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Handel With Care: Kyle Ketelsen

Written by Mansel Stimpson

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The American bass-baritone talks about the Covent Garden production of Orlando and about his career…
When Kyle Ketelsen was in his mid-teens his mother put on a cassette tape that was called Opera Goes to the Movies. As that title suggests, it was a collection of famous arias that had found their way into films but when Kyle first heard them he didn’t even recognise the pieces as being operatic. Even so, he had long been familiar with music: “According to my parents, I was singing from the time that I could stand – but that’s not untypical for kids. All of us at home – my mum, my dad, my two older sisters and myself – would sing and play an instrument too. In my case it was the viola and the trumpet and I was a member of some choir or other right from the age of eight or nine up until I had finished graduate school.”

Once having discovered opera, Kyle took voice lessons but his future was far from being set when he left high school. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do really. I did think about going into the army and flying helicopters, which is why on transferring to the University of Iowa I joined the Reserved Officer Training Candidate School. But it was at about the same time that, having decided to keep my voice in shape, I began to receive positive, serious encouragement. It was in my third or fourth year at the University that I started to think that I could actually make a living out of it.”

Following his studies with Albert Gammon in Iowa, he was advised to approach Indiana University where he could audition for the singer Giorgio Tozzi. “Albert Gammon had been very, very technically-minded in my four years with him – really nit-picky, and I’m glad he was. It meant that when I arrived on Mr Tozzi’s doorstep and he heard me he responded by saying: ‘Well, your technique is set’. Consequently we were immediately able to concentrate on the sound itself and then on interpretation. There was a wealth of information that Mr Tozzi was able to impart, but above all I was struck by his approach to life: it was so positive. Someone once asked him why on walking into the rehearsal room at the Met (Metropolitan Opera House) he would always be smiling, and he replied: ‘It makes my friends happy and my enemies nervous’. That was absolutely his way, and he’s such a diverse man. For me he became a great father figure.”

After that Kyle’s way ahead lay through competitions: “I’m a competitive person and always have been, as an athlete, for example, even though you recognise soon enough why you’re playing in a gym and not in the professional league. But when it came to music I would get so nervous that I thought I might be the type of singer who would never do well in competitions or auditions.” Such fears proved groundless, however, as his many prizes attest. Indeed, Kyle has now reached a point when he can look back and pick out three key moments in his career to date. One was Plácido Domingo’s ‘Operalia’ competition in Los Angeles in 2000. He was not a winner but he was a finalist, and Domingo, who was there in person to conduct, offered him a chance to sing Escamillo in Carmen. That particular engagement offered marvellous experience and led directly to other things so it too counts as a special moment. But it’s also true that he will never forget an earlier occasion, a day in New York when he was still a student. “My performance in a competition there went well and on leaving I was hired by someone who had heard me both for The Creation and for Messiah at Carnegie Hall. Then I went up town for an audition which led to my meeting the man who would soon become my agent at ICM and also to my being hired for a performance. Returning to my apartment I heard the news that in the competition I had got the first prize. So it was just one of those truly magical days when everything kind of comes together.”

One of the judges at ‘Operalia’ was Peter Katona and that led to a series of engagements in London at Covent Garden. We have already heard Kyle in The Magic Flute, Maskarade and The Marriage of Figaro and it has just been announced that he will be appearing as Leporello in June replacing a singer who is indisposed. But at present this regular visitor to London is here to break new ground. He may know Messiah but he has never before taken part in a Handel opera, earlier plans for Semele having fallen through. Now, however, he is preparing the role of the magician Zoroastro in Handel’s Orlando. Eventually new repertoire of a quite different kind may come up for him (“I would love to try Nick Shadow in The Rake’s Progress and one day I hope to sing Scarpia”) but the present enterprise is one that undoubtedly pleases him, including the fact that it is being done with The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

I ask him about this aspect. “I did sing with period instruments for the first time quite recently, with John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Orchestra. That was about a quarter of a pitch down while this time it’s half a tone down. I welcome these new sounds and find it all very interesting. I thought that I might have to tone back a little, but in fact the volume of the orchestra is such that they could easily cover us if they wanted to. Consequently it doesn’t really change what the singer has to do unless it’s a case of a slightly rounder tone here or being more pointed there. As for those repeats in the da capo arias, it’s no big problem because our director for Orlando, Francisco Negrin, has found variety in the way that he stages it.”

Regarding the acting style, Kyle has this to say. “It probably depends on the character you’re playing. My role here, that of Zoroastro, is of someone who was described to me as being a very excited teacher. I have a couple such in mind from school, teachers we really liked because they were fun and got really excited about their work. That’s the kind of quality that Francisco wants from me, and I’m working on it – but I have to remember also not to move too quickly on stage because Zoroastro is an older gentleman. What Francisco made clear to me and what I hope to be able to convey to the audience is that this man is someone who is trying to help people in complex situations, whether it’s assisting Dorinda to grow mature as she discovers more about love and life or discouraging Angelica from being a bitch when she teases people. But something else underlies all this, even when it involves encouraging Orlando to be more of a warrior: it’s the fact that Zoroastro is promoting the idea that you should never pretend to be someone you are not. Just be true to yourself and all should end well: that was valid in Handel’s time and it remains so today when considering human relationships.”

If Handel is largely new to Kyle, working with the conductor Sir Charles Mackerras is not. Some view Mackerras as a formidable figure, their comments suggesting a hint of unease as well as great respect. Kyle’s attitude is rather different: “Of course for somebody like me it could be considered somewhat daunting to be coming here to debut in this role under such an important conductor, and Mackerras certainly is a perfectionist. But I am too when it comes to it: wanting to get a role right is the whole point of doing it. But as for Mackerras – well, what a mind and what an ear! Just yesterday he queried something that I’d done in an aria – just one note. I thought: ‘Did I do that? Yes, I did’. And when he asks me my opinion of something, I’m almost taken aback. After all he’s the one who knows. But he’s very open to things. Three days ago I asked him about adding a high note to one of my cadenzas and his response was ‘certainly, and I suggest that you take it down like this’. That’s all I ask for in a conductor, and the fact that he’s a regular person, pleasant to be around, makes for a comfortable environment.”

Naturally Kyle will be hoping for success on the opening night both for himself and for the production but how, I wonder, does he decide whether or not a particular performance of his has truly come off? “I’ve talked to other singers about this and they agree that you can often get a feeling just before the applause when you say to yourself ‘really that was one of my best shows’ and then the response comes and it’s lukewarm. At other times you are thinking ‘I messed up here and I goofed there’, but when you walk out the applause is thunderous. You just never know how they’re going to react, but should they applaud just when you were feeling that you had messed up then it’s balm to the wound. However, whatever you yourself may feel about what you did, you do take it to heart if the reaction is tepid – or maybe that’s just me. Even so, the most important thing is if you’re happy with it yourself, if you know you did as well as you could and helped your colleagues to shine as well. As for the critics, you always hope to receive good reviews, but as Giorgio Tozzi would say ‘if you believe the good ones, you have to believe the bad ones too’.”

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