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Kyle Ketelsen rehearses with Luz del Alba for Madison Opera's upcoming production of Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor."
FRI., MAY 9, 2008 - 11:36 AM
World class opera star with big voice is small-town guy
Over the next six months, opera singer Kyle Ketelsen will perform in Barcelona, Los Angeles and his "home away from home," the Royal Opera House in London's Covent Garden. Friday and Sunday, he'll perform his fifth role with Madison Opera.

And then he'll go home to Sun Prairie.

Though his singing career has led him on an upward trajectory for the past nine years, Ketelsen, 36, and his wife, Rebecca, chose to put down roots in the Madison suburb.

"We're both small-town kids, so this is very nice," says Ketelsen, who grew up in Clinton, Iowa. His wife is from Manitowoc. Sun Prairie, where the couple built a house in 2002, fell between.

"I had worked a couple times with Madison Opera and the symphony before

we moved here," he said. "And I really loved the city, the layout and the feel of it — progressive and very arts-minded."

Plus, the airport is close.

Ketelsen is on the road up to eight months a year, singing roles that showcase his resonant bass voice. He has played Escamillo, the preening bullfighter, in 10 productions of "Carmen," including one at the invitation of Placido Domingo. Leporello in "Don Giovanni" and Figaro in "Le Nozze di Figaro" are other signature roles.

In Madison Opera's "Lucia di Lammermoor" this weekend, Ketelsen plays Raimondo, Lucia's chaplain and tutor. Usually, Raimondo is portrayed as an old man. But because of Ketelsen's athleticism (he plays basketball and wonders what might have happened if he'd gone out for baseball in college), stage director Michael Scarola asked him to play the role almost as a contemporary to the young Lucia.

"He moves so well on stage, and he is such a physical actor," says Scarola. "When I heard Kyle was doing this opera, I thought it was amazing.

"... This is 'luxury casting,' " Scarola said. "I don't mean any disrespect to all the great artists who have done the role of Raimondo, but it is not frequently given to a voice of this magnitude."

Standout talent

Ketelsen was a standout even when he auditioned for world-renowned bass Giorgio Tozzi, who became his teacher and mentor during his graduate studies at Indiana University.

"His talent was apparent right off the bat," Tozzi said. "His voice sounded rich, and he seemed to have a great affinity for the art of singing."

As kids, both Ketelsen and his two older sisters were in the school orchestra, band and choir. There was a steady diet of '60s and '70s pop on their mom's stereo (his own kids are more likely to hear Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones or the White Stripes at home).

Though he won state high school vocal competitions singing a few arias, "I didn't even know they were opera until later. I never really wanted to be an opera singer. I wanted to fly helicopters in the Army.

"My mother pleaded with me to go to college, so we compromised. After one semester, I joined the Army National Guard, and went to basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri — and that changed my mind about wanting to be a career Army person."

'Rude awakening'

Not only was being under someone else's control "a rude awakening," he says. "I was hoarse. If you're not screaming at the top of your lungs in basic training, you're not motivated. And it's horrible for me to think about that now, because as singers, we have to take such good care of our voices."

But he graduated at the top of his company ("one of the proudest moments of my life") and was discharged six years later.

Today, his favorite role is "dad," one he clearly relishes as 5-year-old Melanie and 2-year-old Benjamin scramble into his lap during an interview.

"It's spending time with my family, going to the grocery store, mowing the lawn," he says. "That fulfills me more than singing.

"My agent in Europe says he could have my schedule filled if I wanted to work in Europe more. But my family is my priority. I need to come home and not think about opera, not think about music.

"Although — now I'm at home and singing in the opera," he says. "It's wonderful to work here. I get paid to sleep in my own bed for three weeks."


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