since, something his fans complain about loudly on opera Internet sites—but he was forthright. “Of course I was thrilled to be performing at the Met, and I had very good notices—but the management let my agency know afterwards that they did not have me in mind for larger parts. I’m singing major roles now in London, Madrid, Barcelona, Hamburg, Amsterdam, and Genova [Genoa], as well as Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Washington [D.C.].

“My agent said that if I were ‘the Danish bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen’ I’d be engaged in a minute. People think the old prejudice against American singers in the U.S. is long gone, but that’s not entirely true. I believe I’ll sing again at the Met sometime in the future, I just don’t know when. In the meantime, I’m gaining great experience and exposure in European houses. I’d love to come back to the Met, and very much look forward to it. It’s the American operatic dream!

“In fact, I could be in Europe all the time,” he continued. “I had a call just this week to come to Germany. But I’m not giving up my time at home, and now I often have to say no to proposals. I was gone when my daughter took her first steps, and I don’t want to miss anything else that important in the family. My wife’s advice and support are invaluable to me, too. She was a professional arts administrator, and worked in planned giving and the volunteer program for the Opera of St. Louis when we were first married. She takes care of all the business things for us—like taxes, and insurance, and finances, which can be a nightmare for singers. We’re very well suited in that we are devoted to each other and the kids, but are happy being by ourselves, too. We don’t have any desire to move our family to a big city. In this age of instantaneous communication it’s not necessary anymore. Madison is a great place for us.”

I was a little surprised that Ketelsen was not wearing a hat or scarf on the frigid December day we had dinner in Wisconsin, and asked him about his attitude towards vocal health.

“I love cold weather,” he said, “and air conditioning, too, which most singers can’t stand—but I do have one problem that everybody seems to be facing these days, acid reflux. I discovered it when my top notes began to feel not right. I’ve had to start watching my diet and not eat late in the evening when I’m performing. I get my little purple pills from Canada, since drugs are so much cheaper there. It’s a real pain to deal with, but I’m managing to keep it in check.”

Another question about health came via Alan Held. When I saw him during this season’s Salome in Chicago and mentioned that I would be talking to Ketelsen, Held said I should definitely ask him about their once being in a car together in Washington.

“So he told you that story, did he?” Ketelsen said with a big laugh that reminded me of Giorgio Tozzi. “Alan’s a great guy! We have the same attitude about the profession and face a lot of the same problems balancing family life with an international career. A couple of years ago we were doing ‘Hoffmann’ in Washington, D.C. He was taking us to rehearsal in his car, and it turns out that getting from one place to another in D.C. is not that easy. After driving around in circles for an hour, with a lot of hard turns, I started to get sick as a dog. Not exactly the image I’d like to project.”

Ketelsen doesn’t have much to worry about with his image in the opera world today. He has a splendid voice, striking looks, and a keen dramatic sense, all joined in a personality that exemplifies what the Germans call menschlich. Having been right about him before, I will make another prediction here: It won’t be long before we hear Kyle Ketelsen some Saturday afternoon, live from the Metropolitan Opera.

David Kubiak is a professor of classics at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Ind. He also pursues an active singing career. Last season he was the Levite in Handel’s Solomon for the Bloomington Early Music Festival. He can be reached at kubiakd@wabash.edu.
E-mail the author at: kubiakd@wabash.edu













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