Interview with Kyle Ketelsen on playing Leporello at the Met

It’s the Met. My first time. The show: Don Giovanni. Kyle Ketelsen is Leporello. He’s the sprightly, vocally-magnificent Leporello who comps me a ticket. The always positive colleague who sometimes drinks 5-shot americanos. The family man who shares his spare room, buys me breakfast, and lets me ask him tough questions at 8 A.M. the morning after his penultimate performance. In other words, he’s awesome.

Here’s what we talked about:

Christiaan: You came in as the replacement for John Relyea, and I’d like to know what was done to get you up to speed. What was the rehearsal process like?

Kyle: Well, it was a short rehearsal process to begin with, so I didn’t miss anything. And everybody except Marina Rebeka was new to the show. So, it’s the first revival, and it’s kind of standard; we had six days of rehearsal. They called me on Monday and said, “Can you be here on Wednesday; rehearsals start on Thursday.” And we had about ten days, of which we rehearsed six stage-wise. I rehearsed six hours every day, and then we had a sitzprobe, the next day we had an orchestra dress on stage – which is rare, I guess. Normally here, they don’t do that. They’re not going to give you an orchestra dress on stage; they just kind of throw you up at the last minute and it happens. But I’ve done that before. And then we had three days off and we opened. Quick and dirty. But thankfully it’s not a very technical production as far as the singers are concerned. I mean, there are some things, like fire, where we just have to sit there; we don’t have to rehearse anything. I just rehearse covering my face so I don’t get, you know, Michael Jacksonned. Were you even born when that happened?

C: I don’t think so, but I heard about it. I loved MJ.

K: Yeah, we liked Michael Jackson, too.

C: So you’ve been through short rehearsal processes before; do you do much review on your own after rehearsal, or does it stick pretty well?

K: It does stick pretty well, but yeah, I do a little bit of that. A little bit of that. But, I mean, at this point it comes pretty quickly, you know?

C: It must be nice having done it so many times, you must start to anticipate basic staging moves that typically happen in certain places.

K: Right, that’s true.

C: Were there any particular parts that were challenging?

K: Uh, challenges… Well, no, not really.

C: I really liked the interpretation.

K: Oh, good. It’s actually very similar to the one I did in London that’s on the DVD – they had this rotating truck on stage that could be rearranged to create different scenes. There was a lot of coming in and out of it and going to the top of it, and even the costumes were similar.

C: Yeah; I remember the wigs with the long hair.

K: The wigs, the green coat, the baggy pants, even the hat. I remember I had this hat that was all beat to hell – I thought it was going to be my hat – and it looked like it had been run over by a semi a couple times. But they ended up changing the hat. But, I mean it was a pretty standard, traditional production, so nothing out of the ordinary, really. So, Gerry [Gerald Finley] has done this more than I have, and I’ve done it a number of times, so you bring your standard repertory of moves and sometimes they apply and sometimes not. And they’re always changing with the combined knowledge of all your past productions. All you can retain, at least, for over a decade.

C: That reminds me of another question I had… It was so fun for me to finally see your Leporello.

K: Thank you.

C: I love how you portray Leporello as a “bravo uomo” [good guy] who still sort of enjoys the ladies your master throws your way.

K: Yeah, it’s such a rich relationship between Giovanni and Leporello; it can go in so many different ways. I think Leporello’s caught between worlds – Giovanni couldn’t really do anything without Leporello, but does Leporello even really have any lady friends? I think so. But it’s piecemeal, you know? Here and there, you might have a girlfriend. There’s that line right before the graveyard scene where [Don Giovanni] says “she mistook me for Leporello.” So there’s sort of a sense with the ladies that we’ve been here before. Leporello likes to play the gentleman, but he’s not really. He’s a peasant; he’s a servant.

C: But, in the banquet scene at the end, you were very separate from the debauchery that the Don was creating, and it made you look very chaste; like a good guy.

K: Yeah, I think that’s Mozart and DaPonte. Leporello still has to sing the message at the end. And the Commendatore doesn’t address me, even though I still have free will – maybe he considers me just another victim of the Don.

C: Are there facets to Leporello that you’re proud to have picked up over the various productions you’ve done?

K: Yeah, I mean, I like the childish nature of him. You can see it – it comes out in some of the lines. He tells the Don, “What you’re doing is really bad; you should change.” And [Giovanni] gets pissed off. Or, I’ll say, “Yeah, I’ll stay, but leave the ladies alone.” And, he’s not going to, of course. I like to give him a sense of childishness at times. And also a quality of no inhibitions. In the trio in the second act with Giovanni, Leporello, and Elvira – at some point, Leporello is enjoying it. He doesn’t always know things you should or shouldn’t do… like sometimes I’ll be picking my nose [mimes nosepicking, then looks around the restaurant]. I probably shouldn’t do that.

C: [laughs] So, he’s being repulsive, but she still digs it?

K: Yeah, I do like being kind of caveman-y. Like, he doesn’t know any better. I have kids, and you know, they would try to get away with things if they could – If we didn’t say, “Clean up your plate,” they wouldn’t do it. They would grow up and have certain adult things that they’d do, but then they wouldn’t clean their plates. And I think that’s childish. Their friends would be like, I think maybe you should tidy up a bit. So, Leporello picks and chooses. And then in the sextet in the second half he’s damning Giovanni, saying it’s all his fault, but he [Leporello] is just trying to save his own skin. Which is childish, as well. But he is, in this production at least, sincerely sad that Giovanni is gone; sort of freaked out, like what am I going to do now?

C: How do you keep your physical energy up, since your Leporello is such an active guy? Do you do anything specific beforehand?

K: Drink lots of water. Nothing specific. I make sure I have a good meal. But, you know, I could have eaten crap, and I think I’d get through it. And also, I make sure I stay in shape off the stage. If I think of it, I’ll have something like a banana along the way to get a little energy, but by the time curtain rolls around it’s usually worn off.

C: You said you look forward to Giovanni because of the banquet scene – you get to have a meal. Are there other parts you look forward to in this opera?

K: Well, I haven’t done it in a while, but Colline in La Bohéme, because there’s Café Momus, and so you just nosh, have a full mouth and sing a little bit. But yeah, I’m kind of joking because I actually don’t eat that late. But I make an exception – I mean, I swallow a little bit, but most of it I spit out.

C: Ah, the spit take. I just had a rough experience with one of those in Il matrimonio segreto – on the night of my final dress rehearsal, I accidently spit almond milk on a cello.

K: Haha. I bet he was pissed.

C: Yeah, he was pissed and I was pissed. I felt so bad – that’s the kind of thing I hope only has to happen once in life, if at all. I felt so terrible that it’s now ingrained in me to be extra careful about things like that. Wish it didn’t happen that way.
 

So, I’m curious about the statues – how many different types of statue have you had to deal with?

K: Well, most times it’s the actual singer up there. Then there’ll be those productions where there’s no statue, there’s no singer up there; it’s in your head and it’s in Giovanni’s head. So, there’s a big suspension of disbelief that happens there. Although, in the design presentations at the beginning of the rehearsal period, I like to put my faith in the director, and it usually makes sense. Whether it actually works on stage or not is another thing, but it can make sense in theory. But I think this might be like the 8th Leporello; it’s not a ton. Orange County, Madison…

C: [Kyle offers me the last sausage on his plate] You’re not going to have that?

K: I’m trying to cut down on fat and cholesterol.

C: Thank you. [I eat it] Delicious. Have you worked with directors who rely heavily on your interpretations for the staging?

K: Well, they probably don’t come into the rehearsal period with that in mind, but the more they see from you the more they borrow from you. And, most of them realize that it’s a collaborative effort and that they’re not a dictator, although sometimes that is the case. Sometimes that’s very much the case, but usually it’s not. So, sometimes you can suggest things, and they’ll say, “Yeah, yeah; let’s go with that,” if it goes along with their concept. Usually it’s no problem to do that. And then, especially once the show gets up and running, you get on stage and everything’s kind of coming together – that’s when I really start to relax into the role, and I start adding more things. And then you add certain things and they say, “that’s great,” or they’ll say, “let’s taper that a little bit; that doesn’t fit with how I see the arc of your character, or there’s too much motion in the corner and you’re drawing attention from Elvira,” or whatever.

C: This is after opening night?

K: Um, no. I’m not talking about here, necessarily. It’s the same everywhere. You add something, you suggest something, and if they want it they take it and if not, no big deal. I like to think I give a director more than he’s expecting; you know what I mean? Because so often, like the director here [Michael Grandage], opening night, said, “Thank you for the humor! That’s something we didn’t have last time.” And it’s very much a process for me. I don’t show up and just do everything the first day; I have to let it layer and build. And so usually one of the first days of rehearsal I say to the director be patient with me; it’ll take a while and then it will become much more of a complete character.

C: Well, you probably want to understand the director’s concept first and let that sink in for a while.

K: Yeah. But a couple directors in particular were concerned at first. Like, and they wouldn’t tell me at the time, but like, Dmitri Tcherniakov. I told him, through his interpreter, the first couple days – and we had six weeks of rehearsal, which is kind of standard in Europe, unfortunately. I said, “I might not be all that stellar right now, but it takes a while, just give me some time.” And then he’d come back after rehearsal and he’d be like, “Oh, you’re so, you’re so funny, oh, you’re so great.” And, you know, I’m doing it three more times – his production – in Toronto, in Aix [en Provence] again, and in Madrid. But anyways, at the end, he told me you know, through his interpreter, he said, “I was nervous at the beginning.” We’d be in rehearsals – although, you know, he’s kind of like a tormented genius type.

C: He probably wants it to be perfect right away.

K: Yeah. Oh yeah. Because in his mind, he knows exactly what he wants. He never, like, referred to notes or anything. So we had six weeks of rehearsal, six hours, sometimes eight hours a day of rehearsal. Every single day. And he went like this, and just didn’t stop. It was like attending a lecture. There were many rehearsals where we staged for two hours and forty five minutes, and then we sang for fifteen minutes. I mean, I remember a few where we staged, and then there were five minutes left in the rehearsal, and the music staff was like, “we should probably go over this musically.” And then Dmitri would be like, kind of begrudgingly, “okay, we do, we do.” The music staff, we had a harpsichordist and a pianist, and they read book after book in rehearsals only. It was a little tough.

C: Yeah, I’m familiar with that style. It’s hard to keep your energy up when you’re sitting there and listening, and then try to remember everything they said.

K: Yes. Yeah. Yep.

C: Did you work with Michael Grandage on this show, then?

K: Yes. But sometimes with the remount – the revival – they’re not around. I’ve done three David McVicar shows, and he was not at one rehearsal. I’ve known him otherwise from meeting him around and just being in the same places, but…

C: Is that what it’ll be like with the tour of Dmitri’s show?

K: No. He doesn’t leave things like that to chance. He will be there, you know, like, fine-tuning everything. What I’m trusting is that he knows me now, he knows what I can do with it, he knows he can have a little faith, and he doesn’t have to micromanage so much. Let’s see; Michael Grandage was here the first day, he presented his concept quickly, and he was very good to work with. He’s used to Broadway. He’s a Broadway producer. He’s doing Evita now, and it’s still pretty new to him.  The one thing he really appreciates is that we all know our roles from memory. Because on Broadway a lot of times, everybody has the music with them. But he’s just pleasant as can be; very friendly, very nice. And he has very good ideas and he’s very good at conveying his ideas. He has one of those minds, which I do not have, where he’s able to visualize what he wants and then put that into very specific verbiage in a creative manner. It’s not like I’m describing a car engine to you; he’s telling you what he wants and giving you analogies. And, he’s a Brit, and they have such better vocabulary than we do. I mean, within one week of rehearsing my first show at Covent Garden, which was The Magic Flute, speaking with the kids, these schoolkids and the words they’re using – I mean, I understood them all, but they’re talking and I’m thinking, “Wow, we [Americans] are inferior. It’s called English, it’s not called American. You speak it well.”

C: They do, yeah. I had a friend give me all these English sayings because we were playing Count Robinson as…

K: Is he a Brit? I saw the banner [in this YouTube video].

C: Yeah, he’s a British count, so I had a British friend give me a bunch of phrases to use.

K: Could you add them into the show?

C: Yeah, the director [Amy Hutchison] wanted me to add British phrases.

K: Oh, really? What’d you say?

C: Uh, “Hello? Is anybody home? Signor Geronimo, what ho?”

K: What ho!

C: And there were fun moments where the British accent could creep into the Italian recitative. It was a fun show. And, I thought it [Cimarosa’s Conte Robinson in Il matrimonio segreto] was a really good study for the Le nozze [di Figaro] count because both are chasing women, they have arias in a similar musical style, and

K: And the stature.

C: Yeah, similar poise. So, I liked it a lot more than I thought I would. It’s actually not just a second-rate [Le] nozze di Figaro. The music is actually different – and quite pleasant. It’s slightly different from what people would expect to hear. There are some slightly different cadences and melodic twists than [the ones] Mozart [would write], and you hear it, and you’re like, “Oh, that’s intriguing. And it works.”

K: It’s cool to discover things that are of the same kind of vein but still do their own thing.

C: Yeah, yeah. And the thing is that it’s all just very, kind of “pleasant” music, so it could be that a hardcore connoisseur would

K: Want something more dark.

C: Yeah. It’s a lot of C major, and G. A little bit of E-flat and D.

K: Oh, god. Was it written for a children’s orchestra?

C: [Laughs] Right. No, I don’t think so.

K: Funny. That’s cool. Very cool. So did you write all these [interview questions] last night? I noticed you sent them in the email at 2:15 [a.m.], and I thought you either took a really long shower, or stayed up and typed.

C: Yeah, I just took a quick shower and then had to get these thoughts down while they were fresh. This is definitely going to go down as one of the all-time great memories in my memory bank.

K: Well, you’ve still got a lot of memories to put in there.

C: Yeah, but just that, I mean, well, whatever. I know you don’t like ego inflation, and I don’t say any of this to suck up, but just that you would do that for… I’m kind of, I mean, we know each other and stuff, but I’m not like… It was just very nice of you to let me stay with you and get me a ticket.

K: Well, you know, I enjoy doing things for people who will appreciate it. Occasionally I’ll do something for someone who doesn’t acknowledge it, and I think, “What is wrong with you?” No, I mean, I’ve always enjoyed – I’m not sure you call it mentoring – but something along those lines. That’s why I always leave question and answer time with masterclasses, that’s why I have my email address on my website. I get emails from various students, and I’m just happy to help. I remember being a student at Indiana [University-Bloomington], and I had so many questions; so many questions. And nobody was there to answer them. I mean, I studied with Tozzi, but he hadn’t been in the business for twenty years, and Arroyo and Zeani and King, you know, same thing. We didn’t even have a stage motion class.

C: Yeah, no, we didn’t either.

K: It’s the largest school of music in the world, and there’s no stage motion class. We didn’t have an acting class. Like, if you want to act, go to the theater department.

C: And no coachings, either.

K: But you did coachings to prepare for your roles, right?

C: Yeah, there were one or two to get you ready.

K: What? I can’t believe there’s no coaching.

C: You have to pretty much learn it on your own. But your movement class comment reminded me of a scene you did last night, because your bow was really good.

K: There are a couple bows. Was it after the trio, where Elvira is coming down, after I pretend to be the Don?

C: Yeah, that was it. It was a great bow.

K: [Laughs] Thank you. I’m so glad you said that. You’re the first person who has said that, and that’s what I was going for.

C: It made me think – because we have movement classes at the [BU] Opera Institute now – somewhere along the line, “oh, yeah, Kyle had a movement class, too, somewhere in there. Because that’s a ballet bow right there.”

K: I’m sure I just picked it up somewhere along the way. It might have been at IU. I’m sure it was in a rehearsal somewhere. The director might have been like, “no, no, put your feet this way.”

C: You also had a good offset body angle, where your shoulders and hips were canted in an elegant way.

K: [Laughs] Only you would notice that. That’s funny. Normally, I would try to be more florid and funny in that scene, but last night I didn’t go overboard with it.

C: That scene is hilarious.

K: You always like to add things of your own. There are certain things I like to bring to every performance. “Poverina, quanto mi dispiace…” and I like to aim that towards Giovanni. And the good Giovannis pick up on it and they’re like, “uh, shut up.” Gerry [Finley] is one. I mean, he’s tremendous. And you can just tell, you know, last night after the show [backstage]. I mean, that’s how he is. He’s just a great guy. Nice Canadian chap, you know.

C: He said the nicest thing when we were leaving. “Enjoy your singing.”

K: That’s something that I’ve always searched for because I’ll say things like, “Keep singing,” but that’s good; I’ll have to keep that in mind.

C: It was just so specific, and it just made me realize what a kind heart he must have. So I took it down in my notes late last night.

K: I will note that one, too. Yeah, he’s a sweetheart.

C: Yeah, people like you guys. I think people like you are going to keep opera alive. Audiences now come to expect so much contact. With Twitter and Facebook, there is no wall anymore. And it’s people like you who embrace that and are willing to reach out to the fans…

K: Yeah, and if for no other reason than just spreading your own name.

C: Yeah! People enjoy it so much more when they feel like they know someone on stage.

K: Yeah. It used to be sort of reserved for people who would donate to the opera – they would get to have the up close and personal look. Anybody can wait outside the stage door.

We continued to discuss the health benefits of walnuts, dark chocolate, cacao nibs, and chia seeds. Then we got onto comedians with messages – Kyle is a big fan of Ricky Gervais and Chris Rock; who have messages like “stay with your wife and kids,” something that is very important to Kyle.

The Met was as grand as I dreamed it would be – a huge set, wonderful dancers, fantastic acting, and singing done right. I was totally absorbed in the story of lust. A heartfelt thanks to Kyle for making my first time seeing a show at the Met a memory I will treasure for my lifetime.

Learn more about this awesome dude on his website: http://kylek.net/